Rod Smith: In Memory of My Theories (O Books, 1996)

Deirdre Kovac


* This review originally appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter.


[O]ne cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily . . .
—Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Daah dee dah dee dah dee dah dah
— J. S. Bach, Suite Nº 4 in E flat major, Prélude
Pablo Casals, Cello

On November 5, an article in The New York Times, titled "Using Rats to Trace Anatomy of Fear, Biology of Emotion," offered a metaphor (or perhaps an actual scientific explanation) of the manner in which Rod Smith's poetry interacts with consciousness. The Times article states: "New research strongly suggests that emotions are biological functions, channeled through the amygdala, which triggers physiological responses. A direct pathway goes from sense organs to the sensory thalamus and from there to the amygdala. This pathway does not allow for cortical processing and may be responsible for emotional responses a person does not understand." The aspect of this model of the (albeit rat) brain I find most compelling is the notion of a direct pathway that bypasses the traditional center of "understanding," that allows for emotion (which could include aspects of the so-called intellect) and response without comprehension. I would add to it, however, the suggestion that the necessary and sufficient conditions of "understanding" should in turn be altered. Rod Smith understood as Bach is. And then some. This is a guess, but Rod Smith's work goads me to suspect a syntax of emotion, of import, a direct route between sound and sense, between the cadence, the symphonic structure, of a poem and the variety of things we call its meaning. This is intuition, but "should anyone ask what intuition is, it's what you think / it is" ("In Memory of My Theories"). Smith often employs this kind of sad (that's all there is) and comforting (you haven't been getting it wrong) truism, tautology even, that shows language in all its self-referential, obvious obscurity. He simultaneously offers a simple definition of the word intuition and fragments that definition amongst the infinite number of possible yous addressed.

Although what I am provisionally calling a "syntax of emotion" could be assembled with a syntax of vision and spatial composition, I conceive of it as a function of sound in time, and my primary understanding and appreciation of Smith's work has come from hearing him read. While the music is there on paper, built-in (and his work is quite carefully and generously laid onto the page), he has the Stradivarius and the cheat sheet—I imagine something akin to Eric Satie's "Performance Indications" (A Mammal's Notebook), with directives such as "be-dig yourself," "haggard in your body," and "light, but decent." If he comes to your town, go.

As regards the Sacks quote and some of what I may have implied above, In Memory of My Theories is by no means incomprehensible nonsense, or even something approaching so-called sound poetry. It matters that it's not in French. (Visually, very fine distinctions are drawn between upper- and lowercase letters, punctuation marks, indents, etc., making as full a use of the notational capacities of English as of the aural, though never with a sense that there is a rigid, pre-determined system in place.) Smith's work is laced with content and highly modulated. But he doesn't just make sense, he makes sense. It is impossible to peel the skin of words off the apple of what Sacks calls "expression." Perhaps the work describes itself best: "veiled lattice tangle, ask it to weep lint. the ear is the mortal tense, entering the / chest through the inkstand. That aura of miffed significance swirling in the / unshed mask of distillate matter" ("Sieff").

These poems are both hyper-linguistic (i.e., language pointing to itself, as an object with all the attendant baggage of etymology, linguistics, etc.) and sub-semantic (i.e., symphonic, the direct route described above). For small-scale examples of the former see lines like "a musical event miss taken for a lyric kingdom // the distant air enters // through distant lungs" ("Bad Ashbery But Fun"), "The lightning is an exaggeration of the light" ("(illegible) Lake"), "The tiger of a growth / A hill full-a hole full / is scanty easily scattered" ("XCII (cinder-sifter)"), and "life-size freight / the light of / lightful / lighting / bring to throw or shed & cream or bulb / beak / break / ottava rima the terrible / silent excess of tortured imputation" ("Your goofy fremitus . . ."). The latter, the symphonic accumulation of punch, is harder to show in this context, taking place as it does over the course of entire poems, the course of the book. And, moreover, it is wrong to present these two aspects of the work in opposition or contrast. That apple won't be peeled either. It's all skin. Or all flesh. "(Collective relevant regular migraine People are / failing // I don't feel // more or less red Most // When the moment hits / In the voice / knocked numerous // diffuse ambiguity // snow paper" ("The Inveterate Poem").

Like Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, of which I am reminded by Smith's use of red above, In Memory of My Theories is a text that listens very carefully to itself, that hears the linguistic assumptions implicit in it's propositions, and that then goes on to question, subvert, pervert, and toy with them, all the while mindful of their serious and real-world ramifications. Smith throws "language games" and "people are starving" alike into the lottery hopper, and retrieves them, "sutured by or // accomplished. Sedimentary articulation / become the lush agnostic coal of // [. . .] everything in this one // nothing in addition" ("The Latest Attempt").

Which brings me to a few notes on content and method. In Memory of My Theories is an invective, a question, a treatise, and a prayer. It engages issues of perception, resemblance, artifice, and politics—the political as an intellectual and emotional force—the consequences visible when world and language are attended to. It bears both the tyranny of the American government, and the tyranny of the self aware of it cognitive limits. "The surface, if it's found // is a symbol. Discrepancy's essence // Is curlicue / Is land terrific // perceptual shifts hug the coast & shimmer / amidst what I consider even now // the assassinated evident / getting nowhere / with a ten foot pole" ("In Memory of My Theories").

Smith takes standard dichotomies (interior/exterior, mind/body, etc.) and reconfigures them, removes the standard value grid to reveal a more wrenching grid of doubt. "[A]nd the body you have / is entirely the body / of vacuous mental images // constant round of becoming / bless me to transmute them // we are by nature heavily there // and there appears" ("In Memory of My Theories"). Everything is false, and yet incessantly weighted. Or weighted by the inability to distinguish. The same details reappear (clocks, dust, habit) as if markers that we are lost and covering the same ground over, though someone has been there in the interim to rearrange things just a little. "[T]hese savored days / these cycles / lapse back into statement // certain non-abstractions melt the equal sign and once / cloned become the dust we use to protect our paintings" ("In Memory of My Theories"). And we are back to the real, to detail, to staring at the impenetrable details of accumulated history with which we obscure the distorted image of ourselves we chose to show posterity.

This de-dichotomizing is also part of how Smith's work is structured and moves—motion, if not arrival, being key. He revels in the habits of syntax, and breaks them. The action lies not in the action of event, of verbs, but in that of connection, a linguistic motion—derived from his use of prepositions—of what belongs to what, what suture, what addition. Even the verbs are sometimes made to work like prepositions. "So It Is that / the direction is indented by the dubious double affect of the undone area she / is to be believed to inhabit" ("Sieff"). The motion is made constant also by musical combination, vowel-sound surface progressions and Anglo-Saxon sound patterns within a Latinate (however interrupted) syntax.

The emotional impact of the work is neither representative nor reductive. Though in some contexts notational, it carts a "life-size freight," takes place on the one-to-one scale at which it is written. Alongside these philosophical, linguistic, and emotional (by which I think I mean a manner of tragic pleasure, "hoarding // surely intense // loss // his mouth // shuts his // stammering // tools" ["For Loss"]) effects, In Memory of My Theories is also frequently funny, sometimes vulgar, and never sentimental or lax. It is not (a venial, if not a cardinal, sin) the re-telling of a pre-processed experience, interpretation included, but an investigation of, the very act of, experience and interpretation, a thought-experiment protocol on itself: "Always to know the pattern // being difficult // things this / is called // to make" ("For Loss").