MERCURY by SIMON SMITHBARRY SCHWABSKY reviews
Mercury by Simon Smith
(Salt Publishing, Cambridge, UK, 2006)
Before I moved to London from New York a few years ago I had little acquaintance with contemporary poetry in England. Yes, I knew Lee Harwood’s work pretty well, and Geoffrey Hill’s too; Tom Raworth’s rather less so. I’d read Christopher Logue’s “accounts” of Homer and, because I’d liked Christopher Middleton’s translations from the German, a bit of his own poetry as well. J.H. Prynne was more than just a rumor to me, certainly, but not a lot more. Of younger poets, I knew nothing.
Only after I’d arrived did my ignorance strike me as odd. I began trying to catch up with my new context but quickly saw it wouldn’t be easy. A lot of British poetry was and is hard for me to “hear” even when I can see that it is good. Reading it could be something like reading poetry in a foreign language one happens to know quite well.
So things stood when a mutual acquaintance suggested I check out a London-based poet named Simon Smith. Eventually I got around to googling him to get a sense of who he might be and what he was up to. Learning that he had a forthcoming book, his second, called Reverdy Road--it was about to be published by Salt in 2003--I was immediately intrigued: Not only do I love Pierre Reverdy’s poetry, but having come across the street near where I live in south-east London, I too had written a poem called “On Reverdy Road.” So I got the book as soon as it came out: a revelation: Resembling nothing I was familiar with in American poetry despite name-checking Jack Spicer and clear affinities with the New York School’s love of speed, wit, and variousness of tone, it had a music I could tune right into, something very much its own though it has also helped me, I think, hear my way into the work of some of Smith’s British contemporaries. In Reverdy Road I found a new English poetry I could hear every bit as clearly as I could that of the Americans who were opening my eyes and ears at the time, the likes of Eleni Sikelianos, Linh Dinh, K. Silem Mohammad, and so on.
Now Smith has published Mercury, very much a continuation of the project begun in Reverdy Road (not with his first book, Fifteen Exits, published by Waterloo Press in 2001). The sheer quantity of his production--the two books together amounting to nearly 400 pages of poetry produced in the course of just four years (but then they are well-aerated pages)--is further evidence of a great creative ferment. I, who always urge more severe editing on anyone who will listen, would not wish to have a page less of this oeuvre. Perhaps that’s because Smith succeeds in elevating poetry above the poem. What I mean by this is that the book on the one hand and the line on the other--what one might call the macropoem and the micropoem--become more striking, in his work, than the intermediate unit of the poem, thereby alerting us to an idea of poetic activity as a matter of quite small and oblique momentary acts of articulation and perception, on the one hand, and of the steady, ongoing process of awareness and accumulation through which those moments can be cultivated, sustained, and amplified, on the other, more than of an effort toward self-enclosed, autotelic form. In this aesthetic, the end of the poem has nothing to do with closure, being little more than the necessary moment of rest, a systole. Smith nonetheless retains the division of the book into poems, it might almost seem for the convenience of it more than anything else. The individual poems’ brief, almost negligible titles--“Bet Wit,” “Tee Hee,” “Heaps,” “Of,” “Slips Light,” “Day One”, to cite one sequence almost at random from early in Mercury’s first section--can seem arbitrarily assigned, like the ones some abstract painters give their canvases, yet by their very fragmentariness slyly crack a window open onto the world we’ll glimpse in the lines that follow.
Smith does not believe in rigorous consistency, so that anything one might notice as a rule of thumb about his practice will always be contradicted somewhere but, in general, each line is also a stanza--that is, a space separates it from the next, introducing a disjunction even where there might otherwise appear continuity--that begins with a capital letter (that is to say, each line represents a new beginning) and breaks off without punctuation (though there are beginnings, there are no endings). It’s not unusual for a poem to end in mid-phrase: “You or me sweep end on a”; “It seems we can six months in which brings me to”; “You saying when we are for this experience and drop off the edge there we”--or even in mid-word: “Take the ch.” At the same time, each line tends feel as if it could stand alone, in a musical sense though not in a grammatical one, as a “complete fragment,” if one can speak of such a thing. Again, one could give samples almost at random. Here is the beginning of a poem titled “Pfuff”:
Into the glass the sunset and its long arm
Raindrops dissolve low visibility equals grey light
Like my eyes like yours and other reference points
The playing card is the traffic island
And here, in its entirety, “In Reality,” which gives an example of one of Smith’s ways of making his fragmentary lines bear a syntactical overabundance rather than the syntactical deficiency one would normally expect (and which he also puts to good use):
An appointment book with a black cover machine-stamped
“2004” inscribed in gold
The dreams that die in small children’s eyes shining snow
Black and white “still” colour on the video “hiya” starts off
Where we left it at the stair’s foot
“Now” too quick to record whatever you do with your mouth
Smith manages to sidestep the dichotomy--bizarrely significant to the discourse around contemporary poetry in the UK, for reasons I’ve yet to fathom--of accessibility vs. difficulty. Neither word applies here (the back cover is just wrong in claiming these as “poems that say difficult things simply”) maybe because this poetry is more concerned with its own doings than with an effect on some proposed reader. Other poetry can seem desperate and mannered by comparison. An immense energy passes through the field of this poetry but the poem does not want to concentrate that energy to produce a massive force. It is open, striving neither to impose a meaning nor to evade one. It’s neither personal nor impersonal. One might wonder casually, for instance, about the identity of the Michelle who recurs in many of the poems but it’s clear that whatever she means to the poet may not be what she means to the poem. Likewise, it does not gather itself around a topic. The subject is poetry itself as a form of awareness, an attitude toward contemporary urban life. If there is a formula, it might be the advice-to-self given in the poem “Rain”:
Squeeze Reality into as tight
A space as possible
--but now in case you’re wondering about the grandiloquence embodied in that capital “R” Reality--isn’t that a tad sententious?--watch what happens next to it. Let’s start again:
Squeeze Reality into as tight
A space as possible the capital “R”
Crushed through a thin mouth to “r”
Is that making too much of a letter? Doesn’t the poem have bigger things to attend to? Well, no, not when the letter is what reality gets squeezed through in order to make a poem. Or as “Chair,” one of a number of single-line poems in the book would have it,
As a letter acts the repository of the immediate
Barry Schwabsky is an American poet and art critic living in London. His most recent publication is the chapbook Tephra, from Black Square Editions.