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Helsinki Drift

by Douglas Burnet Smith

Anyone who has ever traveled, especially into a country with a vastly different culture, knows that an exploration of their native poetry is essential. The next best approach is to read a book like Douglas Smith’s Helsinki Drift.

The 40 poems in Helsinki Drift read like well-crafted postcards, commenting on Smith’s ever-changing surroundings without lapsing into self-indulgence or judgment. With a sense of immediacy he writes: “I have to write this down quickly/before it hardens into memory.” This is a fear that all writers share, not the fear of forgetting, but the fear of corrupting the initial moment of inspiration by not recording it, leaving it until it’s “grown almost too dark to write.”

Smith changes locations as often as he changes style. His mordant sense of humour winds around his subjects – people, poetry, rivers, art, and architecture – with a poetic insight that can be either telescopic or extremely intimate. Jets are “like slugs,” coliseums can be lonely, and rain drops are “Stalin’s fists/smashing/through the glass.” Locations aside, there are many beautiful poems – some are full of grace and wonder, while others simply smell of the street’s piss, dust, and disillusionment.

Smith is at his best in the title poem. Here his use of couplets, internal modulation, rhyme, enjambment, and repetition create a slide-show rhythm that flows and oscillates like the accents, oceans, butterflies, and violins he writes about. And like the last stanza in the collection’s last poem, “Night Trail, Home: Anti-Title Haiku,” “Helsinki Drift” ends with a “shift to midnight” – the time when both travelers and poets are left in the dark to contemplate the rapture or futility of their existence.