We gotta get outta this place

Colin Smith at war

Colin Smith, 8 x 8 x 7 (Krupskaya Books, 2008), 89 pp., $14.00—I met Colin Smith in Vancouver at the Kootenay School in 2008 during the second “positions” conference. I was intrigued by the title of his book since I was about to publish a book of poetry (The Hero Project of the Century, 2009) that included a poem titled “< 6 By 9 V >6 By 9,” a blank page that referred, obviously, to any poem’s written parameters (its typed –as in typewriter—“original” was titled “8 ½ x 12”). Smith is having none of that blank page, pseudo-conceptual stuff, in his eponymous poem whose lines are staggered and tabulated, alternately, at the left and right margins. To read the title poem of this book is to run the gauntlet, pelted by lines like “The underclass is permanent/ The underclass is made offshore” and “The future is a store and you have no money.” The cumulative effect of reading line after line of the futility intrinsic to democracy (“…which/end of the gun/did you vote for?”), the pharmaceutical/medical complex (“Your future as a wheelchair on drugs”), social engineering (“We’re trying to build character, dollar by dollar”) and personal hypocrisy (“You’re pretending to be exactly/who you are”) can be almost exhausting, if not numbing. It’s not that Smith doesn’t use space to let his lines (and readers) breathe; he does (see “That nostalgia”). And he’s not exactly shouting at the reader (unlike Justin Katko whose 2012 book I review later this week), however much deserved. Think of Smith’s slice-and-dice one-liners, his refusal to countenance political and/or ethical evasions as “nuance,” being sneered, practically spat out, with disgust (which, tempered with the pathos of self-revelation-cum-dramatization, as in the last poem, “Goodbye (Riddance),” can be quite unsettling and moving). This is the kind of book whose put-downs are “funny” until you realize you’re staring into Smith’s cross-hairs. Left and right, men and women, Canadians and Americans, are equally impaled on Smith’s rapier wit and trenchant insights. It would be a mistake, however, to confuse this poet with a misanthrope. Smith’s rage (this isn’t satire, though it is often sardonic) has its source in his disappointments with liberal accommodation to, and conservative prostration before, the temple of capital. Like many anarchists/communists, Smith has particular animus for the Reagan/Thatcher “turn” in the 1980s, that moment when the gloves came off: “”…proper/foolery. trickle/ dawn. capitalism/is just porno for the pimp classes…” In a world where “People are rent./ Bombs are speeches.” it’s difficult to resist habituation, crimes and tragedies reduced to a tweet: “In other violence comma.” Smith isn’t all doom and naysaying. His takes on the entertainment business can be hilarious (“If Clint Eastwood walked faster, shorter running times.”), if a tad cruel (“Give the last year in which it was possible for Luciano Pavarotti/ to see his own genitals without the aid of a reflective device.”). 8 x 8 x 7 isn’t for the thin-skinned but I can’t recall funnier, more devastating, snapshots of life among the ruins of what currently passes for civilization.