I used to believe that successful poems were like steel nails—confident in their content and form; sturdy enough to be hammered in without warping—but Eric Smith’s debut collection Black Hole Factory shows that there is another possibility. His poems are not nails, but rather hypodermic needles which he uses to inject his readers with language, fear, truth, confusion, love, heartbreak, and humor. By the end of the poem “Cryptozoology,” not only do you have a better understanding of language itself, but you suddenly find yourself believing in Big Foot. Through “Song,” you discover that time is neither linear nor cyclical, rather it is in fact both simultaneously. Reading Smith’s poems aloud, you realize that you are not pushing the words from your throat, instead Smith’s words seem to form themselves in the forge of your mouth, slipping off your tongue as easy as steam.
William Matthews claims that if you read the end-words for a free-verse poem, you should have the skeleton of that poem. Smith takes this idea and applies it to both his lines and his sentences. In “Tyrannosaurus Sex,” Smith writes that dinosaurs “huddle against meteoric rains / that end in fire,” ending the sentence on that image and word “fire.” It seems simple, even familiar, but once you realize that each sentence is given that much attention—each sentence’s end aware of the weight it must carry—you begin to feel its cumulative effect. For example, Smith ends his sentences with words including desire, wound, guesswork, fire, and love. As for the ends of lines, Smith uses words such as gravity, overcome, lovemaking, chatting, coupling, violence, and symmetry. In this way, Smith maximizes his poem’s effect by ensuring that each pressure-point in his poem serves to instill these feelings of simultaneous hopelessness and desire in his reader, creating an objective correlative he sparks in the reader’s own body. When Smith writes that “Nature aches for symmetry // found in another,” we find ourselves aching alongside these dinosaurs beneath “the black canopy” of night.
Smith’s mastery of form is strong, regardless of whether he is writing sonnets, sestinas or even free verse. When I first read “Sandhill Crane,” it wasn’t until I reached the ending of the poem that I realized it is a Shakespearean sonnet even though the poem clearly consists of three quatrains and a couplet. “Sandhill Crane” is an example of my favorite type of formal poem—that in which each stress and rhyme is important, but the poem’s form refrains from becoming self-important. The poem still wants to exist as its own entity rather than just wanting to be, simply, a sonnet for sonnet’s sake. Part of this derives from Smith’s blending of perfect and slant rhymes, such as “worm,” “legged,” egg,” “swarm,” again showing tireless deliberation with each word, especially in the poems’ pressure points. This deliberation makes certain that the words always serve a function for the larger whole and not simply a forced rhyme scheme. In the poem’s final couplet, Smith refrains from a perfect rhyme by having his poem beckon an apology: “Forgive / the prairie’s subtlety—like nothing else alive,” again prefacing the delivery of emotive truthfulness over the delivery of “perfect” form.
Finally, Smith’s “Black Hole Factory,” located in the middle of the collection that takes its name, serves as a masterclass in the poetry of intimacy and love. Many of Smith’s poems work to defamiliarize the mundane, whether it be a bowling alley in “Questions Concerning Galactic Bowling” or the Sharpie outlines of his grandfather’s tools in “The Shed,” but “Black Hole Factory” makes advanced physics accessible, and even more impressively endearing, to the average reader. He describes the long line of generators in a Swiss lab “like Christmas, / flicker[ing] on,” a rip in the space-time continuum as “rattl[ing] / like a tooth in the mouth of the world,” and then later “the dinner jacket / of the universe turned inside out / for the sake of seeing the lining,” thus jamming the universe itself into this dinner jacket, returning to the familiar. While Smith is doing this, there is a “you” that pops up, almost begging to be read as a general projection of the speaker until, right at the poem’s penultimate line, Smith turns this on its head by writing “just you, and me, and a black hole / of almost zero size orbiting the sun.”
Smith takes a moment of complete erasure and instead makes it whole by introducing the idea of a couple—that this act of an atom splitting itself could be intimate. Suddenly, earlier lines such as “a risk you understand / and repeat if only to smash the parts together, sort through the debris,” take on new connotations, and the dinner jacket that is the universe could suddenly belong to this “you.” Ultimately, Smith’s poem does defamiliarize some things—inevitability; futility; erasure; loneliness—all of which seem apropos to the titular “Black Hole Factory.” It is here, in the absolute depths of Smith’s debut, that he gives his reader a glimmer of hope in the simplest word, a companion: “me.”
William Brown is in the final semester of his master's degree in poetry at Texas Tech University and plans to earn an MFA and PhD afterward. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Crab Creek Review, McNeese Review, and elsewhere.