Music or Honesty, Rod Smith, Roof, 2003
This book creates a scrambled, humorous impression of life by orbiting around the subject matter, but aiming for the center of implication via lyric and absurd line voicings and by creating an impression of a person's existence as an engager of creative processes. Leaving all that in and leaving a lot out. Creating a feeling of living and handling the words in a very deliberate proportion. The feelings emanating from Smith's work -- sympathy, humor, confusion, frustration, sadness etc., are surprisingly strong considering the degree of constructivist means being used. There is also something else here -- a need to bond with the reader and a strong intuitive principle crosshatching with the more systematic processes.
Confessional poetry ostensible attempts to bond with the reader and create a strong emotional current but can't succeed because it actually operates on a model of exploitation, exploitation of the writer's experience used as a means for exploiting a market of readers. Smith's poetry actually does bond with the reader and creates a strong emotional current, plus a good bit more, and does so on a model of liberation and fun. Confessional poets would do well to study this work.
Even the sections where it is clear that the majority of Smith's attention has gone into getting the vocabulary contour of the line right, with the feeling of a brushstroke of words, there is often a strong feeling that embedded in the word-arraignment what is being addressed is variations on conflict -- often internal states and tendencies coming into conflict with an unpleasant external social and political world.
In any given poem there are at least two or three different modalities which interact, often seamlessly or with deliberate use of the seams. One of these is an epigrammatic statement:
"everything can be blamed on you when you are poor."
or, in quoting Jackie Robinson:
"a life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives"
"oblivion is prefigured in any emotional state"
Smith is capable of intense hilariousness without ever breaking down into an overly simplified anti-intellectual infantilism.
"Jesus was a sausage"
"no two colossal heads are alike"
"poems about seeing a bear
outside your cabin
don't really work for me. "
There are sometimes short funny insider jokes.
"In a debatable tureen, in nodal space, 37 squirrels childishly ignorant of science storm the gates of St. Mark's Place"
Whatever else Smith is doing, and there are almost always interestingly interacting simultaneous layers and processes in this poetry, there always seems to be at least on toe skimming the surface of a quasi-Zen stream of thought.
The realization of thusness
paint is not food
There are many moments of unflinching, generous absurdity meant to crack the reader up. This will be juxtaposed quickly with mournful voicings, creating an emotionally complex and unpredictable poetic affect-space.
The frustrations and contradictions of communication and thought are engaged sideways and the result is an amusing, curious warmth of cognitive dissonance.
In one section, Smith uses the Mary Tyler More show as denotatively clear direct political commentary.
Smith can mix totally unique modes -- Delius meets Space Ghost for instance.
There are Ginsburg-like rapture/visionary voicings.
"the inner fire's grate"
Jerry G: Here the voicing flow increases in forward momentum, and the feeling of an argument being developed resonates from the poem. The exploration of conflicts deepens here -- the conflict between inner states, needs, what we wish for, and actual social facts we live within, the conflicts between smaller social groups and what is happening in larger political systems…
The weak notes in this book are minor, and few. A few collaborations that don't gel and can't quite see past the next line (though one with Jean Donnelly works). Also some repetition of lines that don't do much that the original line didn't already do. Mostly, though, this is strong work edited carefully into energetically and thematically coherent sections.
If you listed the modes Smith is capable of flipping through it might look something like this:
Direct epigrammatic thought, joke, diversion, indirect emotional insight, opporance, absurdity, rearrangement, backwardly cohering association, magnetic movement toward seriousness diverted and repolarized with humor, benevolent lyric mind-fuck, silliness, absurdity, friendly inscrutable word glob, one-line takes on literary and artistic history….
In a work where indeterminacy is so clearly a value, one of the things that is remarkable is that such a variety of modalities are so interestingly interrelated and joined, brought into a kind of coherence in other words. This modal quality leads me to think that Smith could be considered a new kind of jazz poet, one whose processes reflect the processes operating in more adventurously improvised Jazz musics.
The stylistic forward momentum of the prose is strong. It would be fascinating to see a whole book in the mode of these short prose sections.
There is a consistent sense of lyrical protest, which will be followed by protest of one's own mental environment.
"it is a great annoyance to have so many wishes"
Followed by a protest of one's own received literary history or amusing light-hearted mockery of one's own immediate group.
Followed by direct, unironic statement.
as the navigator fell overboard
in the memory of
the roll of flame
the soft regimes
played softly &
even the smallest lie
in its revolutions
mute the bit
agasp & tense
beneath our calm
song of death
This factor of protest and rebellion is also operating over several modalities, and, along with the human warmth of this poetry, is probably a key factor in how it works. One protest is against the control of language, of course, the "brooding mercenary definitions" as well as the deeper problem that this problem is a part of -- the systematic institutional control of categories of thought and hence potentialities of life. The internalizations of this process and the ability of the imagination to respond with alternate possibilities and propositions on both a personal and collective level are at the center of where this poetry is pointing.