It can be hard to find a voice both unapologetic and earnest in this age of dissociative lyrics and freewheeling wordplay. Amanda Smeltz’s Imperial Bender is a welcome aberration to the poetic landscape. Though the poet leans in to patterns of sound regularly, readers rarely lose track of the very human pulse that beats through these pages—a pulse that is strong enough to justify whatever schmaltziness one may risk in sincerity.
As the title suggests, Imperial Bender is very much concerned with the empire-building we do on different scales throughout our lives. In these poems there are references to Afghanistan and Baghdad and the “idiotic” war occupying such places. There is also acknowledgement of the smaller empire of influences that comprise a poet’s singular voice. These poems evoke the likes of Michael Jackson and Zeno, Madonna and Li Po, Frost, Keats, and perhaps most importantly: Paul Violi. The collection in fact begins and ends with open letters to the poet—poems whose clarity and frank love show Violi’s stylistic influence while establishing the book’s tone and artistic credibility.
Credibility is important in a collection that talks about issues so diverse as poetic expectation (“Crown for a Natural Disaster”) and mourning (“Half-Changed Trees and Other Things Aflame”). Readers must know they are in capable hands if they are taking such a ride. To this end, Smeltz employs raw heart in lines like:
I think about your health. Whatever it is, kick its ass.
to let readers know there is always something to the play in later pieces. Seeing the poet’s openness, readers are willing to risk the less stable paths such as:
…I’m a white tiger rug
I’ll be worn on the head of imperial thugs.
This heart also helps justify the often heavy, masculine end-rhymes throughout the book. Trusting the poet, readers understand these poems are rarely mere word play. Instead, they are reminders that rhyme is a manner of connecting dissimilar thoughts and images. Only with guts and brash conviction can a poet pull this off as well as Smeltz. Still, there are moments in which these poems don’t quite escape altogether the mawkishness that can follow rhyme. At times, the rhyme may get a little too conspicuous:
The dog eyes my breakfast though I bark, don’t beg!
I eye the fino, from flor to the dregs.
Though it always contributes to the tone of the more revelrous pieces, some readers might find the incessant rhyme harder to swallow. Still: poetry should be about taking risks and if a line is less effective for its sincerity and devotion to form, it should be applauded all the same. This sort of risk is underrepresented today and Smeltz wears it well.
As mentioned, this collection opens and closes with letters to Violi—first to him in life, then to him in death. That Imperial Bender is not a chronicle of the dying poet’s illness but an elated log of fever dreams; back seat lays; ruminations on poetry, loss, and love of all sorts, is a testament to the incredible capacity of life and the poet’s ability to render it. This book does not end with death, but the affirmation of the self as agent in this world despite an obvious finale. The poet is made up of all her influences, but she is ultimately part of something even larger and beyond these earthly empires. She is a post-colonial entity, with the wisdom and scope to respond to all the disparate forces that first charged her worldview.
The voice in Imperial Bender is an important part of the contemporary chorus. It shows the power of sincerity and a new way to risk oneself. There are stakes here worth paying attention to.
Imperial Bender is available from Typecast Publishing
John Dudek is an MFA candidate for poetry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.