Dean Bartoli Smith
Dean Bartoli Smith has assembled an ammo belt full of pistol packing poems that take aim at familial relationships, class and race, America’s gun culture, and life on these mean streets. These mean streets happen to be in Baltimore.
While it is not necessary to be a native, it helps. The pages are busy with references to iconic sports heroes, recognizable architecture, local eateries, the familiar neighborhoods and byways, and other geographically specific elements that amount to a nostalgic walk through the decades of Charm City.
It is not always a pleasant or safe journey, and the hapless reader should be on the alert, looking over the shoulder and ready to duck at any moment as bullets, bricks, and other projectiles fly through the air in abundance and with some frequency. He even warns us in “Shooting Gallery:” “We are all targets/We are all unsafe.”
In sixty-three poems divided into two parts and occupying 103 pages, Smith gathers together an arsenal that would be the envy of a small country. There is mention of a vast array of weaponry from cap guns to howitzers. At times, I felt I could smell the gunpowder wafting off the pages.
Guns even appear as the persona in a couple of the poems. There is the .45 that tells us it stays “loaded in the glove compartment/ in case something goes wrong.” And the .357 that is stuffed in a “sock drawer and loaded with hollow points,” who waits for the owner to tell it what to do and wistfully mourns, “…It’s been/ so long since he touched me.”
The bullets whiz by and ricochet off the lines with the turn of each page. Even though guns seem to be the defining factor of most of the poems, the collection seems to waver between memoir and social commentary. It suffers from a lack of organization and focus on a thematic core. There are a few poems which I can’t figure out their place in this ambiguous grand scheme of things. For example, the poem about Comiskey Park. There isn’t a shot fired or a Baltimore reference in sight.
I can’t help but wonder if the stories contained within this collection might have been better served as a memoir. I found myself, at times, wanting more and unfulfilled by the vignette nature of the poems that stop short of reaching a general or universal connection. A memoir might better connect the dots of the various thematic strands unwound in these poetic lines.
There are some powerful and personal experiences and narratives in the collection, but it seems like there are at least two books warring with one another.
One has to do with the persona’s family, his cracked and sorrowful relationships with his parents and brother locked in a Catholic upbringing in the archdiocese of the city. The other addresses the systemic racism and the tensions that perpetuate a gun culture and the violence that ensues. There may be another that speaks to the nostalgia of growing up in these conditions in the fifties and the decades that followed. Many of the images rely on allusion to film, music, and television shows of the era. There are references to games played in the back seat of the car and the backyards of an America that no longer exists.
I did not tally a body count but there are a number of victims of suicide and murder, both well known and obscure, whose bodies are left behind for the rest of us to mourn and make sense of. There is Breece D’J’ Pancake, called in an article in Study Breaks “one of the greatest authors you’ve never heard of,” who committed suicide at twenty-six.
There is Charles Bowman, the 72-year-old Vietnam vet shot in a store robbery as he picked up an evening meal of pork ya ka mein.
There is three-year-old McKenzie Elliot… “killed by a stray bullet/on her front porch//during a drive-by/gun battle at sunset//while playing with dolls.”
There is Private T. Spicely, in a variation of Dylan’s “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” gunned down for being uppity by an enraged white bus driver who is set free in twenty-eight minutes by an all-white jury. There are others who fall by the wayside along with an accounting of the 2017 Baltimore murder statistics in the titular poem.
Despite minor flaws, there is much to applaud in these poems. They show a strong and authoritative voice, sure of its sound and sense. Images pop off the pages and grab you by the throat and force you to look at the danger and injustice of a world that can be “nasty, short, and brutish.” Detailed and glowing with specificity, the images are a barrage of memories, history, and American experience that in toto are a tour de force and might suck the breath out of an unsuspecting reader left unawares.
In the poem “My Father’s Trains,” the persona’s father bequeaths him “all the train gardens he has ever constructed” including all the engines “that whistled through them” and “all the Pullman cars, cabooses, and freighters/rolling across mint condition track/ on an immaculate platform past/ballfields and parks, war memorials/ miniature churches, fire stations, billboards/ hawking Norelco and National Bohemian…”
This is a picture of America in days gone by, but Mr. Smith doesn’t sink into the nostalgia, but uses it as counterpoise to the harsh and brutal reality where a young boy might throw a “half brick” at a passing motorist hoping to sink a jump shop in the car’s open sunroof. The weapon “traveled through the air with a shooter’s arc and backspin.”
The poems are miniature morality plays enacted on the streets of a modern big city with a small conscience. If you choose to enter this territory, the fearless reader might consider wearing a Kevlar vest and Orioles cap while brandishing a Natty Boh in one hand and a 1966 World Series pennant as a flag of truce.