Primer by Aaron Smith, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016
Review by Kim Sousa
Aaron Smith’s third collection, Primer, offers us “The Unknown Buried in the Known.” We know poetry, and we know Smith. We come to both to brush up against a distilled experience outside our own, told in language beyond our own. Primer delivers both generously: Smith writes out of a gay man’s body, a body reconciling loss, a body born out of a difficult family, the depressed body, the poet’s body with such blue-tinged acuity that we grow into its limbs. Reading Primer is like confronting this body in the mirror, a body that we take on as our own—as if to both bear some of its burden and revel in some of its ecstasy. Smith is unapologetic in confronting us with the unknown, colored by the familiar—the poems in Primer pulse with pain and pleasure, love, sex and death, good health and depression and illness, kindness and cruelty. Smith strips away embellishment, as if applying paint thinner to a found piece of furniture or sanding worn wood floors, until what’s laid bare sings: undecorated, raw, primed.
In “Sky,” part three of “The Unknown Buried in the Known,” he writes:
Maybe it’s the sky that brings you
back because it’s the sky the night
you were dying I most remember…
… and the moon was nearly
full and the stars were what you
see in movies about space, a rash
of light and magnificent, bigger
than our ideas of wherever it is
you were going or not going.
Smith breaks open pain to find beauty and undoes beauty to find pain. The night sky is colored by death, but it’s much too large to be bleak:
… I know
that light was from stars already dead,
but why did it make me feel alive
while you were dying?
Primer weaves precise language and these apparent paradoxes of feeling into an expert post-confessionalism. The poems within the collection reveal a deep and shining wound—a wound the poet confesses openly again and again, often with a humor that cuts through the poem with a sharp surprise. “David Beckham is People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive” is a prism. It contains all of Primer’s anxiety around the body but sends a biting wit through it, shaping it into something else, something lighter:
I’m bald and hungry with a pillow-
y chest, my skin fits looser every day.
(Of course he sleeps naked,
or only in underwear.) David
thinks his fans will be surprised
he’s shy. I think my friends think
I talk too much. The magazine’s
on the floor by my toilet: his cheeky
face a perfect way to start each day.
At least I’m not losing my aim.
Smith’s Primer is exhilarating for its continued surprises—the unknown buried in the known. It prepares us, like any good primer, for something: for life, for the inevitability of pain and for how to live compassionately and complexly through the wounds that shine through us. To the question, “Are you going to hurt yourself?” Smith offers, “Isn’t that what it means to be alive?”
KIM SOUSA is a poet and dog person living in Pittsburgh. Her work was most recently published in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Saturday Poem series, and she has work forthcoming online and in print. She was born in Brazil and raised in Texas, and so she believes both black co ee and butter are essential to the soul.