“John Smith in Virginia,” a poem by Ron Smith.

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John Smith.

“This Smith, always shouting,

cursing, scribbling, boasting . . . Where is,

the men grumble, the gold?”

BROAD STREET invites you to enjoy this poem from our “Maps & Legends” issue. It’s presented here as a broadside to download and print out — or you can scroll past and read the whole poem in plain text.

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John Smith in Virginia

for Cliff Dickinson

In two hundred years it would become

the island they were ordered to settle,

that deep-water peninsula swarming

with death.

At Point Comfort they hailed,

thus christened, “The James!”

Captain Newport’s letters sing

the beauties and the bounties of this

fair land, one-third

of the continent their Virginia, one-third

of the men gentle, soft handed. And

then there’s this Smith, no

gentleman, the Big Mouth

their documents reveal

as one of their leaders. Sheesh. He grins

like a wolf as they take off the shackles.

In Holland he’d fought the Spaniard,

in Transylvania, the Turk (he said),

had taken three turbaned heads

and a coat of arms. At the Globe,

Hamlet fretted about being,

while was Smith all over the globe

furiously becoming. Tedious,

all that beheading, he yawns, then

tells them of the Ottoman princess,

beautiful, of course, who had fallen

for him and saved his

blah blah blah. Indian, Ottoman, severed heads,

maidens — seen one, seen ’em all.

So, after five months Atlanticking, they

chop pines, build huts, and, of course,

a church. This Smith, always shouting,

cursing, scribbling, boasting . . . Where is,

the men grumble, the gold?

Newport sails blithely

away, two of three ships stuffed with sassafras

for London’s syphilis. (New World give it us,

New World damn well cure it, eh?)

A year later Newport finds thirty-eight souls,

and those starving. “Let us pray,” he says,

and down go the skeletons on their swollen knees.

Indians, their only hope for help, attack. Newport

sails away — so Smith gets down to work,

dickers with Powhatan, gets saved by

a (yawn) princess not far from Richmond —

See the ghostly towers shimmering in the future! —

disciplines the men

to mutiny with six-hour shifts, this crowd

of Maynard G. Krebses shouting Work?!

Some grow calluses, all resentments.

They construct, let us say, our first (pitiful) Pentagon.

For their constant streams of glowing lies,

Smith and Newport earn more and more

micromanagement: Find a northwest passage,

find the Roanoke Islanders, find, by God,

some gold. Oh, and put this crown on

Powhatan’s greasy head, wrap him

in this scarlet cloak. Or, just

kill him and find another. And don’t forget

to convert the savages.

When someone tries

to blow off his balls, Smith sees his chance.

Powder burns want London medicos,

he says and off, sarcastically, he sails.


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Ron Smith recently served as the Poet Laureate of Virginia, and he is the Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond.

His books are Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, Moon Road, Its Ghostly Workshop, and The Humility of the Brutes.


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