Reading by Silvery Moonlight


The Erotics of Geography, Hazel Smith
(84pp plus multimedia CDRom, $18, TinFish Press www.tinfishpress.com)


     The moon, the poet said, has to be torn to pieces. Too
     much exposure, too many cycles. Once it is splintered
     we can use it again. But other poets continued using the
     moon as it was: whole, tarnished and withered

          ('Spacism')

There are plenty of lunar splinters in
The Erotics of Geography. I read the collection (perhaps 'absorbed' would be a better word, allowing for the impact of multimedia audio and visual elements) in conjunction with a thorough perusal of Smith's 2005 Allen & Unwin textbook The Writing Experiment - a great text and highly recommended for any of us who teach or like to consider creative writing at any level, not only for its lively, well-explained, and practicable exercises, but also for its clear and accessible applications of critical theories and their terminologies.

This double dose of Smith was an interesting experience (in no way a pejorative comment) in that I was experiencing Smith the theorist and educator in parallel with Smith the playful, inventive practitioner, with some marvellous experimental pieces which, at first glance, seem the untrammelled expressions of an adventurous creative mind. Of course, the boundary between these two Smiths is extremely porous. 'The Writing Experiment' contains plenty of Smith's own poetic work as well as her tones of voice clearly detectable in the more theoretical passages. And
The Erotics of Geography likewise makes good use of the various strategies suggested in its more pedagogical sister volume. 

I was grateful for my double vision, because it informed my reading of Smith's collection without detracting from my enjoyment of it. And I can see where certain
Experiment techniques have lead to or helped to 'grow' particular texts. But there is much in The Erotics of Geography to surprise and elude categorisation even of the experimental kind. There's a fresh, accessible start with 'The reader of my book', whose narrative line documents a bus-awaiting reader who 'opens the book and flicks the pages' without logic. He throws the book as he mounts the bus and the poem ends with the neat 'I can only keep my eye on it and catch'; a neat switch of the first person from authorial narrator to me, the new reader.

The line also celebrates a nice sense of uncertainty in poetic composition - a trusting of that combination of intuition and serendipitous encounter which makes for a good poem of any sort, whether the encounter is formally or subject or language generated. It is, as named in another poem's title, a 'Poetics of Uncertainty'.  Thus in 'Emergences' the poet-narrator declares:

     when I write I don't want to create
     what I already know
     or even what I can imagine

and in the ending of 'What it would be' there is also an acknowledgement of that necessary walking of an unknown path, though there's a shiver of regretful ambiguity here too: 'When I started this poem I didn't know what it would be about./If I had known I wouldn't have written it'. Imagine substituting 'relationship' for 'poem'.

This is not to dismiss the usefulness and fruitfulness of formal restrictions: 'borders prod the unexpected' ('The Ethical Turns'). But sometimes too much 'to-do' mentality creates a stasis of its own, and Smith addresses this too, in 'Ought to do' and in 'Acts of Omission'; I identified rather strongly with this one:

     Her days are full of writing lists, inviting acts which are
     never performed. Each day the list is transferred to a
     new one, and at the end of the month she tears the list
     up. Sometimes not-doing scores over doing.

The ending of this one feels ambiguous too: 'every day, at every moment, she toasts to the lack that fills her life, her acts of omission'. Is this a real celebration or more of a grimace? And what does it matter anyway even if one has indeed 'produced work, though neither well nor often': surely poetry makes nothing happen? But this is a collection that reflects both on the wayward creative processes of poetry and on uncomfortable political issues and how they may be acknowledged, sometimes critiqued, by a poetic text. Particularly, here, in 'Priceless', a carefully and experimentally laid out piece of what
The Writing Experiment would, I think, classify as ficto-criticism constructed in the form of discontinuous prose and poetry fragments.

Because of its collage-like format, with text juxtaposed against text in different fonts, formats, and size, the piece works intermittently on a micro-level but much more as a resonant whole in itself. Difficult to give you a sense of it here therefore. I thought some segments interesting in their own right as well as attracting metaphorical inferences: did you know that 'The @ sign is actually a 500 yr old sign. It represents an amphora - a measure of capacity based on the terracotta jars used to transport grain and liquid in the ancient Mediterranean world' (perhaps  poets do something similar, transporting sample grain and liquid within our own time and place zones, where we are 'at')? Other segments are more politically and socially hard hitting but unfortunately risk a lack of subtlety when excised from their context: '6000 children die everyday because of lack of clean drinking water. And what do poets do about it?' feels crass as a fragment on its own: better embedded in the whole.

There
is much to think on here, and in similar texts in the collection such as the powerful (and academically on-trend) 'The Body and the City' and also my favourite, the 'Erotics of Gossip' - I'd never really considered the functions, philosophy and sexual frisson of gossip before, so this really got me thinking. But these large works are contrasted with the slimmer and ostensibly slighter poems which I sometimes met with a slight sense of relief - perhaps with those blocks of large bold capitals on the page in the sustained collage pieces, I felt shouted at, just occasionally. I particularly liked the quirky and thoughtful homage to Kenneth Koch in 'Talking with Kenneth' which follows 'Priceless': it narrates a perfectly believable encounter where we learn that 'silly ideas can make sassy poems'. They can indeed.

Geography is in the title, and place, space and topography are certainly leitmotifs in the collection. Not in a straightforward way (who would want that?) but as poetic concepts such as this nice nugget from 'Priceless': 'Poets do not remain in one place. They migrate with the traces of all the places they have inhabited and imagined. The poet who writes is the poet who travels'. Smith writes in
The Writing Experiment about (cyber and textual) time-space compression and this concept is detectable too in 'Spacism' and 'Time the magician' where all sorts of premises are condensed and unravelled. And in 'The Body and the City' history, location-based treasure and trouble, and an ebullient sense of happenstance again evoke mix of 'freedom and control' which make up a poetic life:

     She never really read the map, but half-read and half
     guessed at it. She would walk down a street and only
     then would she check that she was walking the right way.
     Sometimes she had to turn the map upside down. It was
     good this balance between freedom and control, though
     it meant walking further than was really necessary.
     She didn't want to check herself too much.

Finally, don't forget the audio and audio visual pieces which are quirky, entertaining, disconcerting, and textually refreshing by turns: it's been exhilarating (stimulating, even) to turn the moonlit map upside down with this expert collection which lets you feel like a fellow traveller.

           Sarah Law 2008