Aaron Smith’s Own “Goodbye to All That”
When I moved to New York to study poetry in the fall of 2008, Aaron Smith had just left—which I only knew because I’d been a regular reader of his blog since buying his first book of poems, Blue on Blue Ground, three years earlier. Needless to say, I was crushed to discover my favorite contemporary gay poet was moving away from the city mere months before my arrival.
Nevertheless, the dirty yet heartfelt Blue on Blue Ground kept me good company throughout my college years, and Smith’s second collection, Appetite (University of Pittsburgh Press), has far exceeded expectation. In Appetite, Smith serves up more incisive, pop-culture-infused poems with unapologetic candor, and grapples with new challenges—among them, leaving New York for a teaching position in his home state of West Virginia. (“Am I really back in West Virginia?/ Did I really leave New York City?” asks the aptly-titled “Prodigal.”)
Of his departure from the Big Apple, Smith says, “When I moved to New York, I never thought I’d leave, and, at heart, I think I’ll always feel like a New Yorker. I moved there a month before 9/11 and stayed for seven years.” Though he misses the city’s many cultural offerings (particularly the endangered St. Mark’s Bookshop), Smith doesn’t “regret his decision at all…I don’t miss being in close proximity to so many people all the time, or waiting on the subway, or taking the subway during rush hour. It’s nice to be in the city visiting and know that I’m not responsible in any way for helping to keep the big machine of it running.”
Indeed, the weight of “helping to keep the big machine of it running” can be felt throughout the poems in Appetite, many of which take place in the city that never sleeps (and at least one of which unfolds on “the subway during rush hour”—the wryly observed “The Earth Spins Toward Oblivion While We Ride Trains”). Smith writes about his can’t-live-with-you-can’t-live-without-you love for New York about as well as any poet I can think of.
Likewise, I’m not holding my breath for Daniel Craig to get a better tribute in verse than Smith’s “Celebrity Photo (Daniel Craig w/ Angelina Jolie)” or “Casino Royale (The Blue Speedo and Daniel Craig).” Luckily for readers, Smith’s obsession with celebrity—male movie stars in particular—is only one of the baser preoccupations laid bare in Appetite. In poems like “Fat Ass,” and “The Problem with Straight People (What We Say Behind Your Back),” Smith proves he isn’t afraid to self-incriminate, to risk the offensive or unseemly. In another poem, watching a straight couple making out on the subway, he writes: “I want to say something like: you take for granted/ how easy you have it. Sometimes I want a gun.”
The payoff is a book of poems that’s searing in its honesty, both sad and celebratory, and so satisfying it almost makes me see the upside of life outside New York. Almost.
Aaron Smith recommends: Strange Valentine by A. Loudermilk, Furious Cooking by Maureen Seaton, Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems by David Trinidad