Book Review: Hank by Abraham Smith, Action Books, 2010.

I have no love (nor hate, to be fair) for country music or folk singers, and zero involvement in their history. I have, therefore, no idea who Hank Williams is other than the, at times seemingly purposeless, subject of Abraham Smith’s second poetry collection, Hank. After reading it I can express two more things: I still don’t know anything about Hank Williams (aside from my recent discovery that he’s a “big deal” in bluegrass/country music history) and I think Abraham Smith is the future grandfather of what I hope (wish) future country music will come from.

Something the reader must get over: Hank is 129 pages long and consists of eleven poems, all titled nonsensically in the form of keyboard mistakes while holding the Control key (ex: *%$@@!!), the last of which tops out at forty pages in length. Every poem expresses, whether it likes it or not, some level of tedium and prolix.

Something less annoying: every poem in this collection is electrified, chilling, nostalgic, and fresh-from-the-farm. Every poem zaps you, stings you, exhausts, rejuvenates, inspires, and impresses the reader. Then, I think, they bruise the reader in a thoughtful, lasting way. “every hurt has to be always be always be there//it has to be that parts of his smile stay broke off sag frown//or he is eating at his smile//what’s for dinner?” (p.113) The pathos here dares you to ignore it, to think it’s just not there. And then, each poem ends by making you feel lonely because the music stopped and now the room’s too quiet.

A single poem from this Hank, in disguise of a list poem, perhaps, will take you from the breakfast table to birthday cakes, dive bars, hell, dirty bathrooms, and a “bear’s hairy ass sewn together like ten beards” in a span of ten lines.

Smith’s writing is short, choppy, and sonics are behind the wheel, the wheel of a car that cannot obey the speed limit (because it would probably explode), also a car that has no windshield, no hood, and possibly no tires, but can still fly down the road. Take this for example, “the sound of someone far off coughing//like two blind boys playing catch with chestnut husks//on through a gummy timber//the large do not walk they lumber//your sweetheart pine straight out of you” (p. 8). Also, notice how enjambed the line breaks are. There’s hardly a stopping point, the force of the words rarely lets off the gas pedal. This is exactly how, in 129 pages of just eleven poems, the reader gets so thrilled yet exhausted in this collection.

There are no punctuation marks, not even periods at the end of each poem. You’ll get tired, maybe sweaty. It’s a relentless collection. If you read it, read it out loud and don’t take breaks. Knock it out (as it will try to knock you out first, write on your face, and take a photo) in a couple sittings and you’ll end up thinking about what it did to you for a long while. “…in a cow shit stream//you had the feeling every ripple//was lake wake off a pit bull belly flaw//…had that feeling of retrieving//from a great wide lonesome and her eyes//were war and her eyes were an idiot boy//come down to a river//mama lookie that water’s on fire” (p. 9). Hank won’t ask you to look up anything about Hank Williams; it won’t even ask you to like the poems. It will, however, ask you to play it like a record. Listen through, see how you feel after a couple songs.

Daniel D’Angelo, Assistant Poetry Editor