Book Review: Baltimore Sons

Baltimore Sons                                        By Dean Bartoli Smith
StillHouse Press, Fairfax, Virginia

128 pages

Baltimore Sons, a book of poems by Dean Bartoli Smith, is a masterpiece, blending memoir, history, detached observation, poignant vignettes, and craft to tell a story—not just about Baltimore Sons (and daughters), nor about black and white trauma-filled lives, but about the American Dream. All the trappings of American Life: sports (murder and baseball); home & family (dreams turned to mirages and nightmares; love, hatred, and indifference; heartache, and disillusionment); pride and prejudice; bravado, victory (never as sweet as we conjure it), and defeat; the mighty and the fallen (angels, demons)—and, most importantly, the indomitable will to live, against all odds—are explored. At 128 pages containing 59 poems, this is not a book to read in one sitting. Rather, it must be consumed and digested over time. It is a sweeping saga of the human condition and its dualistic nature.

Divided into two parts, encompassing the life of the author (youth, adulthood, and maturity), the book has several major recurring themes, though not all are listed as such: Guns and Violence, Home & Family, Heroes and Ordinary People, and Identity.

“Guns and Violence” are a jarring but essential theme, given Baltimore’s reputation as America’s Murder Capital. Of the book’s 59 poems, 21 are explicitly related to guns and violence, with 7 poems having a type of gun as the title (Six Shooters, Cap Guns, Sidearms, Howitzer, Shotgun, .357, and .45). However, it’s not just the types of guns, or their specific uses, that are described. Smith digs deeper into the psyche of the weapons and their users. From childhood—when almost every kid (boys and girls) had access to cap guns to live out their fantasies of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, and protection against marauders imaginary and real, to adulthood—where only a minority of mostly men transformed those fantasies into grim reality on the streets of Baltimore (and every other urban or rural center in the country), as they adopted the “protect our home/castle/freedom from every threat” as their mantra for survival, guns and violence are as American as apple pie. The question is, Why?

The short answer, gleaned from reading these 21 poems, is that Fear seems to be the prime motivator and John Lennon’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” the theme song. But this short answer doesn’t come close to the truth. In fact, Smith never explicitly makes this claim. These are poems, after all; it is left to the reader to interpret their merit and import.

The long answer goes back to the violent founding of America, enshrined in our collective American Dream mythology: brave men tamed and settled this wild country of heathen Indians, uncouth immigrants, and less-than-human slaves, building a nation of Enlightenment, Reason, and Ingenuity that, though proclaimed to be for all Free People, managed to exclude any, and all cultures, nationalities, and beliefs deemed to fall outside those parameters and metrics. All other values and traits that might follow (e.g., home, family, work; heroes, villains; angels, demons; ordinary people, and their characteristics or identity) begin with how “Free People” is defined.

In Smith’s world, “Home & Family,” arguably the second highest ideal of the American Dream, is neither safe nor secure. If Fear is the root of “guns and violence,” then Inadequacy is the root of “home & family”—an intergenerational, fundamentally human trait borne and mired in sin and shame. The duality of human nature (good/evil, angelic/profane) is brought to light. In 18 poems (some of which also are included in “Guns and Violence”), “home” is not a place but an ideal that never materializes. “Home” may be the house where your family lives, the property your father must defend, the safety of your mother’s presence, or the feeling you get when you look into your lover’s eyes. “Family” may include your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins; the basketball coach who took a liking to you, the waitress who fed and worried over you and your friends, the line cook you befriended, or your fellow fans at Memorial Stadium at the end of a winning season by your hometown baseball or football team. Home & Family is an elusive state of mind.

“Heroes and Ordinary People” may reside in a single person, as in the black World War II and Vietnam military heroes whose ultimate fates were decided not by what they achieved in war, but by the backlash and ignominy they suffered after they returned home to a bigoted America (Bowman, Lieutenant Fox, Something to Cool You Off). On the other hand, some ordinary people attain their heroic status at the end of their ordinary lives (Miss Mason, Cardboard Note).

In the end, it is the formation and shaping of one’s identity that is the core of this book, and the relationship between mother and child is its essence, enshrined in the poem Misericordia Blues.

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