When I teach freshman literature, I focus on promoting empathy. And if the better angels of poetry keep alive the possibility of a walk in another's shoes, then Aaron Smith's new collection Appetite will leave you feeling like you've stepped around the block, laced into the life of a gay speaker looking both inward and outward.
Appetite (University of Pittsburgh Press) is Smith's second book. The Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize winner for his first collection, Blue on Blue Ground, Smith (an associate professor of English at West Virginia Wesleyan) tends to focus on the erotic nature of pop culture while using a speaker who's still coming to terms with his own sexuality in a country of mixed messages. Smith's work owes a debt to poets like Reginald Shepherd and Frank O' Hara, while never settling on a style or tone.
In "Safe," the speaker reminisces about growing up in a house where guns were kept under the parents' bed, pointing to an easily recognizable all-American lifestyle. In a playful tone, he points to a shameful uneasiness many feel when hormones kick in and bodies change. Speaking of the potential threat that is both firearm and teen-ager, Smith writes, "Sometimes I'd face / them, a microphone, or love / their tiny lips — tongue deep / between my teeth — practicing the kiss / the way my sister used her fist." It's a remarkable reminder about the darkness and innocence of puberty.
While Smith sometimes wallows in the sexuality to be found in abundant pop-culture references, he's no one-trick pony. The 72 pages of Appetite deftly utilize poetic forms in funny and painful ways that permit a confessional approach. "What it Feels Like to be Aaron Smith" is effective stream-of-consciousness, while "Fat Ass" is a list-y language poem that plays on that oft-used phrase. And there is enough alternative analysis of cinema to make a reader consider many films in new ways.
It's Smith's conciseness that stands out in his use of the psalm as a poetic device when considering the impact of life's small moments. "Psalm (Queer)" is the best example: "Mom held the belt / in her hand, said she could // smack my face over / and over and enjoy it. // Yes, she really said that. / Yes, she loved God that much." It's enough to leave a reader slack-jawed, as if slapped by the honesty of an image.