Punkness and the inescapable self

A review of Rod Smith's 'Touché'



Rod Smith

Wave Books 2015, 98 pages, $18.00, ISBN 978-1940696089

In Wave Books’s new Touché, Rod Smith is a tender, often hilarious skeptic. His brilliance as a poet is strongest performing the many voices of willful ignorance and hard-earned perspective, often confusing the two in poetry that merges personal doubts with public ones. Built on a negative capability, Touché’s “futility as figurative / extreme” (81) is strikingly analytical about uncertainties in private awareness, domestic American politics, and the malleable referentiality of language in relation to the author’s scatological, punny, and aesthetically “clumsy” organizations of it, much more punk rock in Smith’s DIY grammatics than actual idiocy.

Smith’s grammatical experiments give a physicality of language that more traditionally stated poems in the book support (“The artwork provides the sensuous idea of freedom” [40]). That physicality pairs emotional experiences with general sensory ones in incredibly minimal, melancholy, and absurd ways. Like much of Smith’s writing, Touché is at its best when configuring aesthetic principles from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E with Smith’s own highly attuned ear and carefully interruptive voice.

 [screened in]
churning’s caught
learning’s bent
leaving plates
sexual heretofore’s
flux — the runned
& powdered
in the world’s
writing’s enigmatic
tactic-faced care-thief
an importance bite
of things
(bluffed & lucrative)
(bluffed & inner) bluffed
& crazed (58)

For me, the most successful part of Smith’s poetry is how slippery accountability becomes in small spaces between very carefully chosen words. In the fifth line of “[screened in]” we know the abstract language that came before (bluffed, churning, caught, bent) feels only connotatively sexual. But there’s an oddly placed narrative situation based on opportunities in the grammar. “Churning’s” reads as both “churning has” and “churning is,” and “learning’s bent” reads the same, personifying those verbs by possessing their own. The poem wants both a personifying possessiveness and a static “isness” to relate  “caught” and “bent” as self-contained small lines that eventually overlap into a kind of character framing, where “churning’s” is a witness to “learning’s” either being bent or having bent something itself. That slippery accountability feels like a mind framing its own processing instead of the external behaviors that result from such processing. The reader is to trust that both the possessiveness and more static “isness” happen as a single fluctuating path for reading those grammatical parts; essentially, both possibilities from grammar exist, but neither is dominant. They are not conclusive but they are procedural, truly a “coarsening / flux.”

The specifics that do exist, like “leaving plates,” actually interrupt both paths as a way to get the reader back to something immediately single, banal, and recognizable, in this case objects at dinner being left just before a strong sexual act. I read that “tacit-faced care-thief” as the speaker acknowledging that what came before were pieces of an evasively rendered memory under review, and that the memory itself isn’t as important for the poem’s idea of audience as the moment of remembering. What’s interesting there is how important “bluffed” remains. The poem’s built on hope that such intimacy — like in the memory — will at least pay off as reference for creativity later, that in a sense whatever reality those pieces come from were failed experiences that seem to need reconciliation. So in addition to their more direct meanings, it’s hard not to see fermenting in the word “buried” and difficult embrace in “brace,” instructional emotional dualities the speaker gives itself to value its present moment of reflection.

Excerpt of
The Good House, etc.

the house is made of would
& wonder — forty-five times
no one said it — a
former & future house, with
a dime, & definite —

the house that will save the small
animals from the ravages of inaction
the house that will impel, tiresomely,
a certain gate-kept diplomat’s
bureaucratic lechery

the house that refuses the unforetold,
          stymied in the wavering, swanlike,


— maybe a lakehouse
     w/ a horse
     on a hill,

                        hmm. (24)

“The Good House, etc.” is a sequel or another chapter in Smith’s serial poem “The Good House,” which seems bottomless here and in earlier editions (included in Smith’s 2008 book Deed). Touche’s section begins similarly, addressing Smith’s “egretlike alabaster florist” (24) instead of the standalone egret from earlier versions (see The Good House, Spectacular Books, 2001). The likeness of the current subject to the egret is both a formal association with the older poem and a mark of change. Both use the egret to announce the long poem’s emergence during times of writing and in other books, the poem itself jumping through history a little better than your own forms of residence, more surreal and emphatic about common difficulties from living in paranoia about your nation’s ability to endorse conservative and damaging political status quos. Sometimes “the house” implies shared governance, often with a powerful class antagonist that the speaker identifies being under and against, very much the House of Commons duty that we actually know, or as Smith might say, that we need to be more familiar with. But the refrain isn’t just political theatre: everything can and does get brought there because it’s the common thing everyone leaves and returns to, as portable artifice and physical locations merge without pause.

Nothing in Touché is perfect, and the flaws aren’t always interesting, losing me more than twice where slant political commentary and odd word choice are more confusing than associative. Smith can be affectingly both in a great poem like “The Good House, etc.,” where he has length to sprawl, seemingly not focused on keeping any set voice or political sense afloat. Such parts feel more than just linguistic foreplay — they’re confessional, devotional, and sometimes tired examinations of art, class, love, and doubt. These poems concern the idea that a mind is never beyond corruption and error, empowered or otherwise, and specifically that mental forces elevated to broadcastable positions, publicly or internally, will only sell terms that promote particular interests, not the whole public or the entirety of an individual’s fluctuating needs. While the political value of such a stance is necessarily contextual, Smith’s reports are aesthetically brilliant in conflating public broadcasts with the associative methods that individual minds impulsively use to create identities, the brain selling parts of experience to different selves in different moments.

Smith knows that identity is a commodity, to the self and to the public, and that diversifying how the mind manipulates signaling from language is a way to draw attention to surprising, sometimes frighteningly detailed experiences about the impulsivity that all clear and ordered thinking originates from — in Touché’s case, with words that fluctuate grammatical positions during the poem in beautiful and completely Smith ways. These poems care about how our corruptions reason with each other, big and incredibly small, and how we distance ourselves from some by usingothers so that we can tell the cognitive stories of certainty and apprehension, and once again seem to understand a little better and a little more and maybe again, later.