Deed is the fourth full-length collection of poetry from Rod Smith, who has published numerous chapbooks and released a poetry CD as well, Fear the Sky. He edits the journal Aerial and publishes the essential poetry press Edge Books. He is a wryly intense presence in the blooming Washington, DC, poetry scene, where his daredevil performances help set a tone welcoming of both experimentation and fun: two great tastes that go great together, all too infrequently. He manages Bridge Street Books in Georgetown, which features (by now you will not be surprised to learn) a renowned reading series and one of the nation’s most seductive poetry shelves.
It’s a life lived in poetry, but also one through which poetry lives. In that stratum between the many MFA programs and the few po-biz celebs–the layer of homemade poetic communities local and distributed–Smith’s involvement is not the rule, but neither is it the exception. It’s a way of being, of which Smith is exemplary: a transfer in the complex of circuits through which much poetry flows. If the social existence of poetry were the London Tube, Smith would be Paddington Station.
It may thus be initially surprising that Smith’s poetry can tend toward the hermetic: an ironic point but not an irrelevant one. His is not the poetry of the social whirl, of artists and their headlong engagements, in the manner of Frank O’Hara; even less is it Whitman’s public embrace. Though it can be quite personable and indeed charming (“Of course I want you for your mind/body problem,” he once wrote, a funny philosophical pickup line), Smith’s poetry rarely offers a chatty or populist style. In this he resembles an admired forebear, Robert Creeley, whose Selected Letters he is co-editing. The poetry does not come out to greet you. I am not quite sure what to make, for example, of the poem opening “Nothing believes Korea.” I like the sound of that and feel like I might be about to understand something. By the next line, “Nothing turns into it, & leaves your salt there,” I am feeling a little lost, and not in a Paddington Station kind of way.
And yet this differential between daily life and poetic style–between the social and the aesthetic–is more superficial than it first appears. For it is equally the case with Smith that the two things map onto each other. They don’t share content but structure, a logic of how parts go together. After all, we shouldn’t necessarily expect an economist to write poems about life at the hedge fund office. It would make as much sense to expect poems structured like economic systems. Experience and literature have many ways of informing each other.
This, I think, is a way to understand Rod Smith’s poems, in Deed and elsewhere: not as descriptions of social life but as an attempt to arrange thoughts and phrases, and the connections among them, so that meaning and sensation travel and shift as they might in daily life–especially if one’s daily life is very much interconnected with a broad community.
Deed knows this perfectly well and goes about finding ways to figure this problem. The long first section, “The Good House,” offers architecture as a metaphor for parts and whole, and their order: “The good houses the parts,” begins the title poem, shortly revisiting this as “The good part of the house/is where something leaves/alone the light that it lattice/the red.” This is lovely and a bit archaic; does the optic lushness and syncopation summon up Gerard Manley Hopkins? But the poem, as one might expect of a long constructivist poem, has other tones, differently appealing. “This reverie noodles the lovely house/like the pleasure of not reading/a badly written headline,” he offers later, sounding a bit like John Ashbery, filled with surprises that don’t disturb but deepen the afternoon calm. Earlier, the poem hoped “to love the one one loves/& be loved/in a good house/for a long time.”