Thursday, 22 December 2011


First Ode First (vErisimilitUde, 2011)
The Mayakovsky Ode (vErisimilitUde, 2011)

The recent writing of Simon Smith is a writing of interval and suspension. It introduces a space of juxtaposition, quotation and parenthesis. The words that confront the reader exist in a manner which is not that of words in a context of significant use. They exist rather as words between words, words beside themselves, exterior to themselves. In phrasings such as ‘and it is not grief/is not/to identify, to name/more’ or ‘but now is somehow a point of no return’ or ‘but there’s nothing to shout about/ no notes left, not an appointment, kick it over/then say who broke the book’ the temporality evoked is as though poised between the no longer and the not yet. The writing emerges as a sustained series of interruptions. The lines seem to be an effect of—even as they create—a space of reserve, in which things assume an aspect of immobility. It is a space the elements of which come into relation outside one another, preserving exteriority and distance as the principles of signification. We are positioned ‘in the middle of the walk best taken backwards’.

The sense of the neutral that emerges here is not unrelated to an emergence of the strange and the uncanny. Constructions such as ‘who knows/what else do you hear?’ or ‘the position just changed to, this page the only position/you need for which you receive the compliments of the day’, are forms that are not quite those of question, statement or assertion, nor yet of description, or indeed of evocation. It is a writing that partakes of neither the subjective nor the objective. It cannot easily be assigned to any genre; it is not general nor is it particular. Something is advanced which our modes of abstraction and generalisation fail to get a grip on. Even so, this writing is not the consequence of some bizarre or exceptional experience. It insists on the mundane nature of what is being dealt with.

And life means what it has up to now

and most of this is about listening

and behind the door marked ‘PRIVATE’ I receive no signal

This is the language of the everyday, a language the very ordinariness of which turns out to expose within common experience that which such experience cannot locate or grasp. As Maurice Blanchot has put it: ‘What is present in this present of speech, as soon as it affirms itself, is precisely what never lets itself be seen or attained: something is there that is beyond reach (of the one who says it as much as the one who hears it)’. Speaker and listener are both on the hither side of discourse, where language is still visible, where it is an event occurring this one time, here, now.

The political implications of the order of writing are exhibited, in both books, as an implacable refusal of language as that has been assimilated to the structures of management and administration. Smith refers to the end of the First World War: ‘November Eleven 1918, the full-grown men/return as though they’d just been born/the memory falling/into email/press the ‘send’/button at dusk’. This serves to align his work with the response to that war of earlier writers, of whom Mayakovsky is taken as exemplary, and to foreground his own exposure of contemporary forms of injustice and annihilation. We too are living in ‘the last days of mankind’. The writing of so exacting an exposure is, of necessity, a writing of exile, and the dissatisfactions of exile are inseparable from it. The poet is seen to stand outside the city, while at once being within and of it. He gives himself over to the foreign, and to what is without intimacy or limit. He sets himself against all that is connected with substantive reality and power, against all that pertains to unity and wholeness. He does not accept the rule of identity or the logic of the same. He effects, line by line, phrase by phrase, a restless dissemination of beginnings or fragments: ‘poetry is made of everyone and a glass of water’. It is work that brings to mind the question put by René Char: ‘how can we live without the unknown before us?’

[This review is published in Tears in the Fence Number 54 (Autumn 2011): 144-45]

Friday, 8 July 2011


I saw you walk across a sea of dazzling glass towards me
I thought then that it was you who spoke
there is the sun and there is the rain
and there is the trace of sunlight on red flowers

slivers of crystal had appeared between the hands
you carried fragments with you as you walked
in the lost cradle of the foliage the flame fails

The rose window
opens onto what cannot be seen

the earth is folded like white cloth outside the curtain

One need not ask
when the fire is to stop
or what must rise
from what abyss

There is silver cutlery
and there is the spider’s web
I believed I saw freedom
in the interval between the hollow moss

and the unheard-of flowers

The water that I saw you walk on
is a sea no longer

Saturday, 25 June 2011


No one names you. There’s no sound, no voice.
You’re left alone enclosed by the dark boats. The ground you stand on
Is uncertain, and the words you have
Are not those whose wreckage is required of them.

The separation you desire
Is not the tedium of assured departure.
You have no liking for the brackish water
You care nothing for the wind gusting through the trees.

Rather, you would say, rather go where the cruel dawn arrives in darkness
The palace whose utter ruin I have been.
Your one love is for the night as night
The words gaze at you and take your substance for their own.


The doctor told me: get on with it, smoke your Virginias and drink your schnapps!
It’s obvious that with or without them we all have to go in the end.
In the mucus membrane of my eye there are for example traces of a cancer:
Given time it will see me off.

No one need of course despair on that account.
Each one of us can hope to see a good few years yet.
We can still stuff ourselves with blackberries and chicken.
Though it’s true we can expect a real pain in the gut one day soon.

There’s no way to set things right, either with the bottle or by kicking up a fuss.
Such a cancer grows undetected on the inside.
You could be scratched from the list
At the very moment you are walking to the altar with your bride.

My uncle, for example, kept his trousers pressed
Long after he’d been marked out for the kill.
He bloomed like life itself, but these were flowers for the coffin.
Every hair on his body was diseased.

For some it runs in the family
Though they don’t discuss it.
They can tell a bunch of grapes from a pineapple,
But when it comes to cancer and a rupture, they admit nothing.

On the other hand, my grandfather knew precisely what was coming
And let the doctors rule his life accordingly.
He was fifty by the time he got fed up with it.
A life like that is fit only for a dog.

You and I know better than to envy any man.
No matter how he lives he’s got his cross to bear.
As for me, my kidneys are in trouble
And I haven’t been allowed a drink these past five years.

Sunday, 22 May 2011


In the spring and under the green heavens
Somewhat brutalised by the loved and savage winds
I came swaggering on my way
Down to the black cities, the interior of my heart lined with cold sayings.

It was with the black creatures of the asphalt that I filled myself
I filled myself with water and with lamentation
I was left in the cold and my darlings in the light
I stayed throughout incomplete and light through it all.

And I know they were the ones who smashed the holes through my walls
And that even as they were to curse me crawled out of me again
There was nothing inside me but so much space and paper
I was the paper only—and they were to scream with their obscenities.

I grinned and as I did so walked at speed down between the houses
Into the open country. Soft and receptive
The wind was going now to run more swiftly through my walls.
The snow had stopped falling. There was to be the rain.

Thick snouts of thuggish bully-boys
Have found that there is nothing in me—in truth, nothing!
Wild boars had sex in me. From the radiant heavens
Ravens would often piss straight into me.

Feebler than the clouds! More delicate than the wind would ever be!
There is nothing visible. The light, being brutal and as festive
As any one of my own poems, I crossed the heavens
With a stork, its wings beside me, beating faster.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant draws a distinction between negative and indefinite judgment. As Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, the example that Kant uses is very telling in the context of the un-dead: the positive judgment, by which a predicate is ascribed to a subject (S is P), is given as ‘the soul is mortal’; the negative judgment, by which a predicate is denied to a subject (S is not P), is given as ‘the soul is not mortal’, while the indefinite judgment, in which a certain non-predicate is affirmed (S is not-P), is given as ‘the soul is not-mortal’. The difference between the negative and the indefinite judgment thus appears as a matter of spacing. All this has an immediate bearing on the notion of the un-dead, or the living dead. As Zizek has also indicated, we resort to indefinite judgments in our ordinary language, exactly ‘when we endeavour to comprehend those borderline phenomena that undermine established differences such as that between living and being dead’. The same argument applies to the notion of the uncanny, which Freud similarly derives as an indefinite judgment, based on a consideration of the derivation of the word unheimlich and its relation to heimlich. (Nicholas Royle has shown that a similar relation holds between ‘canny’ and ‘uncanny’ in English.) The un-dead, that is, uncanny creatures such as vampires, zombies and so on, are neither alive nor dead: ‘he is un-dead’ thus is a perfect example of the indefinite judgment, inasmuch as vampires are excluded from the domain of the living without therefore being included in the domain of the dead. The un-dead retain the characteristics of a living creature, without being one. As Freud saw the matter, the uncanny pertains to all that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, but which has, nevertheless, come into the open. As Hal Foster has shown, the uncanny, with its attendant notions of repetition, the death drive and doubling, is as fundamental to the procedures of surrealism as it is to the horror film. The uncanny does not oppose the world; it hollows it out from within, opening it towards an abyss. The return from the grave of the un-dead is the appearance of something profoundly other, something that blurs the distinction between imagination and reality, between the symbol and what is symbolised. The vampire is an unrepresentable Thing, and the space he occupies is neither that of community nor that of society. The vampire occupies an uncanny space that Lacan called ‘l’entre-deux-morts’, between two deaths, a a gap between the Symbolic and the Real. For Lacan, it is what dwells here that is the ultimate object of horror.

A film that gives an overwhelming sense of this order of horror is Dreyer’s Vampyr. A similar order of experience is evident in Murnau’s Nosferatu. The film ends as Nina Harker sacrifices herself to save the city of Bremen. Jonathan rushes into the bedroom and embraces her, only for her to sink back and die. What one can say is that Nina is only able to destroy the vampire if she is willing to join him in that space between two deaths, and this she does, in her passivity, for all the time during the night while he remains beside her, bent low over her neck. It is the book Jonathan returned with, the Book of the Vampires, that has brought Nina to this condition: in other words, it is the Symbolic order itself, as represented by the book, an order that stands for death, in the sense of mortifying the Real of the body, that brings her to that which eludes symbolisation. As does Dreyer, Murnau associates the vampire with the very film that we are watching. Both films present us with issues of representation and meaning as they are inflected by the death drive, a force that, neither living nor dead, partakes of the demonic.


a little shoe was part of it
a slippage without cause

which I think was traced already
in my childhood

an image that should have stayed concealed
a sound one ought never to have heard again

the object
of objective chance

is a hole made of lilies


I must retrace my steps

the street’s deserted
the door open

a gold branch hangs above the stairwell
a sliver of crystal twists in a moulding of white sand

a woman pledged herself one day in that same space

a copper wire conducts the light


I attach no importance to it
it accords no significance to me

the plaster figures have lost nothing of their expression
the tears I shed are not mine

Wednesday, 5 January 2011


The narrow frame of
midnight is the opening
the image
identical yet ghostly

is the signature
the monogram
of essence
not the thing itself

the reference
ends here
fool’s gold binds heaven
with the fine thread of

undreamt dreams
soon no doubt
to drop from the black heart
in front of you

author of a ruin
there is no answer for
born of impulse
solid as the eye’s flame

its one penance is the sodden
grief breathed by death
so much the worse for those
whose servitude

is vengeance I give my memories a shove
we are leaving
where was it that you said
the dog of scripture has returned to its vomit