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Rod Smith
reviewed by Matthew M. Gagnon
94pp. University of Iowa Press. US$16. 1587296195 paper

This review is about 5 printed pages long. It is copyright © Matthew M. Gagnon and Jacket magazine 2008. You can read Lawrence Giffin’s review: Political Topology in Contemporary North American Poetry: Rod Smith’s «Deed» in this issue of Jacket.

“If the house is just poetry we’re in trouble”


Rod Smith doesn’t have a classroom. He doesn’t have a lab in which to test the pleasures of poetry, to run a scalpel across the words “good house” to see what it’s made of. By all measure, Smith doesn’t need either of these environments mediated by the monies of the private sector; his terrain is carved from the discourses humming inside America’s body politic, where the public and private spheres of disclosure and dialogue appear an unstructured exchange of disparate interests. It is a real struggle to find shapeliness to the world, to offer its de-creation as post-foundational. Smith’s weapon of choice is the offhand counterpunch, the linguistic charades of orphanhood lisping their way through the generational tyranny of a faux democracy on the cusp of implosion.

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While Smith’s fourth book of poems may “refascinate” us to our variegated pouch of social injury, we are not alone in believing that to witness a politics run by a totality of market shares, is to distemper a suspicion to claims to ownership. The rogue tact of Deed attempts to repossess our cognitive processes onto the virtual playing field of a social contract where the spectacle is the precise image of decay. If our national theorem is rooted in the American deed as agreement, Smith is broadcasting his form of signage onto the dissonance of the real as the new century’s verbal guerilla warfare.


The architecture of Deed is heterogeneous in its structure, utilizing the short lyric and serial poem to flout the reader’s sense of where the beginning begins, and the ending ends. This explicit complication of origins pivots around a syntax that challenges the performance of meaning on the page, as it indicates a refusal to provide a narrative that we can safely assimilate into our private brainpans.


“The Good House,” previously published as a chapbook by Spectacular Books in 2001, is reprinted as the opening sequence of poems. The seriality of these poems makes it almost impossible to encapsulate by quotation, but on the other hand, the poems are not bound to provide a sense of ease, as the house in question is a multifarious “modus operandi” signifying a range of concerns without an organization of bullet-points to scar the layers of in-voiced intonations. Beginning with two poems acting as a prelude to the longer sequences of “The Good House,” Smith writes:


the egret says
the house, it is something to eat or sunlight, the egret
thinks, the house, it wills, is a subcanvas I can scribble, the egret moves
or is awake, loving the familiar solution of loving, this explains
                the egret to the egret in the house (3)


The preliminary repetition of “egret” and “house” articulates discordance in thought, creating a tonality of indeterminacy. This gesture allows the syntax to function as a meaning generator, relying less on individual words or phrases, and more on the clipped utterance parlaying the denotations of the repetitive words, and frequency of the stuttered saying. Both nouns can be read as mutually exclusive and entwined in a systematic relationship; initiates that oil the reader for a ride through the house as common residence and as a subterranean enclave of assembly. The productive forces inhabiting the house are as personal as they are impersonal, gendered as not. However, the “egret” of the prelude disappears until the final poem of the series, foregrounding its disappearance.


At a base level, the house is a site of mediated constructedness, whose decentering of values is transfigured into a palimpsest of radically innate and synthetic materials written onto and over each other. This kind of accumulation pronounces an erotics of substantive awareness that to dwell in a house is as much to be housed by the architecture, whatever its materials consist of. Whether we can read this as metaphor for the power relations inherent in our social hierarchy, as well as those fetishistic relations we bestow upon objects, can only be determined by taking a relative distance from that which we attempt to name as the absolute. Take for instance:


     ‘power’ — we think
we house, actually we are housed

& the equal quiet shakes in us (17)


And within the house’s “bouquet of dispersion” we read


The beauty of the house —
it is quite a spectacle,
such are its lies, implied
taut sexual learnings
& severed territorialities —
addictions, reductions.
incoordinations, blue-blank
astral tempts done-up for
gone-off, diming the ire
of penance — a beam or
gang lanced — thin again
& blue where you, & a tortoise,
find those that would be new. (31)


The former passage takes on the gnosis of the known in relation to the house, which becomes activated as a verb. The free-floating word “power” becomes an internalization, a willful motion of self-control over, perhaps, our sense of nationality and ethnicity. To live in an alien culture cannot fit into our systems of understanding conceived through the language of the tribe. But it is this particular misrecognition that Smith foregrounds: the language of the tribe is illusory. Therefore, the concept of home as a shelter, and who shelters whom, becomes an issue whose territory releases us from the immediacy of contact. Smith writes: “the good / house must be rebuilt / carefully. The good house / is in conflict.”


Unwittingly, we are subject, bound to the competing ideologies framed from a variety of angles, each with their basis of logic. This is to say that “The Good House” finds its trajectory through the provisional, where self and other regard intimacy as a duration, equally “in history” as  “de-housed” by a “periodic collapse” of stable relations and meaning. The latter passage invigorates these multiple tones by undermining our sense of continuity in favor of imperative statements and seemingly disembodied phrases aurally riotous in their descent onto a sliding scale of social value. Smith’s house is in a continual process of inventorying its contents, as if thinking and becoming weren’t parceled actions, but movements toward speaking the house as a site, where the personal and political share quarters and partake of their own sonic dialectic.


Smith’s poems in Deed are projective. Their social vigilance and nets of meaning are peripatetic, visually challenging one’s reception of the work when facing the text. “The Spider Poems” weave a web of emotional complexity similar to “The Good House,” but without the deadpan seriousness. Instead, Smith explores the comic reversal of roles between arachnid and human agency, by conjuring up a den of spiders who are infantile and as much a part of the perceived totality of nationhood. In a similar manner of exploration as “The Good House” Smith writes:


Spiders have needs of webbing.

If you are a network you are improperly loaded. (51)


The “webbing” of this passage also deals with notions of shelter, but immediately questions the network through which this shelter is achieved. If webbing is a network, an architecture of angles, inhabitations, and disclosures, Smith proceeds through negation, implying that the structure of the network is “loaded,” but unwieldy in its surfeit.


Indeed, it is the surfeit of the marketplace gone global that threatens or redirects the idea of community. From the series of individually titled lyric poems “The Given,” “Poem,” stands out as a brief fix of ironic expressionism that exhibits a Frank O’Hara like spontaneity. Smith has “sacred // dumb guys // standing in the fake world // flipping out.” The straightforward language, as well as the opposition between “sacred” and “dumb,” provokes a ground where ideas of the deed as a social contract, are placed in the hands of an artificial construct. It’s just that the emphasis on reality falls onto the barons of politics and industry who for all intents and purposes, run the world with an iron fist. The would-be pathos of this poem is belied by the matter of fact ness that achieves a near perfect pitch despite the utterance clothed in brevity.


In “Homage To Homage To Creeley,” an ode to Jack Spicer’s “Homage To Creeley,” Smith performs a valuable renegotiation of Spicer’s original form: a short lyric followed by a line running horizontally across the page followed by lines set as prose. Form as aesthetic effect is eschewed by Smith for a return to a formalism that engages with a dialectics that is demanded by Spicer’s formulation. This is less an anachronistic re-imagining than a politics of form, where the composition becomes a place in which the architecture supports forms of rhetorical questioning: “I don’t know if this is about the weather. / Weather is something that’s ‘outside.’ / I love you.” The transference from self-doubt to imagining an “outside” reading of events, also throws into question authorial intent and the possibility of a truly expressive lyric modality. It’s originally the desire for personal expression, held by poetic tradition, that inevitably comes to spar with the postmodern sensibility towards a poetics of openness, of participatory meaning.


Smith’s employment of multiple aesthetic forms and rock solid acumen interrogates the polis on the hill and performs a feat where “mist is similar to certainty. alas / & discover, a calming / earlier / half-lit / committed quitter bottoms out on the mad grub.” His characteristic noun couplings are radioactive conglomerates injecting a “certain amount of light” onto our global fuse box set to combust. However, Smith’s erudition is never brought to the fore for the sake of showiness, nor is his radical intelligence or linguistic play pulling the wool over your eyes. The torque that language undergoes through Smith’s care has been compared to the stand-up comedian, Stephen Wright, whose brilliant arrest of anti-logic, can be characterized as a subversive gesture to withstand the “situation we’re now in as Americans.” Deed substantiates Smith’s role as a poet on the forefront of a community of poets writing out of a commitment to social critique. While Smith’s poems sometimes border on the hermetic, their grasp of modern and post-World War II American poetry chisels a place among a range of challenging contemporary writing.

Matthew M. Gagnon

Matthew M. Gagnon

Matthew M. Gagnon grew up in northeastern Massachusetts and has since lived in Vermont, Colorado, and western Massachusetts. He is currently a student at the University of Massachusetts MFA Program for Poets & Writers in Amherst. His reviews can be found at Octopus Magazine and CutBank Reviews.

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