Ellen McGrath Smith
poetry, prose, literary criticism
New in 2023! the seven kitchens Press Keystone series
Cover art by Patricia Bellan-Gillen
Cover design by Lila Sanchez
Pittsburgh City Paper
The Cloudy House
Winner of the 2016 Wordwrite Award from karmakindler.com and Knight & Grey Publishing
One time, at a party years after I'd stopped drinking, I told someone, "The closest I get to a buzz now is when I'm practicing yoga." I'm sure this has something to do with endorphins, but it also planted the seeds for a poetry project exploring yoga and alcohol. The poems inhabit a range of forms from sestina to sonnet to ghazal to prose-poem hybrids, mirroring the many shapes the body assumes in a yoga asana practice. Bottoms up and namaste.
Nobody's Jackknife is a work of intelligence, verve, and assertiveness. It is a spacious work, one able to encompass poetry, essay, and prose poetry, and able to address manifold concerns, from spiritual explorations of the poses in yoga, to autobiographical poems of drinking, sex, and work. Above all, though, there is something wonderfully classical about this book. Smith is mistress of the extended meditation. Nobody's Jackknife recurrently asserts that a poem is open to unlimited possibilities of deep, long thought. What a tough-minded, far-reaching, and beautiful debut this is.
Like yoga—a word cognate with the English "yoke"—these poems arrive at union through opposition: between mind and body, striving and submission, power and powerlessness, desire and the absence of desire that, viewed from outside, seems so much like death. Most of all, the opposition of different kinds and orders of language: formal and conversational, comic and rapturous, shopping list and psalm. Nobody’s Jackknife is a thrilling book.
The filmic narratives underpinning this collection sustain both forward-motion and sharp relief against a haunting music. Supple tonal and atonal utterances surge inside physical and psychic violence and drink, carelessness and adoration, and an Emersonian embrace of Eros. Smith is a poet with an exquisite ear, who pitches her voice against a visual field lush with arboreal feminine presence. A quasi-enchanting natural world intermittently changes shape before our eyes: we see a glimpse of blossom or fur, a body still or in motion. Memory is retrieved, extinguished, retrieved.