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Recommendation: R.T. Smith’s Split the Lark

R.T. Smith’s Split the Lark explores a variety of subjects through the lenses of entrapment versus freedom and also insight into the natural world.  His subjects include the entrapment of Native Americans and the Irish, an examination of birds, so often associated with ideas of freedom, and finally a fascination with the natural world in general, writing about a range of topics from “shrill needlework/of late summer cicadas” (24) to the soothing “names of trees” (22) to the “mischief” of bears (27).

 

The two topics I find most interesting are Smith’s portrayal of entrapment through the condition of Native Americans in terms of the demise of their civilization and treatment by the United States and the living conditions of the impoverished Irish.

 

In the poem “Red Anger,” Smith describes Native American reservation life that is tainted by disease, low moral, death, alcoholism, anger, and ultimately entrapment and demise of the Native American people and their culture.  Using vivid and disturbing imagery, such as the reservation school that “is brown and bleak/with bugs’ guts mashed against the wall and rodent pellets reeking in corners,” Smith creates a haunting and hopeless world within the reservation.  Each description is written in a single stanza and followed by a name of a Native American tribe, as shown, for example, in lines 17-25:

 

“His father drinks

pale moonshine whiskey

and gambles recklessly at the garage,

kicks dust between weeds in the evening

and dances a fake-feathered rain dance

for tourists and a little cash.

Even the snakes have left.

Even the sun cannot stand to watch.

 

Cherokee.”  

 

The final stanza repeats the names of each Native American tribe previously described, calling them “the living trail of tears” (37), removing the term of trail of tears from an event described in a history book to the “living” and breathing present of suffering people.

 

The poem “The Magdalene” describes another type of entrapment and despair of Irish girls who labor in a laundry shop in Galway.  Without any home or “cast off by kin” (8), these girls have no other livelihood other than to live and word at Magdalene Laundry.  Malnourished, weary, and depressed, these girls face a life of loneliness and drudgery without rest.  Smith describes their entrapment that is passed from one generation of impoverished girls to the next:

 

“how a century

 

of sad ladies ate the hard bread and ladled

broth behind a dozen

 

locks, craving only

one stroll by the sea

or a simple lily at mass…” (51-57)

 

Smith considers this a hopeless situation, just as he insinuates is the case in “Red Anger.”  The   final stanzas of “The Magdalene” read:

 

“and not even

an artifact grown cold

in that unholy wall can lift

 

a life of misery

to the song of an angel

windblown as lynched

 

laundry or trapped

in a scouring stone” (58-65).

 

Ultimately, Smith’s strong imagery and diction capture the mood and tone of a variety of subjects while painting unique scenes that grab the reader’s attention.  I would recommend R.T. Smith’s Split the Lark for a diverse read that explores different settings, characters, and wildlife through numerous lenses.    

 

– Ellen Ferrante

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