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.”
Such sweet utopia is not a destination the poem seems likely to reach. It leaves off instead with a sustained sensation: “the dreamstate,/the housed part//the closed inside then//a kind of waiting always.” This sense of suspension within a larger structure, and of time passing through us but somehow without us, is a signal feeling of the book, modulating a strain of romanticism through a more fragmented perspective. As a description of modern life, it seems just right.
Thus it is that ideas and images circulate, sometimes arriving at their destinations pages later, at which point you realize you were waiting for it to happen all along (“a kind of waiting always” indeed). The second long section, “The Spider Poems,” equally defers and returns, extending its dreamlike images across yet another figure for the book’s logic: “Spiders have needs of webbing,” one poem points out. Webs, architecture and so on; it’s a network of networks (indeed, the “network” is mentioned as well) in which any individual chunk is equally a transfer, receiving and relaying thoughts and feelings throughout the whole structure. The motion from one part to another, the sensation of finding shapes within the whole, of submerged connectedness: these make the matter of the book. In that regard the book’s structure is very much like the author’s daily existence. It’s a form of life.
This sort of “relationality” is often found to be postmodern, which may be to say only that Smith is of his time. But Deed‘s timeliness should not be confused with the sublime whir of the digital frontier. Sometimes a web is just a web. Smith’s tone, moreover, is unique among his contemporaries. He is often poised discomfortingly and achingly between emotional immediacy and wiseass. As one page of “The Spider Poems” reads, in its entirety, “Some of the spiders are not called anything because they are happy./This is my new style. How do you like it?/It has caused me great personal anguish.” It’s uncertain how to take this last line, seemingly exaggerated and likely ironic. Certainly the book includes other such gestures, as in one poem composed only of a Bob Dylan quotation with the pronoun changed, given the quippy title “Barnes & Chernobyl.” But the book has its great personal anguish too, including a breathtakingly brief invocation of the death of a son in a car crash: “There is some reason to believe/he was trying to miss a deer.” The flatness of the tone lets it slide in all the more swiftly; after that, a pain comes.
All of which is to say, the matter of emotion and idea in the book is hard to discern in any given instance, verse, poem. Rather, one must have the patience to locate oneself within the larger structure; only then do passages take on their fullest resonance. No particular moment sets the tone or determines the meaning; there’s no single focus. One late poem offers an image of “aeons/of foci–tunable, coherent,/immeasurable”; this is perhaps the closest Smith comes to saying the name of his poetic sensibility.
There is a kind of order, but no one is in charge. No overarching figure organizes everything beneath it; no boss concept impedes the leap of sensation and feeling from station to station. This allows a greater sense of mobility and greater intensities at each point: “Each spider/is a clump of spider longings & thrills.” Crude, but exciting; sign me up.
But isn’t this just an alibi for chaos? Maybe so. In imagining our way back to social reality, anarchy may be a more useful concept than chaos. Not the black-masked caricature, or libertarianism with delusions of grandeur, but the dream of a social life without top-down rules and marching orders. Instead, a life where everyone is equally a point within a community, within the give and take of the great circulation. By now this should sound familiar. This is the book and the life equally. “If the house is just poetry,” Smith writes, “we’re in trouble.”
Anarchism, famously, is a politics of desire–and a poetic one at that. “There is only one man who has the right to be an anarchist,” said Stéphane Mallarmé. “Me, the Poet, because I alone create a product that society does not want, in exchange for which society does not give me enough to live on.” The logic of revolutionary desire haunts Deed‘s final poem, the five-line “pour le CGT.” The title’s reference is to France’s leading trade union–la Confédération Générale du Travail, which traded the insurrectionary spirit of 1968 for a modest wage increase. It reads in full: “We work too hard./We’re too tired/To fall in love./Therefore we must/Overthrow the government.” It is not a poem that wants explication; it’s clear enough, and by now the book has seduced us into taking such suggestions seriously, even as we conjure a wry grin. Perhaps it only bears recalling the complaint that much of today’s most compelling poetry requires a lot of effort to read: shouldn’t it be more accessible? There are many fine answers to this conundrum, but perhaps Smith’s logic is best: if we’re too tired to read such poetry… It is a vision, one might say, not of putting poetry in the service of revolution but revolution in the service of poetry, so that we are, all of us, left to read and write and love as we like, to be, each of us, a clump of longings and thrills of the intensest kind.