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Robert Lavett Smith: California Poets Part 7, Four Poems

Robert Lavett Smith

July 1st, 2024

California Poets: Part VII

Robert Lavett Smith

Four Poems



For Bob Stanley


The Broadway of the nineteenth century

comes vividly alive in Specimen Days:

the drivers—a profane and lusty breed—

with names like Broadway Jack or Balky Bill,

Old Elephant, Dressmaker, and George Storms.


Walt knew them all, as well as all their horses;

knew the incessant tumult of the streets,

the vast skullduggery that never ceased—

not even in the cool of autumn evenings

when courage faltered, and the gas burned low.


Then, I suppose, was when he thought of love,

insistent procreation underfoot,

and, like a sad companion in his bones,

the loneliness of one already old

mirrored in the searching glances of young men.


That greatest mystery was left unsolved

as yet another night crept into dawn.

Metallic hooves struck sparks on cobblestones,

that, in the next millennium, would shine

upon our literature, like faint stars.




June 1, 2024


It’s not declining fish populations,

increased pollution, or the warming seas

that preoccupy my thoughts today,

but rather my late father, C. Lavett Smith—

the C. for Clarence, a name he never liked—

who was, in his lifetime, one of the world’s

foremost authorities on the interrelatedness

of organisms in coral reef communities.


When Dad passed, nine years ago now,

he stipulated that his ashes be scattered

not over the reefs whose steady decline

he spent decades observing and documenting,

but over the fields in upstate New York

where he never farmed and had not resided

for any length of time or in any meaningful way

since the Great Depression. I think I know why.


He was a decent man, but not an emotional one.

On cloudy days the lenses of his eyeglasses,

reflecting only a featureless gray glow,

concealed his thoughts in much the same way

the faceplate of his prescription facemask did.

Beneath the waves he formed a camaraderie

with an order of beings as remote as himself,

in the slippery realms of the inscrutable fish.


Yet the intricate, treacherous spires of coral,

having been his refuge for so many years,

did not seem appropriate for a homecoming.

Adrift on the unbridled air of his childhood,

he sought, I must imagine, one final chance

to connect with the basic human emotions

which, for all his arcane wisdom and erudition,

he had never trusted, never truly understood.




Stevens’ complacencies of the peignoir

Are like a keepsake from the nineteen-teens:

The glimpse of paradise the poet gleans

Is harder to discern from where we are.

Heaven is nearer now, yet just as far;

I lack the inclination and the means

To sample California’s nature scenes,

For I am housebound and can’t drive a car.

I’ve read the auguries of birds, God knows,

For they alone have deigned to visit here;

But these aren’t blackbirds, only local crows.

And yet, on Sunday morning, it seems clear

The tight-lipped sky is willing to disclose

Some revelation, to allay some fear.




i.m.: Carlos Periañez, June 9, 1957-September 21, 2021


Decades ago, I lit votive candles

in the gloom of French cathedrals:

thin, pale angels with dripping wings.

Somehow the tiny, tentative flame

comforted me, although I can’t say

for sure whether God was watching.

Older now, I tend to think such fire

may itself have been sufficient—

refreshingly honest both in its brevity

and in its brightness, the simple act

of striking it declaring to the darkness,

however haltingly, I was here. I was here

regardless of whatever comes next.

Author Bio:

Robert Lavett Smith lives in San Francisco. He holds a B.A in French from Oberlin College, where he also studied creative writing with Stuart Friebert and David Young, and an M.A. in English from the University of New Hampshire, studying with Charles Simic and Mekeel McBride. After graduating from UNH, he joined the Master Class at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City, where he studied with Galway Kinnell. He has authored four small-press chapbooks and five full length efforts, Everything Moves With A Disfigured Grace, Smoke In Cold Weather: A Gathering of Sonnets, The Widower Considers Candles, Sturgeon Moon, and Collected Early Poems.


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