Katherine Smith‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals and reviews, among them Shenandoah, Fiction International, Poetry, The Southern Review, Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Gargoyle, The Baltimore Review, Poems and Plays, and The Louisville Review. Her first book, Argument by Design, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Poetry Prize and appeared in 2003. A Tennessean, she currently teaches at Montgomery College in Germantown, Maryland and serves as poetry editor for The Potomac Review.
Smith’s poem “Provide” was published in the Winter 2009-10 edition of Ploughshares, guest edited by Tony Hoagland. View the Winter 2009-10 issue.
An excerpt from “Provide”:
Midwinter provides another meaning,
by which I mean that other, more elusive, pleasure
I know when I see, first, a lone brown mare fetlock deep in mud
ripping pale green alfalfa from a bale
After the jump, Smith shares how the work of Robert Frost has bewitched and bewildered her.
One of my least favorite poems in the English language is Robert Frost’s “Provide, Provide.” This poem has always baffled me, from the cruelty of its opening lines
The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag
through the bitter advice at the center of the poem’s hard heart
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone
to the cynical last lines. Elegant in the economy of its language and merciless in its statement of the poet’s emotional reality, the poem strikes me as an almost toxic blend of eloquence and machismo.
Still, there’s that haunting tone, masterfully balanced on a razor’s edge of earnestness and irony. The end of “Provide, Provide” eludes me in a way I have always pondered. Does the poet really believe that it is “better to go down dignified with boughten friendship at your side than none at all”? For all its bright and bitter conviction, the poem finally shades into chiaroscuro, ambiguity, mystery.
I am fascinated by Frost’s control of tone and economy of language. In my own poem “Provide” I tried–on a much more humble scale than Frost’s–to achieve the same control of tone in a very short poem, to explore sexual desire and solitude. I did not want the poem to be likable. And I wanted the end to sound full of conviction, while merging into shadow.