Review – “Primer” by Aaron Smith


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.