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Poetry Focus: Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith by Gerard Wozek

As a graduate student in my first British literature course, I fell passionately in love with poet Stevie Smith and certain compelling elements of her work that underscore her infatuation with mortality. Smith was a poet enamored with death. Her later poems suggest that eternal life was more of a threat to her, rather than a theological promise of redemption or damnation.

Quick to criticize the dogmas of her Anglican background, Smith spent the latter portion of her life questioning the validity of organized religion. She was quoted once as saying, "There are some human beings who do not wish for eternal life."

For this bold poet, a child of eight who often contemplated suicide as a happy release from the routines of a caustic boarding school, death was often viewed as a merciful friend. The power of passing away is envisioned in many of her poems as a source of great strength, yielding solace and an utter, almost welcome, finality.

These ideas seem to be implanted in Smith's poem, "When One," in which death is seen as that force which breaks the tedium of conflict. Smith begins the poem by suggesting "When one torments another without cease/It cannot seem/It cannot seem/That death is the only release." Smith draws our attention to pain and to the relentless chafing that may accompany times of change. The speaker in this poem repeats her assertion that "It cannot but seem/That death, as he must come happily,/should not delay." In this poem, Smith reinterprets the idea of death as having a positive connotation, since it comes "happily" and with speed in order to dissolve the frustrating conflict:

Why do I think of Death
As a friend?
It is because he is a scatterer,
He scatters the human frame
The nerviness and the great pain,
Throws it on the fresh fresh air
And now it is nowhere
Only sweet Death does this,
Sweet Death, Kind Death,
Of all the gods you are the best.

Smith takes on a celebratory tone in this homage to the natural force which "scatters" and breaks things up. Like the Hindu worship of Shiva, the embodiment of the mighty force of destruction, death is revered as a great "friend" who has the power to dissolve "nerviness and the great pain."

Only "Sweet Death, Kind Death" can take all of this sorrow and transform it into a new existence. Smith has formed an alliance with this kindest of gods and honors the potency of its irreducible finality. For Smith, mortality is not a fearsome prospect, rather, it is interpreted by the poet as a fact that must be acknowledged and respected. Death, in other words, preserves the balance.

For Smith, it appears one's bereavement must be entirely accepted in order to live a fully conscious existence. Smith refuses to be cajoled by myth or the promise of an eternal life. Rather, Smith wants to live with her mind alight with wakefulness, ever conscious that death is standing outside the door with the intent to keep us honest. In her poem "Come Death", Smith reveals her understanding of this profound human paradox :

How vain the work of Christianity
To teach humanity
Courage in its mortality.
Who would rather not die
And quiet lie
Beneath the sod
With or without a god?

Foolish illusion, what has Life to give?
Why should man more fear Death than fear to live?

Smith is able to look at humankind's unwillingness to fully acknowledge and embrace the reality of death in life. Smith cuts through the hypocrisy of an opiate religion that "comforts" its followers with illusory promises of Heaven as a reward for a life lived by certain prescribed standards or morals.

In her plea to death, Smith asks, "what has Life to give?" and uses her poem as a clarion call for all her readers to live a life that is free of illusions and angels. Smith wants to live with a consciousness that is able to embrace the unity of death and life. This poet refused to give into the easy answers offered by a doctrine. Rather, she was stoic in her view that death must be viewed as inextricable from life.

For Smith, and indeed for all poets, death prescribes a life lived bravely. Smith leaves behind a body of work that presents the human experience as a procession of little deaths; from the moment we leave the comforting waters of the womb we progress through a series of cycles, each having their own endings and beginnings. We must all pay our due to the sweet god of death, but in doing so, Smith describes a conscious life that can be embraced without fear, and a death that can be not only acknowledged, but accepted and even welcomed.

Gerard Wozek is the author of the short story collection Postcards from Heartthrob Town. His debut book of poems Dervish won the Gival Press Poetry Book Award. His short film Dance of the Electric Moccasins took top honors at the 2005 Potenza Film Festival in Italy. He teaches creative writing at Robert Morris College in Chicago.
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