By traditional standards, Matt Smythe is as manly as it gets. If he wasn’t a devoted father, he could live alone in a cabin in the woods or on a mountain. This comes not from a disdain for others, but from his insatiable desire to be constantly immersed in nature.
Smythe is a big-bearded army veteran and outdoor enthusiast. He pocketed some of the most dangerous game in North America, the mounts of which now adorn the walls of his home. But intertwined with his myriad masculine attributes is a sensitive and thoughtful side.
When he’s not teaching his sons how to make their own fishing lures or working on his turquoise 1967 Bronco, Smythe usually gets his pipe ready and puts his thoughts to paper. It was at the intersection of these seemingly contradictory aspects of Smythe’s personality that his next collection of poetry was born. He wrote for a litany of outdoor journalsbut his first book – well titled One man review – discusses what it means to be a man in the modern age.
The collection begins with the haunting”Deal,” which weaves themes of parenthood, sobriety and death into a story that sets the tone for Smythe’s dark and brooding musings on masculinity. After the aperitif, the book dives into its first section: Blood & Service.
It begins with an ode to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where Smythe was raised, then moves on to a short poem titled “To print” which captures the beginning of Smythe’s love for the woods and waters of his home.
“In me was an avid curiosity for the water, for the outdoors, / for the unexplored places of backcountry birds, animals and fish where I felt hidden.”
Smythe’s love for water flows in the following poem, “Spring Race to the Cemetery,” where he describes catching fish with his bare hands. His description of the unorthodox method of fishing puts the reader inside the mind of a child, nervously groping along the dark creek bottom in search of a freshwater leviathan to grab.
The poems rush at the start of the first section like water from Cemetery Spring Run, then crash over Smythe’s transition from boyhood to manhood. His initial idea of what it means to be a man comes from a mixture of the military and his father – a father who at one point advised Smythe that “if I ever had to fight, I should fight.” as if my life depended on it. – fight like the other guy has my death in mind.
His father’s example of masculinity comes through the pages as gentle and nurturing, yet also fiercely protective.
“Dad took the tire iron and the conscience of one and part of the nose of the other – spat it out like tobacco in the dust of the parking lot,” Smythe writes of his father defending a drunk friend in”Three ways to look at my father.
But it is in the final poems of the collection, which focus on his own role as a father, that Smythe’s understanding of manhood comes across as clear as the icy water of a mountain stream. Moments of sharing his love of nature with his children reveal that a man is the sum of all his life’s work. Smythe passes on the lessons he learned to his readers the same way he passed on the skills of an outdoorsman to his children.
Whether describing fights in a parking lot or the death of an army ranger in “The river did not cry, Smythe writes through mother nature’s green lens. The great outdoors shaped Smythe’s ideals of manhood even more than his family or military service. With beautiful homages to the women in his life, the blues and of course the natural world that dominated the course of his life, Smythe creates something akin to A river crosses it in poetic form.
One man review by Matt Smythe, Dead Reckoning Collective, 98 pages, $12. Available for pre-order now.
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