In April last year I reviewed Simon Smith’s Shearsman publication More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012. In April 2015 I reviewed his Oystercatcher chapbook Half a dozen, just like you. April 2018 is not a season entirely bereft of spiritual consolation despite the ghastly warnings across the ether: there is a new book from Simon Smith and once again I am drawn into a world in which words are offered for their daylight meaning. As an early poem by Charles Reznikoff had put it
“the plain sunlight of the cases,
the sharp prose,
the forthright speech of the judges;
it was good, too, to stick my mind against the sentences
of a judge,
and drag the meaning out of the shell of words.”
As I have said before, Smith’s poetry is on the move and it is no mere accident that the title of his Selected contained a pun on the word ‘Flowers’. As Joyce put it in Ulysses, “Hold to the now, the here, through which all the future plunges to the past”. This new book of journal entries is haunted by ghosts: Paul Blackburn, Christopher Smith the poet’s father, 26 Poems: Californialand in Winter (vErIsImILItUde, 2014). The American influences are identifiable in many ways but, as with all ghosts, they are felt along the bloodlines and are Shades which melt when looked at directly. A poem which bears the title ‘Letter, Yesterday’s: with a Poem / Attached by Paul Blackburn, & my / Entry for the Day Before Yesterday’ has James Wright’s famous ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’ in the background and the tone of voice in Wright’s accumulation of images is echoed by “today’s entry is reflection”. Then we hear the voice of O’Hara in the “daily account”, a noun which both narrates and sums up an experience:
“yes, Evan clicked at keys and stops in step to the mouthings
Matt sampled then re-processed
as David and I
spoke line into line
each layer broadcast above
The broadcast layers, an accumulation of one’s reading and thinking, recall Joshua Tree, Split Rock, Paul Blackburn, Barry Goldwater Jr. and Charles Olson as “lines and stanzas / hang mobile / hang-gliders in air on electronic / ether SPACES”. However, these SPACES are not just the Olsonian central fact to man born in America at the opening of Call Me Ishmael, they are unbridgeable gaps between the present and the past. A journal, day by day, records reflections of loss and yet the teasingly almost-tangible ghosts of yesterday find an opening into the NOW with the very act of writing: this poem of Smith’s is the ‘Entry for the Day Before Yesterday’ and it concludes with an awareness of the spaces “between / us”. It is “a very personal poem” which lies clear on the white page “to drop / kisses into / / browsing data and love”. The poetry of Frank O’Hara is clearly close to Simon Smith’s heart and like the New York poet’s ability to drag that meaning “out of the shell of words” his new series of poetry journals “is a plate of spinning, stunning experience” (Elaine Randell). When O’Hara wrote his famous lunch-time jaunt, ‘A Step Away from Them’ the word “Step” has not only a physical connotation of movement but also a deep-seated awareness of how we all are only a step away from the dead.
Many of Simon Smith’s poems are anchored firmly in the concrete but it is the spaces between the pictures, the cadences, the quiet and unjudging adjacency of people and objects that make their reality moving.
Ian Brinton, 9th April 2018