Recently I reread Kerouac's On the Road for a book club and was surprised to find only brief flashes of the sense of adventure that filled my memory of reading it in my teens, and even these flashes were overwhelmed by the sadness and yearning that made up the bulk of the story. I am not so old that I do not remember the feeling that life—real life—was going on somewhere else, like a party or distant music whose location I couldn't quite pin down. I remember the occasional wild night with loud music and too much wine, and remember, too, the bleak grey mornings that followed. I even recall feeling that maybe a bum's life was what I wanted, though my version was a beachcomber on a South Sea island. Some writers believe that they must live wild, or at least unusual, lives in order to write: hop boxcars to San Francisco, hitchhike into Mexico, smoke hash in Morocco. Schmidt demonstrates in this collection that it is possible to make brilliant poetry from that most unpromising of material: suburban life.
In these poems, Schmidt takes a simple truth, such as that the way to a woman's heart is by befriending her cats, and draws it out detail by detail until it comes to mean much more. Scattered among the collection are a handful of numbered Suburban Myth poems that give us the roar of history and culture embodied in even the simplest experiences: vacuuming the rug, raising the hood of the car. There is also a brilliant sequence of poems about G.I. Joe, imagining his life as an action figure. These are funny but carry a sting of recognition about how we raise boys, corporate life, the military, or the ever-changing relationship between men and women.
What makes these poems resonate is the depth of emotion and experience contained within their uncomplicated, often humorous lines. Writing advice columns often caution young writers that accruing experience as they continue to write might be more valuable than racing to see their first efforts in print. A few months ago I picked up the first issue of a new college literary magazine, nearly all of the contents written by students though the magazine hoped for broader submissions for later issues. The stories and poems were limited by narrow experience—a party, a bad breakup, the death of a grandparent—but also by a lack of further insight. There was surprise that something bad could have happened and perhaps some anger or sadness, but none of the complex emotions and negotiations behind our relationships with others and with the world that I find in Schmidt's collection.
A good example is “He Ho Ha” where a father tries to calm his daughter's fear “that a T. Rex will suddenly / break in through her window / two stories tall with a head / the size of a Volkswagen.” He tries several ways of reassuring her. Her replies make me laugh, not only by how unexpected they are, but by the mix of fantasy and practicality that a five-year-old, suspended between two worlds, can produce. In these brief lines, illuminated by perfect details and images such as the Volkswagen, you can see him learning to be a father.
Schmidt is a local poet whom I have run into a few times. In this collection he shows how experience, a thoughtful eye, and a sense of humor can create moving and memorable poetry out of the minutiae of ordinary lives. Take heart, all you poets and writers! It can be done.