Monday, March 8, 2010
Where's Waldo, Salvador Dali, and Things I Could Never Imagine Doing: A Review of Mike Smith's Multiverse: A Bestiary
Where’s Waldo, Salvador Dali, and Things I Could Never Imagine Doing: A Review of Mike Smith’s Multiverse: A Bestiary
(First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Multiverse: A Bestiary, by Mike Smith
BlazeVOX, 2010, 91 pages
I’ve read enough poetry, and written enough for that matter, to not easily give over to hyperbole, particularly when it comes to matters of craft, but the structural undertaking of Mike Smith’s new collection of poems, Multiverse: A Bestiary, is astoundingly nonpareil. Prior to reading these poems, I firmly believed the assertion that there is nothing new under the sun, and perhaps in some obscure corner of literary history someone else has written 24 poems that use all the same letters and 16 more that rearrange the letters of well-known, seminal works like William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All,” Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and Ezra Pound’s first “Canto,” but until someone shows me such prior achievement, I’m reconsidering my faith in the proverb.
A word or phrase made by transposing the letters of another word or phrase (“Jim Morrison” transformed to “Mr. Mojo Risin’,” for example) is called an anagram. A poem made in similar fashion is called anagrammatic poetry. Such poetry has existed at least since the third century Greek poet Lycophron, and achieved some popularity in Medieval Europe with poets like Guillaume de Machaut and again in early 20th century surrealistic work and in the poetic play of the Oulipo group in the 60’s and 70’s. Perhaps the best known examples of anagrammatic poetry to date have been Oulipian Georges Perec’s “Ulcerations” or David Shulman’s 1936 “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
In Multiverse: A Bestiary, however, Smith has plowed new ground, using the idea of anagram as a vehicle for an entire book of related poems. Given the technical craft of these poems, it’s tempting to stand behind the gallery ropes and simply “ooh” and “ahh,” or, in contemporary tabloid fashion, spend one’s time looking for the error of the author’s way, the extra letter or the one left out, or even the simple typo that would throw the whole thing off, but doing so would deprive the reader the opportunity to engage with poetry that even without such unique craft would be intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Take, for example, the theological musings created in the poem “Snake,” in which the iconic serpent remarks:
I slip, sharp spoon in the sand,
trusting your eyes not to follow,
the forgotten first taste
of a forgotten world
. . . . . . . . . .
bent on a return--like God,
but more patient, more mascot
than mastered slave.
Or if emotional intensity is more to your liking, read the exploration of desperate mourning called “Hellbender,” which ends, “I down it all / for the devil dog that exudes / this new truth, my patron saint / of having nothing to lose. I drink / to having nothing to lose. I rise. I drink.” Or if perception and imagery are what you seek in poetry, consider the acute observations of “Two for the Birds,” in which treeless Poplar Island begins “to blossom with birds” thanks to the “suturing [of] last year’s Christmas trees / onto driftwood.” Or if you demand humor, you’ll enjoy “Robops,” a poem about mechanical birds placed on rooftops to scare away pigeons, each bearing the inscription:
To the eventual
inheritors of the planet: We lament
the possibilities for misunderstanding
inherent in many inventions. You must know
that these birds stood not as art
or idols to worship, but as mass products
of the sort of resourcefulness created
out of too great a need, a stop-gap
to keep what we knew we were losing forever
shiny and clean.
Nonetheless, Smith’s selection of anagram as form also creates inherent opportunities for pleasure, as in “Zebra,” for example, a poem that self-consciously (“the beast / I don’t name”) avoids using the name of the animal, since there is no “z” in the tableau of letters established by prior poems. My own favorite moment of simplistic pleasure in the premise of the book came when I noticed two “x’s” in “The Woman Who Became a Turtle,” the 11th poem in the book, and disbelieving that I could have gotten that far without noticing the presence of two “x’s” in each poem, began going back to find them “Where’s Waldo-style” in every other poem, in words like maximum and next, sexiness and perplexed, waxy and toxins, vex and exit, Maximus, Texas, and plexiglass. I imagine somewhere a wonderful spreadsheet of the 900 or so letters used in each poem. I imagine, also, how much Smith must love language and how frighteningly good he must be at Scrabble.
There is also to be found more serious pleasure, more poignancy, related to this idea of form. “Poe,” for example, retells the story of Poe’s death in the letters of his poem, “Alone,” and “Ahem, Requiem,” uses the letters of Berryman’s “Dream Song #1” to express the tragedy of his life, ending with this painfully understated stanza:
All the wracked and wounded world’s
gone bad, a bully waiting
down a blind alley. When the blows
finally whistled near enough,
you sidestepped, and dared
no longer tarry.
On a more positive note, “Live Ink” celebrates the influence and achievement of Langston Hughes using the letters of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” And perhaps the most technically amazing poem in the collection, “Frost,” weaves lines from a bus station notice about dangerous people with an all-too-accurate complaint about the business of poetry in an ironic anagram of Frost’s “Directive.”
Part of the wonder of these poems from the second section of the book, “Anagrams of America,” is the way in which Smith’s poem comments on the poem or poet from which it was drawn, the very poem which the reader knows is still inherently present in Smith’s rearrangement. They are not unlike Salvador Dali’s hidden image paintings, or perhaps more recently those Magic Eye Pictures that used to be a mainstay of newspaper comic pages. They are equally dynamic, multi-dimensional, and fun. But they are described best, perhaps, as Smith himself suggests in “Anemone, Limpet, Mussell, Crab” (a beautiful poem of doubt and faith, loss and recovery), as palimpsests, one text etched over the shadow of another, the way, as this poem suggests, species, experiences, literature, and individual lives are. And that I think is really the point of the whole thing