Introduction: Rod Smith's Reading
SUNY-Buffalo, NY 2/25/98

Taylor Brady


While rereading Rod Smith's work in preparation for this visit, I ran across these lines in his collection, "The Lack" (published as issue no. 104 of A.BACUS):

Lisa says,
but in a useful way"

Now, while I wouldn't take these lines at all to characterize Smith's poetry, I would maintain that they have something "useful" to say about the materials out of which that poetry is made. These materials register most often as a collection or collage of specialized and disciplinary, that is to say ideological, discourses and vocabularies. The political economy of language whose circuits we name, perhaps disingenuously, "the world," requires the mutual self-closure of these disciplinary languages as prior condition of their status as objects for our knowledge. For confirmation of this, one need only think of the enforced mutual incomprehension of those speaking the various languages of "hard" science, political critique, institutional administration, lyric poetry, and urban solid waste disposal. Any language thus self-enclosed against the encroachments of any other language is constantly bombarded by the sound of its own founding presuppositions. The effect of such bombardment over any considerable length of time -- and how long have we existed with compartmental specialization as our model of an "advanced division of labor?" -- the effect of such bombardment is flatly stupefying. Its elaboration as social policy -- as "the world" -- is irrsponsible, terrifying, and stupid.

So, what could possibly be "useful" about such a depressing state of affairs? The answer proposed by Rod Smith's work is that these languages, in their insularity and mutual exclusion, have given only cursory thought to self-justification and defensive posturing vis-a-vis one another. Brought into proximity, they do not yet know how to defend themselves, or to claim a legislative prerogative over the zone of their interface. The faith (if I might call it such) which animates Smith's poetry lies in this excluded middle between the various and variously technical languages of our contemporaneity -- as the at least partial lack of a predetermined social contract which would settle once and for all the question of mutual obligations. It's as if one might participate in a conversation or confrontation between particle physicists, political dissidents, business administrators, poets and sanitation workers in which literally everything remained at stake.

This confrontation takes place at the level of semantic and ideological "content," but also and especially at the level of poetic form. Characteristic of Smith's work is an asymmetry of local structure: narrative sentences abut lines in which parts of speech put each other on as masks, and this spills over into passages of serial "nouning," in which the only grammatical guarantee is that one word = one word. This isn't simply the problematic claim to "poetic language," in which form models the world's potential coherence only at the cost of an essential remove from that world. Smith's lexicon persists in various states of indexical, metonymic, or emblematic relation to its various social and ideological "sources." Here composition addresses itself to phoneme, morpheme, and ideologeme as possibly equivalent, and often coextensive, terms -- the argument of syntax is thus explicitly an argument in the dialogic sense: a dispute. If one task for a socially-engaged poetry is, to borrow a line or two from Smith's work, the consideration of "the world as a whole in its / relation to that which is not the world -- form," then Smith writes that relation as not only analogical, but also anagrammatic (a literal rearrangement of parts) and analeptic -- or, to borrow a privileged term from last week's visitor, allen Fisher -- curative.

Thus, an art-practice, not of avant-gardist rejection and refusal, but of sustained engagement and confrontation. Such a confrontation -- in which, as I've said, everything remains at stake -- exposes one's thought and poetry to a double risk: that, on the one hand, it might heighten only the "merely" frivolous moments of incongruity in which discourses fail to speak to one another; that, on the other, it might find itself witness to nothing but the atrocity and terror by which one language effaces or consumes another, as all too often happens when the discourses of administration "confront" the resistant sounds and silences of human bodies. That Smith's poetry recognizes these risks, and recognizes its own tenuous position in the provisional spaces between such extreme possibilities, is signalled by a collection like In Memory of My Theories, whose opening poem begins with "your goofy fremitus" and ends with "the terrible / silent excess of tortured imputation."