Conceptual poetry is rule-bound. Smith’s poem is based not on a rule but a single starting point: repeat a question and see what happens. The two approaches have the repurposing of digital text in common, but their effects are so different that when you put them side by side they cover an amazing amount of artistic territory with very little repetition.
The iterative rhythm of Smith’s “What’s the Deal” moves like a flip book, quickly going from questions about the nature of Madonna to the nature of hydrogen to Grape Nuts and then to "the bright light you see before dying." There are few answers, though one of the most striking is: “The menace of wind turbines,” evoking the feeling of some frightening but sustainable zero-carbon future.
The poem has an inexorable forward momentum. Once you start reading you don’t want to put it down. The feel of it goes from delightful to unnerving and back again.
What's the deal with Sanka?
(this is a cute way
of telling your Barista 'thank you')
I saw some graphic of a black hole
The affect of the questions ranges from imploring to incredulous to frustrated, a distorted reflective surface of multiple selves in which the shifting image of the author is always present. The answer that often seems most likely is “I don’t know exactly.”
“What’s the Deal” is packed with details, details not from the poet’s life, but from other people’s lives. These are built into a whirring kinetic swirl -- interlocking lines harmonized (and de-harmonized) with multiple voices that Smith will then bring to a dead halt by dropping a perfect Steven Wright-like Zen stone into the whole thing:
The socks / appear never / to have / been worn / so the condition is / immaculate"
After a few pages “What’s the Deal” begins to glow with the extrapolated resonance of millions of individual human plots. How do things turn out? Do we find out where the hundreds of rubber duckies came from that inexplicably showed up across the Sunnyvale campus? Who is packing the truck and moving to LA? What's buried behind all these diners?