“It Is Halloween Night and You Are Dressed as a Hot Dog” is one of those poems in Above Ground, Clint Smith’s luminous new collection, that plays like a home movie. We know the scene, or some equally winsome version of it, so we are primed for this glimpse into one father’s experience. The first lines pick up where the title leaves off:
The twisted humor of parenthood is on display, as when a stuffed bear momentarily appears to eat the “human-hot-dog-baby / (which sounds unsettling but is actually adorable),” Smith writes. But what gives this spread in the book its disquieting shimmer is the ballpark poem on the opposite page: about New Orleans’ Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a designated refuge soon to become its own disaster zone.
“My home was destroyed like so many other people’s, and I finished my senior year of high school in Houston, Texas,” says Smith, speaking from his parked car shortly after school drop-off in Maryland. (He has two children, ages five and four.) “I’m 34 now and it was 17 years ago, so it very cleanly sort of bifurcated my life in ways that are pretty wild.” Some of the book’s poems have been published previously (the Superdome one ran in the New York Times Magazine), but such juxtapositions heighten the emotional charge. “I wanted poems like that to sit alongside one another because that is how we experience the world. It’s not neatly compartmentalized,” Smith explains. There is no joy today, sadness tomorrow—especially with kids, whose questions about animal arcana (there’s a poem about giraffe horns called “Ossicones”) might coincide with a devastating news alert. In a way, he says, human existence is “just a series of attempts to hold the complexities of life within our bodies, all at the same time.”
The same goes for Smith’s three-day wellness diary, which glides through distraction and elation and nostalgia. Still, it’s hard not to feel the weight of “It’s All in Your Head,” a poem (written with his wife’s consent) about a grave pregnancy complication dismissively overlooked by a doctor; her self-advocacy proved vital. Can a poem be a call to action, an impetus for keen observation, a time capsule for the next generation? Smith, who often writes during in-between moments (at the barbershop, during naps), is now raising a first-time reader. “It’s just so remarkable to watch the world become legible to him in a different way,” he says of his kindergartener. “It’s almost like somebody who didn’t have the right prescription of glasses, and now, suddenly, everything that was blurry they can see.”
Thursday, March 9
5 a.m.: My alarm rings and my hand fumbles on the bedside table in search of the snooze button, which I press, and wonder how close I can cut it before I risk missing my flight this morning. I’m at a hotel near the Newark airport, and I have a 6:30 a.m. flight to Toronto and then Windsor, Ontario, for a story I’m reporting for the Atlantic. I hate early morning flights. I mean truly, I’d rather walk across a bed of hot coals then wake up this early, but it’s the only flight that will get me to my destination with enough time to still make use of the day. I only have 24 hours in Ontario before I have to turn back around and leave. I live in Maryland, but am flying out of Newark because I had a speaking event and book signing at The College of New Jersey last night. I loved spending time with the students and faculty there, they were incredibly thoughtful and asked great questions.