Splices by Mark Smith-Soto
reviewed by DAVID CREWS

Finishing Line Press, 2013
Most of the multiple definitions of the word splice suggest a joining or uniting of two things—rope, cable, wood, wire—the joining of physical objects. Though if you’ve ever awkwardly sat on your couch watching the cable guy hook you up, or if you remember back to when woodshop was still an actual class, or if you’ve ever perhaps received a tutorial on how film strips are made: anyone who’s seen a person working with his or her hands, splicing things, quickly recognizes that in order to join, there’s a whittling away, a cutting, a shaving down, a sanding or smoothing that must occur in order for the joint to come together. In fact, many might say it’s the cutting that proves most important to the act of splicing. The word originates as an old sailor’s term, coming from the Middle Dutch splissen, which has roots in the meaning “to split.” And so we come to yet another one of the countless conundrums in the English language: words often engage themselves in an ongoing dialectic.

This same paradigm also exists within Mark Smith-Soto’s new chapbook collection Splices. Smith-Soto’s speaker finds himself in everyday situations—watching people at a café or coffeehouse, considering the mockingbird going bonkers on a neighbor’s roof, taking a twilight walk in a historic park—but the pathos that arises within these poems captures a longing, an irrecoverable distance between a speaker and the world around him:

                                    Why unafraid? I won’t say
        I understand it, the faint alarm that I feel spring
        in my chest watching the figure turn and wave
        and disappear out the door into the unbound day.
                                            (“Human, Unguarded”)

We sense very quickly a speaker who yearns to connect to the world around him, but doesn’t know how. The figures who pass in and out of these poems feel like shadows, visions of selves, and this helps the poet generate some poignant poetic moments. The speaker finds himself stuck in a sort of limbo between two worlds—one in which he aches to be a part of, and one filled only with alienation:

                                                    And closer, on
        the glass, my face peering back, what’s it looking
        at? Dark curve of cheek, tenuous chine, and eyes
        turned toward something lost, or still present
        in its absence, like moonlight at noon casting
        shadows within shadow, the way a tear might
        salt the sea, or a long sigh rise inside the wind.

What garners such great interest in Splices proves the disconnect between the speaker and other people. In many of these scenes, the speaker lacks an ability to reach out, at times never even considers it, and thus finds himself a voyeur with many faces. In “The Closeness of Distances, or Narcissus as Seen by the Lake” from Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play, Eleanor Wilner suggests, “Aesthetic distance is achieved in multiple ways, but chief among them is the view through other eyes, which creates a distance from the ego (or received view) that opens our eyes to things we could not otherwise have seen.” We sense very quickly a speaker who, although disconnected from those around him, is not without a certain sensitivity. His voyeuristic ways create moments of real sensuality:

        To sit very still and interrogate desire,
        asking to understand how the curve
        of an arm on a nearby table can spin one,
        leave one wide open to the beautiful—
                                       (“One At the Café”)

Voyeurism creates its own dialectic: it’s both erotic and empty, close yet far away, filled with desire though the rapture diluted. And Wilner’s sentiments raise other questions: Is it the view through the speaker’s eyes that elucidates everyday moments for the reader? Or, does the voyeuristic tendencies of the speaker in these poems create a distance from his own ego? Does this chapbook collection show us a speaker’s journey as a stranger among strangers? Or do we share it?

Part way though the collection poems turn up that shift the tone into new directions. Attention turns from people and situations of social settings, and the speaker finds a certain joy and wonder in the natural world. In “April Fool” it’s the mad song of the mockingbird that entrances him:

                                        I crane my neck to catch
        sight of him, wings aflutter, swaying from foot
        to foot to his own mad song, dancing a fool of
        the air! But, no, see how very still he tilts from
        the high gutter, mute on his perch—a gargoyle.
                                                       (“April Fool”)

We sense a certain confidence, an understanding, even resolution of thought when the speaker interrogates animals and things. Of course, as human beings, we often don’t feel the pressure to understand a mockingbird or a cactus or our computer. Many could argue these things don’t challenge us in the ways humans do. The cactus doesn’t die, it doesn’t matter why the mockingbird goes bonkers. Even the sparrow fulfills a sort of deeper understanding: “The sparrow / I happened to be watching when the sky fell / fulfilled a providence, no doubt” (Backyard Philosophy). Witnessing Smith-Soto’s speaker at times struggling to understand, and then at other moments reaching certain epiphanies, forces us as readers to put together the pieces, and in the process, we too extend toward personal reflections.

A transition hits mid-way through Splices when the speaker begins to turn inward, to open himself to his readers. “Twilight Walk In The Historical Park” gives us a glimpse of a self-referential moment, in which Smith-Soto’s speaker reflects in the midst of one of his voyeuristic episodes: “…as I now find / bent over granite, melodramatic me, poetic / me—or so I must seem to the young couple…” (Twilight Walk In The Historical Park). We’re even given glimpses of the speaker’s thoughts into his own self, and we see an inner life that, like many of us, is filled with intense longing, unfound desire, shallow understandings:

                      —what was I about to write? Something
        about love or lack of love, something about a swell
        of cello overheard, the tears it shed, something to do
        with time, or loss or debt? Ah, there!
                                                      (“Pop-Up Window”)

In her essay “Rhetorical Contract in the Erotic Poem” published in a collection of essays titled Radiant Lyre, Linda Gregerson claims while formal conventions remain essential to the nature of the sonnet, a set of thematic and rhetorical movements prove of equal importance. “Sonnets came in groups, or sequences,” she writes. “They told a story; or rather, they refused to tell a story outright, but were built around a story that took place in the white space between individual lyrics.” Here’s where Smith-Soto’s collection develops a larger idea for its readers: the poems themselves, these sonnets, serve as splices of life. And we see the speaker’s developments and transitions as we move between poem to poem to poem:

                                           —how heavily otherness
        can weigh on you, what a bore it is and hard
        to bear in elevators, airplanes, or now over a beer

Clearly it’s the fragmentation that splices the narrative. But isn’t this the wonder of reading a collection of poems, building connections between lyric moments? Even within poems, Smith-Soto creates interesting layers of metaphor and verisimilitude:

                                Poor thing, fooled by this
        crazy weather, you’d think that nature would
        know better, but no, just like us, so eager
        to be the first ones on the block, so ready
        to believe what we want to be true, so quick
        to fall for a warm day. Spring indeed!
                                                (“Winter Spring”)

No subject matter is off limits. The speaker watches people in cafes and coffeehouses, peers at mockingbirds and sparrows, saves cacti, interviews his computer, and even talks to his poems:

        But you, my poem, you are the living art
        that has meant everything to me, my child
        if I have a child, the love of my soul.
        Too dramatic, I know, lines beyond hope
        of publication, allowed breath in the coiled
        hours of the early morning, when the whole
        world sleeps, and night hangs from a rope.
                                          (“Night Thoughts”)

Perhaps one critique of Smith-Soto’s collection lies in the non-sequitur nature of some poems. In the midst of splicing the myriad moments of life certain readers might lack the ability to fit or place individual poems into the larger scheme of the chapbook. All of a sudden, a poem might not join the larger narratives or the building metaphors in the reader’s mind. (This will always remain a risk the artist takes.) Although at moments like these one can simply appreciate the beauty of Smith-Soto’s words and images:

                       All morning pulling at it,
        gently, gently, wanting not to break
        the story of it,
        . . .
        Now evening relaxes at the core, and I
        find I have unspun half of myself
        into my hands, the thread a web, my
        mind gone to gauze in a strange light.
        Where is the end of this unspinning?
        What is this freshness in the air?
        What are these wings?

One can imagine the artist’s endeavors remain always infiltrated with feelings of fear or doubt. Like at times Smith-Soto’s speaker in Splices, we fall back sometimes on disconnects, we lose ourselves amidst misunderstandings, and we sit and stay within the security of our longings. But this collection also completes a journey of its own—one of an inward sort—and there’s a beauty in coming to terms and accepting that true self who lies within each of us. As Smith-Soto’s speaker leaves us in Splices, thoughts ebbing and unfolding, an interesting resolution comes into play:

        even as already I have begun to sway, slide, dip
        under the dark horizon of the tide, yielding
        to deepness then, to the sweet green exhausted
        furrow I am folded into with a sough, all hollowed
        and clean, hallowed from having said it all.

DAVID CREWS (davidcrewspoetry.com) has poems published or forthcoming in The Greensboro Review, The Southeast Review, Paterson Literary Review, Wisconsin Review, The Carolina Quarterly, 5AM, and others. Essays found in Adanna Literary Journal and SPECTRUM. He both teaches and lives in northwest New Jersey.