#bookreview: River Ghosts

Click on the cover to purchase from Amazon.

My Review

Merril D. Smith’s debut collection is poetry of the felt but unseen, those moments in life when we feel in touch with something greater than ourselves to which only poetry can give voice. Even then, we can never fully understand it. We just know it’s there, a form of faith we never knew we needed.

The title poem, “River Ghosts,” introduces the idea that our sensory experience of the natural world–”dusty grass,” “a gull’s laugh,” “cloud-light shimmering,” “spring-scented rain”–can evoke memories and dreams we thought we’d forgotten. However, it becomes apparent after reading the entire collection that we can only hear a “whisper in that dusty grass” if we are attuned to the wavelength on which it travels.

Smith does not limit her experience of the natural world to earth and water. A number of the poems look skyward to find hope, “the stardust / that connect us all” (“Ghost Links”).

Smith uses a variety of forms in the collection, including free verse, metered and rhymed verse, prose poem, and ekphrasis. In addition to demonstrating her mastery of craft, this variety of forms also follows the many moods of a river, depending on the season and the time of day.

Along with river imagery, the collection is structured to emphasize the fluidity of time and memory, with past, present, and future emerging, submerging, and emerging once again, often through the vehicle of love and grief.

River Ghosts ends with the standout of the collection for me–”Half-Concealed and Half-Revealed”–which begins “How will we remember these days / of grief and sorrow for our world.” As much as I would love to quote the last stanza and describe how it moved me, I won’t. I want readers to experience it for themselves.

Readers who appreciate contemplative poetry that evokes insights into their own experience in the world–as well as the experience of those different from themselves in time, place, or circumstance–will relish this collection and return to it often.

The Poet

Merril D. Smith lives near the Delaware River in southern New Jersey with her husband and cat. She has a doctorate in American history from Temple University in Philadelphia. Her nonfiction books focus on history, gender, and sexuality. She turned to poetry as a creative outlet several years ago, and her poetry has been published in a variety of literary magazines. River Ghosts is her first full-length poetry book.

The Inspiration

River Ghosts was compiled a few months after my mom died. During that time, when the world was mostly shut down, I’d walk to the river in the early morning, think about how she had lived on the other side of the river, and toss a stone in the water and watch the ripples grow. Some of the poems were composed during that time, but many of them were written before, but seemed to fit. So, many of the poems in the collection were not written with the collection in mind.

This was over two years ago. (There were delays because the publisher had some health issues.) I think my poetry style has changed some from when these were written.

Artist’s Statement

Click on the heading above for Merril’s artist’s statement.

The River

Merril is an avid photographer, capturing the many moods of the Delaware River on her early morning walks. She is very generous about sharing her photographs on Instagram (@mdsmithnj) and on her blog, Yesterday and today: Merril’s Historical Musings. I’ve been flagging my favorites for a while now. Because the river plays such an integral part of River Ghosts, I’ve created a video homage to the river and the book it inspired. I hope you enjoy it!

131 thoughts on “#bookreview: River Ghosts

      1. As I mentioned we get a lot of ghosts. Kleptomaniac ghosts. Our cats can see them. We can hear and smell them. Our property is against the ditches and river, and it’s scary at night. La Llorona, el Cuco, Chupacabra and other monsters hang out along the river and visit out property at night.

        Liked by 6 people

          1. I presented a paper at the NeMLA conference last year on La Llorona. She is deeply seated in the irrigation culture I grew up with. I still irrigate like I have all my life and the way the Spanish did 300 years ago. La Llorona is often a big help when I’m out at 2:00 am tending to the water.

            Liked by 3 people

  1. This was just the transcendence I needed on a morning when I’m wrestling with the mundane. Liz, the creativity of your review beautifully reflects the creativity of the book itself. Thank you.

    Liked by 10 people

    1. Thank you, Ranee! I’m glad I was able to provide a transcendental moment for you. They’re hard to come by these days, which is why I’m so glad I’ve started reading a lot of poetry again.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Dave. That’s what I was aiming for. (Since being introduced to the concept of rich media by a work colleague, I’ve been very taken with that approach to communication, particuarly online communication.)

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Oh my, Liz! What a treat this is. Such a careful, thoughtful review. You revealed things I didn’t even know were there. I can’t thank you enough–and that video! Wow, I love it so much. Thank you, thank you! 💙

    Liked by 8 people

  3. Liz, aside from the sensitive review(s) you write, such as this one, I have just watched the wonderful Vimeos and Videos you make. Brava! They SO evocatively capture your subject. (Is the music yours?) continue…

    Liked by 6 people

  4. You write beautiful reviews, Liz, and I loved the video homage to the river and the book. The inspiration for some of Merril’s poems was touching, and the collection sounds personal as well as deeply resonant. Thanks so much for sharing and many congrats to Merril for the wonderful review. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Thank you, Liz for another wonderful review and follow-up discussion. I just downloaded River Ghosts and have already become engrossed in Merril’s poetic language. I had to add this short poem called Syncopation:

    “Clouds raced
    across the night sky,
    we watched them
    together,
    heartbeats in syncopation,
    the stars dancing on.”

    I am dancing with you, Merril!

    Liked by 6 people

  6. I really enjoyed your thoughtful review, Liz. That, together with the delightful video you made (so clever) are sending me straight over to Amazon via Merril’s blog. Thank you for the introduction!

    Liked by 5 people

  7. This is brilliant, because those feelings that provoke images and memories can only be explained (that is a terrible word, but it fits) through poetry. Liz, you write the best reviews. Really.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. This is a great review, Liz. It is articulate and succinct.
    Your video tribute is lovely!
    Merril deserves this.
    Her poetry is amazing, and as you point out the devices and styles expose her ability, brilliantly.
    Congratulations, Merril! 🌹💙

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Thank you for the excellent review, Liz. I love what you said, Merril wrote about “those moments in life when we feel in touch with something greater than ourselves to which only poetry can give voice.” The video is beautiful. Congratulations to Merril!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. A lovely review with great depictions of writing styles and spiritual feels. The unsean world undoubtedly thrives in the deepness of our hearts as we embrace the mysteries of nature. A beautiful title too.

    Liked by 1 person

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