The All-Purpose Magical Tent
by Lytton Smith
Nightboat Books, $14.95 (paper)
The wildly imaginative, artful poems in Lytton Smith’s debut, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, evoke sights and scenes that exist as a circus does: vividly, but evanescently, always dissolving into memory, hearsay, or myth. References to beginnings and endings abound in these poems, many of which tell of civilizations first glimpsing their origins or declines: “The trick by which an island disappears / is not through a trapdoor in a metaphor // of the cardboard theatre of the world, / is not the shift of tectonic plates: // the island becomes the tale of island; / its inhabitants, figures of inhabitants.” Smith’s book displays an intelligent, heartfelt engagement with the literature of the distant past, with many of its poems recalling the sonic textures and imagery of Old and Middle English verse: “The vestibule’s lit by a light nothing cows, / and can’t be quenched. A trouble to the monks, / who try to comprehend the trick the synapses / play is to imply everything’s advanced / and everything’s organic.” With acrobatic agility, his imagination leaps into one dramatic monologue after another: we hear from a medieval anchoress, a circus tightrope walker, a monster. In the voice of a wide receiver, Smith conveys the heady exhilaration of sport as the speaker, running to catch a pass, travels backward in time to the roots of English civilization: “I go beyond the fifteen-foot walls of the Tower of London // to the battle at Hastings where the Normans feint flight / then charge then rout, and here, ‘Go long, get open,’ means // ‘stand firm,’ means ‘to the death’ and when I call ‘let fly’ / you do, arrow or pigskin lost in the sun and I’m waiting // and waiting and you won’t believe the far I’ve gone.” If The All-Purpose Magical Tent prizes its vision more than accessibility and, at times, proves difficult to follow, Smith’s language—rough-hewn, rhythmic, confident, and distinctive—grounds the reader in the sensual experience of his well-wrought lines. This first book is the work of a poet already in his prime.