[This post is a continuation of two earlier ones on Jessica Smith's book Organic Furniture Cellar.]
Part III: The Poems
As the generations of structuralist and post-structuralist waves break over the shore of post-War American culture, the text itself has become increasingly irrelevant as well. Cultural criticism, which purports to trump mere aesthetic objects, taunting their probable audiences, dissecting their assumed deficiencies, and weaving ever more complex webs of ratiocination and dialectical machination, now bids to become the repository of a dissolving fabric of meaning itself, in a grand end-game of multiple interpretations, incestuous cross-fertilizations of mediated, relativist exchange. As the text recedes into impertinence, exegesis replaces art; and justifications and analyses of content and form supersede composition as the very aim of literary enterprise.
Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Jessica Smith graduated from SUNY Buffalo in English and Language Theory (studying under Charles Bernstein), then spending time in Northern Europe for two years, ultimately earning a Master's Degree with a thesis entitled Sonic Territories: Deleuze and the Politics of Sound in Kafka and Duras. Currently she is studying library science while teaching writing at her Alma Mater.
Smith's whole orientation, then, has been inside the academic sphere, where the meanings and functions of texts derive primarily from what can be expressed about them--their commodity-existence, their value as objects for description and de-construction--rather than through their use as texts for consumption as pure art; under the decadent sophistication of the contemporary graduate workshop system, where budding writers and artists are taught to master models of performance and style, honing their careerist skills in an increasingly crowded and competitive professional market-place. These twin trends--the hyper-critical inflation of textual assessment, and the alienation of the writer from her probable audience--has created a hybrid artist-type, committed to a narrowly defined profile of avant garde textual eccentricity completely divorced from a probable audience, with a relentless dedication to self-promotion along purely theoretical lines. In other words, a writer devoted to the production of a text whose only purpose is its potential for the parasitism of analytic regard--its only raison d'etre.
Ms. Smith is the quintessential expression of this role model. Still only 31, she is anxious that we should know that she has won two poetry prizes, has had her work published in a number of obscure literary periodicals, that she has editied a poetry journal herself, has had some of her work set to music, runs a blog, twitters, has had her work "exhibited" in America and Europe, has had work translated into foreign languages, and edits a series of pamphlets and monographs, and assisted in the editing of a woman's broadzine. The resolute emphasis on a curriculum vitae, fraught with honors and deeds and recognitions, various and eclectic, is indicative not, however, of a precocious proficiency of talent, but of a naked ambition, to be seen and noticed, to impress and brag.
All of which serves to put one on immediate guard as to the actual nature of Smith's accomplishments as a writer. It is certainly one thing to build an academic career out of textual analysis and critical skill; but quite another to demonstrate a lyrical or formal genius in the production of specific, original works. There's an ironic disconnect between what she puts on the page, and the hemorrhage of explanation that flows down over the poetry, obscuring it, diluting it, and ultimately replacing it with extravagant claims for its formal achievement. After 7000 words of Forward, in which Plastic poetry is promulgated as the latest incarnation of High Late Modernism's marching procession of Greats, one might be forgiven for having exaggeratedly high expectations, for anticipating nothing less than a masterpiece, from its self-proclaimed Priestess of Liberation.
*Before addressing the poems proper, I should point out one error. In her Forward, Smith says "If you turn to the glossary of Swedish words in the back of Organic Furniture Cellar," --but there is no such glossary that I could find. Perhaps she originally intended to include one, but either forgot, or decided not to have one. Given that only a handful of the poems is written in foreign language (Swedish), my first impulse was to wonder why she included them at all--with or without a glossary. Why not simply translate them into English, instead of leaving them in, unreadable and untranslated? It seems like an obvious oversight.
In order to talk about the poems, it will be necessary to resort to an expanded display link, since Smith's pages are 1) too large [with small type face] to reproduce, 2) use parallel conflicted half-spacing of lineation, and 3) use a font (Garamond) which is not available on Google Blogger (and even if it were, the poem are too large spatially to fit into the blogger window). Hence the reader will need to link on each of the two URL under each displayed text page image to see the expanded version in a separate users window (which may then be viewed concurrently with the commentary). As I noted previously, the font size in the book is much too small, barely readable, but there is no immediate remedy I could think of to display the text.
It may be that on a theoretical level, no reading of any text is the ultimate, uniquely correct one, but Smith carries this notion to an extreme limit in insisting (in her Forward) that there is no proper entry point into her separate poems. Spatially, they may, for instance, be read traditionally from left to right, or they may be read right to left, or bottom to top, or in any order one might choose. However, this is only a ruse, since she declares that she intends to disarm the reader by thwarting his reading progress (from memory, the "old-fashioned" way). In effect, what this means is that a reader will begin to read each poem from the upper left-hand corner and proceed by means of the usual left-to-right progress, encountering various road-blocks and unexplained hazards and non-sequiturs along the way, until he either exhausts his patience, or arrives at the bottom of the page (in a state of advanced confusion).
Each of Smith's poems is like a scattered, unorganized outline of fragments, all of which might have been intended for inclusion into an organized sequence of language (paragraphs, stanzas, constellations of words...). The reader is given no clue as to how these fragments might be organized, nor what--in many instances--they refer to. If the poem is meant, as Smith claims, to refer to something out "in the world" then that something must first be filtered through Smith's deliberately disorganized arrangements or unorganized impressions (or as she says, her "memory" of experience). In the poem "Passage," below, there are a series of numbers--74, 400, 14, 15, 615, 101, 910, and 830--which are not explained. Are these the numbers of roads, the times of day, or some other increment which the reader is supposed to "invent" for his own amusement? Mountains, traffic, crickets, flowers, kisses, fingers, sunsets, dandelions, bulbs, a city, sugar/cotton/snow, cultures and shoulders--all of which occur as proximal fragments of a greater whole, whose inter-relationships are unspecified, remaining docilely inert and disconnected. There are the colors red, and white. The mountain is red; the snow and sugar and cotton are white--this is important information. There is humming, and undulating, and clicking, and cropping up, a covering. Something is magnetized, something is littered, something is unreclaimed, something is inescapable, something remains. We have no idea what the underlying circuit-board for all these things is, because it is hidden beneath the surface of the poem's display.
Perhaps, like a child, we could be allowed to move the separate parts of the poem around--as with a puzzle or a scrabble board--into probable relationships, that could actually make some kind of expedient sense. But Smith has already thought of this, no doubt. We can't ask of her that she perform this function, because that might serve to confirm our expectations about how to "read" her work, and that's just old-fashioned nonsense. The "mnemonic mapping" which she is striving to make could never be attained by organizing these constituent fragments into a meaningful whole. If we try to put lines together, we may have some limited success: "distances/are magnetized, they/push us away, they/repel." "Bulbs like cotton bolls like/white flowers/they crop up/never/the same." "Distances sadly/inanimate/unreclaimed/whiteness." "White over everything as if it fell from the sky/like sugar like cotton like snow like dandelions/the undulating/complex of/insensitive whiteness." "Rhizomatic network of memory." Etc.
What a reader is faced with here is a mess. The vague, disorganized flock of words, the reader might suspect, could be rearranged in any of several approximate formations, none of which would be any more instructive, or syntactically informative, than the one chosen. The potential generative, dynamic propulsion of syntax is ignored, in favor of a mobile of mildly suggestive parts, none of which is compelling in itself, to tilt our attention towards a determined effect. Since none of the fragments tells us enough about the experience to which they seem to refer, we have no way of interpreting them, and so they lie, elusive, unrecognized, categorically flat.
In flores para los muertos ["flowers for the dead"], we get pretty much the same kind of thing. Except that here, individual words are broken up into separate letters which may be re-combined in various possible ways, but to what purpose? "Con" might combine with "viv" and "i" and "al" to form convivial; or does con combine with stant to form constant? What does the possible discrepancy between alphabetical parts tell us about anything? "Cannot be a poem" certainly tells us something concrete! There is some kind of jeopardy going on--fear, could be lethal, fear again, violence, fear again, and again fear. What the impetus or etiology of this fear might be, we are not told. Perhaps it's the Day of the Dead. Then, again, perhaps it's the day I got drunk (clinking glasses) and missed you. The refusal to specify what the hints and pointers imply, gives rise in the reader, either to a suspicion of a kind of hesitancy on the part of the speaker (what Katherine Anne Porter called "the look of the runaway in her eye") or a kind of petulance, a reluctance to acknowledge that the speaker (the poet) has no resonant response to experience, that her experience finds no medium, no analogue in her sensibility which could inspire her to memorable utterance. Or, perhaps, faced with the materials of her craft, she is simply clueless about how these might be shaped into a mental narrative or a diverting design. Who can say?
One of the advantages of removing lyricism--any semblance of a sequential logic or development--from the poem--is that there is no gradient for comparing the relative success or failure of any rhetorical flourish. If Ms. Smith lacks the lyrical inspiration to write interesting poetry, the simplest solution is to posit a style that is utterly without music, without plot, without formal organization. Offered up as latter-day quasi "concrete" experiments in "visual" arrangement, and buttressed by a complex series of analytical definitions, such exercises can mask an initial incompetence by throwing out a blizzard of dogma and speculation. This is a potentially devastating indictment, but one I find myself reluctantly sensing here.
floras para los muertos
I think that much of what Smith discusses in her excessively long Forward could be said about any of several different examples of post-Modern verse. It might be applicable, for instance, to the work of Clark Coolidge. But the comparison would stop right there in its tracks; because in the work of Coolidge one has, despite the departure from denotation and referentiality, considerable demonstration of skill with language, of the joining and organization of parts, and of whole regions of lavish, connotative blurring, tortuously involved association, varied resonance and expansive internal landscapes.
In Smith's work, no reading is correct, because nothing in the poem has been deliberately formed. Randomness replaces deliberation, and meaning escapes down the drain. In addition, all readings are non-reflexive, and hence impersonal, autonomous, and indeterminate. Language is exploded into atomized bombs, scattering meaningless fragments of matter. Trying to read her poems is like wandering across a scene of devastation following a detonation; the material, once constituted into use and shape and coherence, is blown apart. We have to start from scratch, picking up the pieces, piling up the rubble, building everything from the ground up, by hand, scraping together fragments, starting over. Practical knowledge at a premium, know-how and energy required. Careful planning. Hope.
I think Smith is ultimately fooling herself, if not her readers. Compositional experiments--such as choosing words from matrices of pre-existing text, or yoking discrepant segments of language into new arrangements--can be mildly diverting. Ronald Johnson's R A D I O S, for example, or the work of Dick Higgins, or John Cage's experiments with indeterminate performance. But poetry which opts out of the lyrical mode to explore synthetic applications exterior to the medium will inevitably lack substance. Words can be separated from their function, but without that function, they're just things. The trick is in putting them together. Organic Furniture Cellar is an embarrassment, perhaps most astonishingly because its author is an acutely intelligent woman. Alas, she's been mining fool's gold.