I’ve been awaiting the debut of Merril D. Smith’s first collection of poetry, River Ghosts, because I’ve been a fan of her poetry for quite some time. I am certainly not disappointed.
These poems are built upon the foundation of Smith’s knowledge, as a professional historian, of history and also of myth (especially the ekphrastic poems). Sometimes the poems refer to Jewish history. “The Pogrom” describes Smith’s grandmother’s experience as a child and insists that “the wisdom of generations / yet flows through my blood” (17). She refers to this subject again in “Family Ghosts” where she not only hears, but feels, her ancestors calling her.
The poems of River Ghosts have been persuaded into soulful singing by Smith’s love of beautiful language sounds, as if she won’t complete a poem until she’s managed to eke beauty out of the subject. In “Moon Landing,” she writes of a memory of the July moon landing in the time of her childhood. She uses the image of the moon’s surface to create a stunning metaphor for remembering:
Now—ensorcelled by moon-glow—
I plummet back, landing my time-rocket
on the rocky surface of memory. (11)
The ghosts of this collection create a chorus of voices: Smith’s mother who died of Covid-19, her father who passed away earlier, Jewish voices from the Holocaust, those from our cultural stories, and even the phantoms of childhood. These ghosts glaze the poems with an elegiac tone: “a lonesome sound of longing, / a lament for what once was” (63). Nevertheless, the book itself is more hopeful than sad since the emphasis is on noting the grace of life: “we are transients / sailing a timeless sea of dreams” (65). Smith’s first poetry collection is a triumph of beauty in the face of sorrows.