for Arthur Smith:

Thanks for your wisdom, which seems to know many paths, and insist.
I hope the pups were waiting for you.

In memoriam

It felt like a performance when we gathered to share our stories.
Why were we talking about this man
who would surely, at any moment, pop in & say
Ya really oughta try the opposite. Pretend I'm alive.
See whachya come up with.

I came—not to speak—but to hear
his colleagues' memories, because,
while we'd greet each other in passing for over a decade,
I knew him only in the classroom.
Read poems, heard stories about the Keeshonden,
Tiger Haven, his mother, sister, the wives who left,
dead or abandoning.
I didn't know how he lived.
How he took his coffee,
if he drank coffee,
what time of day he wrote,
could he maybe speak Spanish,
if he binged whole seasons of SVU,
who he loved enough to leave his books to.

He'd say Hey guy!, which I learned he called everyone,
and not because, as I thought, he couldn't remember my name.
He wrote my grad school letters, and I wondered if he'd written:
I find myself recalling This Guy's lines as I move through my day.
This Guy will be a credit to your program.

Marilyn told me he was sick,
that I should make the trip if I wanted to see him again.
So I planned to drive Saturday, visit Sunday,
but got the news Friday
he was gone.

Why do we do this—talk about the dead man?
We can't bring him into this space.
We can't offer him these stories now.
Our thin voices barely reach the back of the room.
We can't drop by his office to discuss Gilbert's Pittsburgh,
whether Keith Jarrett's moaning augments the improvisation
or distracts from it.
Maybe we need this collective to gather the breadth
of our loss. To unify our belief—
an old power.

Art said, You could start the line with "O!",
but a poet only gets a few of those per lifetime.

I think I'll use mine here:

O, the dresser,
accent wall,
eggs & toast,
cut grass,
unkempt crown of hair:
O, the color, taste,
scent, texture
of a world
he no longer
O, the doors
we must
open & close
again & again.
Where Art was—
O, the lack,
which I now see
for the fullness
of its absence.

for Arthur Smith, 1948–2018

About this poem

  • Arthur Smith was an American poet who taught at the University of Tennessee from 1986 until his death in 2018. He published four collections of poetry, most recently The Fortunate Era (2013).
  • Read more about Art at this website, created in his memory.