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