Secret City: Poems by Katherine Smith
ISBN: 978-1-948692-90-8 PAPERBACK $18.95
ISBN: 978-1-948692-91-5 EBOOK $9.99
POETRY, 102 pp.
AUGUST 16, 2022
Secret City: Poems by Katherine Smith explores belonging and power through the eyes of children and adults, whether the relationships in question are to a family, to a religion, to a region or to a country. The imagery of the natural world weaves in and out of the dreams of a young Jewish girl brought to live with a Christian family in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II. A woman with a childhood of being bullied moves north only to find herself an authority figure, teaching students who are themselves outsiders marked for deportation. In the midst of confusion and ideology, where victim and perpetrator ceaselessly exchange roles, the voices in these poems search for a ground of belonging in the natural world, in serving others, and in the intimately textured language of poetry.
Cover art by Kathryn (with a y) Smith. She goes by Kat and is no relation to this author, Katherine Smith.
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT SECRET CITY:
Katherine Smith has always written with acute sensitivity to the beauties and sorrows of the world, yet in the poems of Secret City she reaches new and deeper registers of tender attentiveness. She is a noticer of the highest order, recording the minute and the momentous: “I like / how quiet the trees are, not to keep a secret / or to forget but because quiet is all they are.” Smith’s poems generate unforgettable connections between vision and experience, recognizing the contoured interiors of illness and alienation alongside the pleasures of a sizzling omelet while thinking of the blue and white chair where poems are written. The centerpiece of Secret City is a lyric sequence set in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during and after World War II, examining the life of a young Jewish girl searching for her way in the Southern Baptist Bible Belt. These new poems prove that Katherine Smith is a worthy heir to the legacies of Marilou Awiakta and George Scarbrough, the original Secret City master-poets.
—Jesse Graves, author of Merciful Days and Said-Songs: Essays on Poetry and Place
I have long admired Katherine Smith’s finely tuned, lush work and her discipline as a writer. Her vision continues to expand and deepen in this third collection, Secret City. Persecution, war, and its haunting aftermath come in various forms. But redemption is nigh in this work, the prayer of embrace and belonging answered by red sumac, willow, camellia, chestnut pony. The speakers are indeed born again: “I’m going to live twice, / once baptized in the Clinch River, // once with the wild geese that fly over Norris Dam / toward the Cumberland Plateau and never look down.”
Secret City is the perfect title for Katherine Smith’s latest collection of poems. Literally, it is the name for Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where atomic bombs were made in secret during World War II. This is the setting for many of her poems inspired by her relatives who immigrated there. Metaphorically, it stands for the life of the mind of this fine poet working at the height of her powers to create poems that lyrically and lovingly describe her journey from childhood as a (lonely) Jewish girl in the South into adulthood, all the while “… yearning for / the scent of a place, the song of a people.” A keen observer of the natural world, the poems are grounded by these exquisite images as she finds the language of identity at the various stages of her life. Ultimately, Smith finds peace with her history and her choices, stating in the final poem: “I am American, teacher, woman, Jew. In both worlds / I am born not of those who stayed behind / but of those who sailed away.”
—Marjory Wentworth, former Poet Laureate of South Carolina
Katherine Smith is a meticulous observer of the flora and fauna of the Tennessee Valley, allowing us to join her “…to breathe… to feast / at the common table of trees and mountains.” She deftly turns her description of trees into a commentary on human nature: “I learned to distinguish the American chestnut / from the oak chestnut by the serrated edge, / …I learned to recognize my kind by its serrated song.” With a stunning lyricism, Smith reminds us we cannot separate ourselves from the natural world we carry inside: “So too you have seen the ordinary oak / of your own heart. Its aorta branches / from the ventricle, beats / on the screen.”
—Nancy Naomi Carlson, author of An Infusion of Violets, associate editor, Tupelo Press
Katherine Smith’s poetry publications include Boulevard, North American Review, Cincinnati Review, Missouri Review, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and many other journals. Her first book, Argument By Design (Washington Writers’ Publishing House) appeared in 2003. Her second book of poems, Woman Alone on the Mountain (Iris Press), appeared in 2014. A Tennessee native, she works at Montgomery College in Maryland.