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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Tom Hibbard reviews

The Good House, by Rod Smith

Spectacular Books, New York 2001, 36 pp, saddle-stitched. Hand-printed covers by David Larsen, $6. Available from Katherine Lederer at 309 Kingsclear Court, Las Vegas, NV 89145, USA
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let’s say
the word of the egret
is thumb, let’s say thumb

Let’s say generations overlap. Let’s say Kerouac of the Beat Generation died several years before Pound of the much earlier Lost Generation. The best generation names have been bestowed by critics pronouncing condemnation: ‘Impressionists,’ ‘Fauves’ (beasts), ‘lost’ generation. Somewhat confusing and concurrent were the ‘Me,’ the ‘Now’ and the ‘Love’ generations. I don’t know of any attempt to give a name to current writers. This could be some sort of negligence. Perhaps something appropriate might come from science — the Fusion Generation or the Black Hole Generation.
      Black holes are a complicated phenomenon. They aren’t really holes but objects that because of density and gravity look like emptiness. Their light is darkness. They do not reflect light but capture it and reflect light’s absence.
      Rod Smith’s excellent, exciting new book, booklet, chapbook, The Good House, has a complicated nature that gives its light in an unusual manner. Perhaps his previous book, In Memory of My Theories, fits this idea more precisely. The Good House is more compact, livelier, more straightforward, each line jumping from its surface but within careful limits, not straying, falling back.
      More to the point is this:  The Good House is masterfully fashioned so that its meaning appears three-dimensional. It doesn’t have a meaning in a standard, stop-and-go type sense. Its meaning is existence. It hangs in a space that it creates, perfectly shaped, like a celestial fruit, like an etiological cloud — like the etiological cloud because it is self-made, self-describing, alone. It resembles an ‘object’ exhibited in an art museum, a grass-and-mud christmas ornament with a porthole. It has no boisterous cheering section or accepted, assured frame of reference. It remains anonymous, like undiscovered stars and planets, like houses down the street. It doesn’t merely say what is a good house; it shows what is a good house. It doesn’t give off light but uses light to give itself substance.
      The Good House could imply good government, good person, good garage, good liquor store — good anything. Its poetry throughout attempts to sketch a definition of the quality ‘good’:

opulence isn’t allowed, so to
form is to erase what’s not
gradual and new


becomes blatant in its strength
& is destroyed, the good
house must be rebuilt
carefully. The good house
is in conflict.


The natural laws & the longing
of the house — its hero variants
stalk the vestibules
like cormorants, seeking
new skills

Many things happen in life. These need to be recorded, remembered. Many troubles need to be taken care of, understood, studied, endured. This is not a new house, an avoidance but a good house, a lived-in house. ‘The good was an upkeep/ It was a perilous upkeep’ This is a house simultaneously built by and for life.
      The book gains an added dimension because its idea of house and its use of words are interchangeable. ‘The house seems/ to be a verb though it dislikes/ the term “housing”.’ The book could be a parable about contemporary poetry. It has a self-consciousness. The first two pages form something like a preamble centering on the striking, seemingly unrelated image of an ‘egret,’ a symbol of exclusion. The contrast of these two archetypal images, egret and house, give the book a primeval depth, like a collage. Life begins by stumbling onto an unfamiliar landscape about which at first nothing is known. In what region is this house located? Is it a house that gracefully flies over the horizon, like Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz ? Egret magically transforms into House, as the ‘unwakened’ mind transforms into a poetic mind.
      Postmodernism — Robert Lowell, Berryman, Jarrell, and many others — gained stature and legitimacy from academia — translations, scholarship, hard cover editions, NEA grants, sabbaticals and so on. I think a book like Joseph Brodsky’s To Urania is based approximately on the idea that poetry equals erudition.
      In contrast, today’s budding poets might seem insignificant and pointless, punch-drunk and undirected about content, style, identity. The Good House is not professorial. It is a twenty-three or four page pamphlet, seductivly designed by Spectacular Books in New York. It is a small press project, folded in half, its cover made from something like tar paper, more handed around than sold in bookstores. One might ask into what school does it fit. What connection does it have to the author’s ‘oeuvre’? How much did the author earn from it? One might disparage such a drop in the bucket of having any value at all.
      The answer to this is that, with no contrived credibility from outside, such works of art must try much harder to have a value within. They must speak for themselves. I don’t say that today’s poets have no frame of reference at all. An astronaut’s step into space might be comparable, putting him or her into an enormously new context, where the minutest, previously taken for granted thing, a swing of the foot, a shaving razor, becomes adventurous.

when we lock the door
things float around awhile

This independence of content affects the writing style. It makes it more wary, terse, subtle, uncertain, less genial and rhetorical. The writing has to really search for what it is saying, for accuracy and truth. As Smith shows us, it can cause it to suffer lapses, of annoyance, of self-justification, as when in the middle of longer sections he starts to use rhyme.

Go inside, good house
& do not clone, do not
reconcile, rather groan —
for what is good hurts too.

Lack of name, lack of context make the poet look for bigger verbal payoffs, unattracted to false modesty. In my view, these make the poet see and think more clearly and more responsibly, free from moral aberrations.  Small press is more viable than academic or commercial press in terms of poetry, in terms of radical originality, in terms of being able to say what it wants to say. This is the whole problem with art, that its effects can hardly be felt, like the little blips recorded by radio telescopes that represent immeasurable interstellar explosions. The only respectability is that, in terms of restoring the integrity of society, nothing else is as important. Small press is the source of society’s health. Saying this itself is difficult; it seems preposterous.
      Though the writing in this book does have an aspect of mystery, it is also uncomplicated. It is quickly written, taut. But its many pages, many strophes add up to a lot of thought, a lot of plain musing on what is the nature of constructivness, what constitutes native strength of construction, what is the ethical strength that translates into physical and social strength. In truth the value of this book is the directness of its thought. (As exemplified in its simple and excellent title.) It becomes rhetorical and, I think, could successfully be read verbatim to a live audience.
      So much is said, in fact, that a reader might begin to fear for this house, whether its structure isn’t exposed and vulnerable to, perhaps, some lurking house dragon in the weeds that doesn’t like good houses and wants to see only bad houses remain standing. But our fears are little, while the good house is large. Not a house dragon but the egrets return as invariably they do.

the egrets have come back
to the good hut — the egrets
hasten our retreat, peel
apart the tempting, stolid,
spare, inept grace

Jacket 18 — August 2002  Contents page
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