Jessica Smith, Organic Furniture Cellar
by Michael Peverett
There's reviews I've found more difficult than this one – in fact, they're all difficult – but I don't recall ever starting to write a review so many times. Because Organic Furniture Cellar is a book that can lead you off in a lot of directions beyond textuality.
But I've decided that I'm not going to write about how I bought it, though I think that the way that poets like Jessica Smith and Anne Boyer have taken up Etsy ateliers – Etsy is a sort of handicraft version of eBay – is fascinating, and surely one of the more unanticipated impacts of the Internet on poetry. I'm not going to write about the continuity between OFC and Smith's other handicraft works (Sommarhuset is an object-poem consisting of sand, dried bilberries, and stolen items), nor about the persistent blurring of public and private art that runs through her work; I'm not going to write about the alarming openness of her LookTouchBlog or the recently published Discourse Networks; I'm not going to write about modern self-publishing, though OFC is a formidable argument for it, nor about the many talking-points in Smith's introductory poetic ("The Plasticity of Poetry"), nor about the uproar over Ron Silliman's enthusiasm, nor about that range-finding shell from Joyelle McSweeney. Most reluctantly of all, I'm going to junk my effusions about where the book was put together (the High Coast area of Ångermanland), and I'm not even giving way to botanical meditation about Smith's "tryckara flora / pressed flowers" (Did she really find Melampyrum nemorosum that far north?). But I would invite you to print out the full-colour version of this poem, because it works much better than the monochrome one in OFC.
Organic Furniture Cellar is subtitled Works on Paper 2002 – 2004. Jessica Smith uses the whole of the paper, and the quotations here are frankly adapted to make them easier for me to quote. (For example, I can't replicate the half-line drops that she often uses to make a top-down left-to-right reading impossible.)
And can we do better than start at the beginning, with the top part of "Passage"?
still hums with irreconcilable distance
74 distances hum like traffic
during the day and like crickets at night 14 15
picking white flowers
distances are magnetized, they
push us away, they
repel 101 that click click of watches
rainy kisses, 108 degrees in the shade
dandelions' of memory the
dead white everything
In these poems Smith is riding an unstable equilibrium between something that can be more or less read (though not necessarily top-down, left-to-right), and something that is looked at in the more apparently simultaneous way that we receive a visual; something we can then examine, but our examination doesn't have a particular start or finish to it.
It's the difficult cusp. (By contrast, a poem such as Herbert's "Easter Wings" is fairly stably in the reading zone despite its obvious visual aspect; a poem like Peter Finch's "Instantaneous Magnetism", where the word magnetism appears about thirty times in a column down the middle of the page, is fairly stably in the visual zone, though you might read the odd word while you're looking it over.)
To keep us – at least for a while – where she wants us, Smith has a problem of balance. "Passage" is an example of where she gets it about right, and here's the top part of "90" where I think she gets it wrong:
a winter drive
blue sky tangled white feathers
tpke winter phase
Sometimes readers are their own worst enemies. We really want something interesting to happen, but if we start off (as we rather tend to) at the top-left corner and immediately see what the poem seems to be about, then hey, we stick with that, no further questions. And since winter drives are, to our lazy minds, pretty familiar fare, the page just dies on us.
I'm not saying this to nitpick, but because one of the ways to appreciate what's happening here is to see how new kinds of problem loom into view.
"Shanghai" is a stunning layout, two dragons that are shimmering, broken reflections on the water. In order to make it work, Smith has muted the verbal excitement severely: there's almost nothing in the words themselves but functional description (pink paper lanterns, deep green summer leaves). And it does work, once you experience the horizontal lines of letters as ripples, but clearly such a form is vulnerable to unsympathetic reading: if you don't want to involve yourself in the layout, then it's easy to complain that this is just travel-diary exoticism. Here it's the layout alone that stops this being merely an account of a memory and instead kicks off what Smith elsewhere calls "an exploration of memory... an entire mnemo-topological system".
There's an analogous problem in the time-dimension. The exploration needs to go to work on the memory-forming process and Smith understandably uses her own memories. Memories themselves are keyed to – though not of course unmodifed from – what she really thought or felt at the time. And this means no dressing up.
Think of a poem like Wordsworth's Prelude that is built around memories already formed. We are satisfied that it's based on real experiences but in fact we are allowed very limited access to them because the text has completely absorbed the memories and their origins into the composed discourse of the poet; as here, of the philosophical walks with Beaupuy during the "Residence in France":
And sometimes –
When to a convent in a meadow green,
By a brook-side, we came, a roofless pile,
And not by reverential touch of Time
Dismantled, but by violence abrupt –
In spite of those heart-bracing colloquies,
In spite of real fervour, and of that
Less genuine and wrought up within myself –
I could not but bewail a wrong so harsh,
And for the Matin-bell to sound no more
Grieved, and the twilight taper, and the cross
High on the topmost pinnacle, a sign
(How welcome to the weary traveller's eyes!)
Of hospitality and peaceful rest.
How far we are from a direct transcription of the thoughts and experiences of the nineteen-year-old William (a fairly rough diamond, it would seem) can be gauged from the biographers' profound uncertainty and wide latitude for speculation about this part of his life. This isn't a narrative about the growth of a poet's mind in a psychological sense – though it's almost impossible for us to avoid that anachronism, so much has our concept of personal identity changed – it's a narrative about the development of his opinions.
The technical problem in OFC is that the rawness of those first thoughts is to be represented, and rawness is perilous: "your hand squeezes mine", "your rosy cheeks, salt-stained", "quiet Swedish ögruppen" (groups of islands), "crossing streets with tree names", "deep blue flatness", "the roar of the sea", "languages and places switching places"... It would be unreasonable to object to the private thoughts considered merely as thoughts – would yours read any better? – but we're so habituated to picking out this kind of phrase as a damning sign of insufficiently-realized poetry that, seeing these words in a poem, a knee-jerk condemnation is hard to suppress. Yet Smith needs the raw thoughts as material to explore memory-formation.
So it creates, once again, a delicate issue of balance. "Common Blues", "January", "February", "Delaware Park", "Brookwood Forest" are poems that I never begin to read in the way Smith wants: I'm too distracted by the uncomfortable presence of naïve expression. But I admit it was no accident I picked on Wordsworth; at some level I thought of Hazlitt:".. the unaccountable mixture of seeming simplicity and real abstruseness in the Lyrical Ballads. Fools have laughed at, wise men scarcely understand them."
And because of other poems here I do have an idea of what the ones I don't begin to read might be supposed to do. Here's the top-most and bottom-most parts of "first leaves":
w c i
e bursts of
little specks of brown
smell of wet leaves
like bananas ll
trees like fireworks brown
eaves some trees turn utterly yellow
more quickly than others
(I've missed out the middle third, approximately, of the poem.) To call this only a poem about autumn leaves misses the dynamism of the arrangement. As the eye moves from top to bottom of the page, it passes through several gradations. Topologically, we're passing from tree-tops to the ground. We're also moving outwards, from the first thing you see (hence the title), the focussed dramatic flare of red in the crown that makes you think: Oh, right, the leaves are changing colour, to a transformed perception of the whole scene; for example, to noticing the leaves under your feet, the smell of wet leaves. But there's a chronological motion as well as a topological one: from looking ahead (on the lookout) then to inspection and consideration (looking down). The "mnemo-topology" mimics the movement of leaf-fall; for the mind is seasonally-suggestible and makes the rhythms of seasons. You could also recognize in the gradation of the poem a movement from October to November. And like the leaves themselves the mind finally dries out, retaining nothing in words but the flat, analytical, noteworthy observation that "some trees turn utterly yellow more quickly than others". Thus reason hopes to prolong the brief flush of apprehension!
Probably the most impressive extended stretch in the book is the poems grouped as Exile. A poem like "first leaves" works with the simplest of apprehensions and in natural forms and rhythms, but Exile is concerned with negotiating a complex built environment, the city of Berlin, and with structures inherited from a built monolith in our culture, Joyce's Ulysses (the city wanderings are of course à propos): the poems become grid-like and criss-crossed, except – naturally – in the trapped domesticity of Calypso and the sentimental eroticism of Nausikaa. Lestrygonians fragments a cynical conversation about the Berlin Wall and the Gaza Strip; Cyclops settles into the numbed "myopia / my opiate" of train travel.
"Hör du ente klocka?" (Don't you hear the clock?) says one of the fragments in Archipelago, the last part of OFC, which idyllically tries to stop the clock in the High Coast, where the land is still rising nearly a centimeter a year, and former bays like Ulvön are cut off from the sea. (It's a shame that the Swedish glossary, promised in the introduction, is nowhere to be seen.) The urgency of memory, as a means of clock-stopping, is figured in the inconsequentially beautiful map-poems, and sends sad tremors through the final poem, "After The Hours / Riddarfjärden". Wherever Smith gets to from here, it can't be back.
street lights this life runs out
m stops running you see
even in alleyways thoughts command
when remember this
Jessica Smith's Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002 – 2004 is published by Outside Voices, 2006. Non-US readers can order it at SPD.