Poet Meets the Challenge
The house of poetry has many mansions - which is a nice way of saying that one man's verse is another's doggerel.
Then there's poetry that's deliberately exclusive and needlessly pedantic, poetry that's akin to working the Sunday crossword puzzle. It's fun if you have the time and inclination to wade through the stuff, but it goes nowhere and says nothing - and much of it is judged by the critical attention paid to it by other pedantic poets.
But every once in a great while there's poetry that strikes a perfect balance, and Mike Smith's second book "Multiverse" (BlazeVox [books], 303 Bedford Ave., Buffalo, NY 14216. Blazevox.org. 90 pages) is one of those rare books. It's fascinating and stimulating. It's artful and almost faultless.
Smith is a graduate of UNCG, Hollins College, and the University of Notre Dame, and his first book of poetry, "How to Make a Mummy," was this reviewer's 2008 choice for the best collection by a new poet. And his latest collection surely sets him apart from his fellow poets as a voice that's not limited by the fashion of the times.
Smith explains his technique in "Multiverse" in a note to the reader: "The poems collected here are the products of an experiment into the possibilities of anagram as a poetic form.... The letters of one poem have been rearranged to write each of the other poems. No letters have been added and no letters have been left out.... I hope to riff off the advances of biology and science that make up our current world and seem to show us just what a Petri dish of recipe and method life on this planet is - The operating principle of the anagram being something akin to the 'letters' of DNA."
When read in full, Smith's explanation suggests that the product of this exercise might be verse that's too prosaic, but Smith is blessed with an ear for the flexibility of the spoken language, and the product of his anagramming is, simply stated, art.
In an excerpt from "Fugue for the Fugu," the music and themes are apparent even when stolen from the structure of the larger poem:
Not a matter of if, but when...
Some diver hears it at the table
from the very sister of his more
experienced friend - the time he had no option
but to gut a companion while wrestling
for his tank of air, leaving the man to leak
and swell there, blossom bouncing
from the underwater wall - as he tries
his first bite, which jolts him into some
nine-year old self attempting to press
the nine-volt battery to his tongue
longer than anyone swore he would.
The use of internal rhyme, an occasional sprinkling of Anglo-Saxon alliteration, and the regular rhythm of the poem merge the images into an appealing lyric that's at once alarming, amusing, and completely satisfying.
In the second section, "Anagrams of America," Smith explores "anagramming multiple texts of various lengths each a single time. Each of the sixteen poems is an anagram of a familiar work by a well-known American author." "Ode to Emily Dickinson" is an astounding example":
I too run sick of silences, still language,
the long take of shadow
seen on house, tree, bush, sun's maze
(heat, arc, dip, and age), eye yoked
to the tender ease of home.
Given: a poem is always confession,
The mete end always both tease
Concession. (I am more
than this I bleed.)
Entered, the world is a jail (isn't it?)
hooded, small. Beaten,
Smith's Ode possesses the virtue of being a stronger poem than Dickinson's # 241 upon which it's modeled:
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true-
Men do not sham Convulsion....
Where Smith might take his exceptional talents as a poet is purely speculative, but I predict that he'll go anywhere he wishes to go.
Contact Stephen Smith at email@example.com.
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