The All-Purpose Magical Tent by Lytton Smith

by Susannah Nevison


Hart Crane's White Buildings begins with a poem designed to help us navigate the rest of the book.  “Legend” establishes Crane's reality “as quiet as a mirror is believed.” The underlying anxiety and plea to be heard in this proem guides the reader throughout the collection. Lytton Smith follows suit in his first book, The All-Purpose Magical Tent.  The opening poem, “Manual for Weather,” provides literal guidance to his readers as they seek to find their way through Smith’s skillfully wrought collection.

Yet “Manual for Weather” is, in its own right, an antithesis to Crane’s “Legend” because it negates the expected: the reader is immediately pulled into a realm of fragment and motion, a cycle of constant building and re-building, rather than offered a tangible foothold.
     All that is left of weather
     is how it is written

Smith’s metaphorical landscape is one where we must begin with figurative remnants and work toward the whole. “Leave your instruments at the entrance,” Smith instructs. “We live between weather and earthlight: there is no use for them / here, no music without weather. Silence, / words folding into it, enough.” 

Throughout the collection Smith deepens our desire to see things as whole. At times Smith’s linguistic fragment and shifting perspective creates the feeling of looking at an early Cezanne painting, where several perspectives are presented from one angle, with the object in question portrayed as it is seen from the front and the side—an astonishing result that gives one the feeling of both multiple and enhanced perspectives.. As Crane invites his readers to “step the legend of their youth into the noon,” Smith, too, invites clarity.  He calls for us to look beyond the view he offers: 
     What are my eyes for, Father, but
     for widening?
     To the tent's edge, Father?

Perhaps equally central as the idea of linguistic displacement is the effortless merging of the critical and the creative. Smith’s collection is a seamless incorporation of essay and theory in creative form. In the poem “[…]language as an unhomely dwelling place” Smith borrows a quote for its title from an essay by Jess R. Fenn, but makes it entirely his own. Though end-notes alert the reader to just how allusive and multi-faceted the work is, the work itself reads as a modern embodiment of the bizarre and medieval, a world that draws the reader in regardless of the presence of rich secondary and tertiary meanings.

Smith’s linguistic cadence, all he carefully folds into silence, becomes the reliable agency for penetrating an intricate world of circus tents, invented myth, and resurrected medieval lore. Rendered with precision and a penchant for the odd, the poems move between various dialects and forms, weaving a world as rich in its presentation as it is in the voices it assumes. At times a nostalgia pervades, as in the piece “Circus Memory,” whose skillful erasure and omission of text creates a jarring sense of the imperfection of memory coupled with a longing for the familiar. In “Monster Theory,” the opening sensibility of fragment and movement toward a definitive whole resurfaces, both as linguistic fracture and as character. “It is always at the outset a displacement—” Smith begins. Displacement, in The All-Purpose Magical Tent, occurs within the confines of self, voice, and persona through lyrical manipulation, resonating in each silent interstice between poems. The reverberation of Smith’s sensibility is often felt long after one has finished reading.


The All-Purpose Magical Tent, Lytton Smith