“Other Sacred” — A book of poems by Lawrence R. Smith

The two major magazines that championed surrealistic poetry during the past sixty years were KAYAK magazine, edited by George Hitchcock, and CALIBAN, edited by Lawrence R. Smith. The latter had two incarnations, the first as a print edition and the second on-line (Calibanonline.com). Forty issues of the on-line project are still maintained, along with intriguing, tantalizing art.

Most editors of poetry magazines are poets themselves. Sometimes the poets they publish are far better than they are (as in my own case), though whether they would be able to edit with any significant discernment unless they also attempted to write poetry is open to question. George Hitchcock was certainly as good a surrealist poet as the ones he selected for kayak, and the same is true of Lawrence R. Smith, though Smith has a greater range of topic and lyricism.

Among my favorite poems in OTHER SACRED is “Bird Signs,” which is dedicated to his granddaughter. Smith has given me permission to quote the poem in its entirely, and reprinting it here is one of the most rewarding moments for having done a blog for the past ten years.

When birds write on air,
they know the audience is small.
Their kin the lizards
occasionally watch,
but spend most of their time
doing push-ups.

My granddaughter
speaks to hummingbirds
in their strange chirping language —
and I’ve heard them reply.
She says their darting moves,
in all the vectors of a compass,
are calligraphic strokes
of hummingbird text,
advanced lessons for the child
who broke their code.

Language can live only in midair,
not on the page, and proud cities
raised with the music of vowels
dissolve as they are uttered.

There is no memory.
Hummingbirds merge
into the space they occupy,
writing their best lyrics
on the beating heart of the world.


In “Bird Signs” a child serves as a mediator in the manner of immigrant youth negotiating for the elderly in a defamiliarized world. Open to the gestural as an alphabet, the child’s literacy enables her to see into the very heart of consciousness itself. This poem, however, is not the only one in which Smith regards air as the fundamental component that aligns one’s self-awareness of existence. Air is the amphitheater that hosts the resurrection of the life force, Smith reminds us in the culminating stanza of “Neighborhoods.” His cartography focuses on the inhabitants of the “netherworld,” however, rather than the quotidian domains of domesticity associated with the word “neighborhood.” In an annual resurrection, the small gods “tease the moment / with a fluttering samba danced in midair.” The minuscule devours the grandiose, in Smith’s account of a fundamental equilibrium between the life force and the always already “project of collapse.” How rarely I have found a quiet poem to set alongside well-known poems by Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins! on a similar theme!

At this point, I want to say how much I admire blogs in which lengthy reviews provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of a book under review, and I do wish I could do justice to “Other Sacred.” It is a volume that I am willing to bet will not be read in its entirety by a single person who contributes to that all-too-pretentious volume called “Best American Poetry of (name the year).” Yes, almost every volume of that anthology contains some memorable work, but I have also read poems selected for that honor that do not have a single stanza as perceptive as Smith’s insight that “Work gloves want to live on an / upper story but can’t pay the rent./ They feel the weight of brilliant flesh, / but can only hold and shelter it.” The poignant backwash of the conjunction in each of the poem’s final sentences reminds us of the long toil of evolution to bring human fingers and “urgent touch” into dialogic contiguity.

In this all too brief review, I also wish to point out some of my other favorites; in particular, one poem that is on the “local” side: “Santa Anas.” These are the notoriously fickle outbursts of superheated air that often cause voracious fires to erupt at the slightest provocation. Smith’s poem perfectly captures this whimsical apocalypse in its opening stanza:

“When the key that lives in wind
opens fire inside the house
of ordinary weather, a kind of madness
that tastes like smoke strews needles,
cones, and resin over the streets,
obscuring routes of escape.
Trees wheel, groan, pop sinews.”

All of the poems I have cited so far come from the first two parts of “Other Sacred.” The third part consists of a twenty-four page, six-part poem entitled “Eleven Roads to the Meeting Place,” which is in turn complemented by a five page prose piece that recalls Smith’s visits to the classic jazz club, the Five Spot, in New York City. His account of seeing Thelonius Monk play should be kept in mind by anyone working on a biography of that masterful composer.

Will any poet of equal stature to Hitchcock and Smith ever launch a magazine devoted to surrealist poetry that is as inspiring and inclusive? Perhaps it is enough that a miracle happened twice in my lifetime, and I am immensely grateful for both instances.

“OTHER SACRED” by Lawrence R. Smith (2023)
9784 Nature Trail Way
Elk Grove, CA

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