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]

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