January Poetry Pick: The Naming of Strays

I fell in love with Erin Elizabeth Smith’s poetry when I read her first book, The Fear of Being Found, two years ago, so I was thrilled when her second full length collection, The Naming of Strays (Gold Wake Press, 2011) was one of my Christmas presents!

Smith’s The Naming of Strays is divided into sections according to different definitions of the word “stray” .  What follows in each individual section are poems that loosely embrace those definitions.   For instance, in the last section, the definition is the following: “stray: an animal that has strayed or wandered away from its flock, home, or owner.”   With this meaning in mind, one might expect that a stray, perhaps an alley cat, may at least make an appearance, but instead, Smith chooses to adapt the idea of a “stray” to human narrators who seemingly have strayed from past lives, past homes and past loves.  For example, in “Closet Space” the narrator stares at her clothes, deciding that her closet is “plagiarized from other lives.”  In another poem, “On Learning to Be Okay” a speaker muses that she does not think “about spring/or how it feels/to be loved” but instead, chooses to find some solace in making “a thick pea soup” and listening “to the radiator/as it bangs/its way to life.”

Some readers of Smith’s book may consider her poems a bit quirky — and certainly, with poems like “Winter” she is approaching old subjects with a fresh voice. In this particular poem, she personifies the season of winter as “a pony-tailed redhead/displeased with the undoing of her work.”  Winter, in this work, is hard and gritty:  “She lights a cigarette, taps the ashes on the floor.”  Even when she speaks, she is all sass, saying, “Spring is my bitch.  She’ll come/but only when I tell her to.”

 But what I admire most about Smith is the way that she equates a physical place with abstract emotions.  She travels from the Midwest, to eastern New York, to Mississippi — one may think that this book is a collection of journeys, and indeed it’s easy to see the wandering of both emotion and physical meanderings.   For instance, in “On Being Erroneously Called a New Yorker Again” the speaker struggles with the meaning of the relationship between physical place and personal identity.  In another poem, “Index of the Midwest” the speaker muses about the idea of escape when she says “If only there had been an escape hatch/in August’s shorn field.  One that falls/forever into this flat/and desperate black.”   And in still another poem, “Driving Next to Two Men I’ve Slept With” the narrator muses about personal pasts and tension in a single road trip.

I’ve been reading a lot of “first books” the past few months, so it’s great that I finally got to read a “second” book — and of course, with Erin Elizabeth Smith’s work, I will look forward to the third, and fourth, and fifth….

Erin Elizabeth Smith is the founder and managing editor of Sundress Publications.   More information can be found about Gold Wake Press here.

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2 Comments »

  1. dryadart Said:

    stopping by to catch up as I don’t run into you in the halls. I think I will have to check this book out, sounds intriguing. Hope my son doesn’t drive you nuts this semester!

  2. Karen Said:

    Thanks Deb — I have a weird schedule this semester. I’m not on the Jamestown campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays — but at the Warren Center, which is great for me! Not so great because I miss a lot of people.


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