||MUSIC OR HONESTY
by Rod Smith
"Rod Smith is submodernism’s first genius. He has been broadcasting from DC longer than Wolf Blitzer, meaning he has never left the central fact that poetry is politics. I love his ‘dissociadelic’ mid-Atlantic soul, which never makes us choose between truth and beauty. In his wild and amazing poems, honesty is music, listen."
- Peter Gizzi
"As always, Rod Smith rules the realm of the tender melancholy lyric. His honesty is sad, clarifying, and radiant. His music is transcendent—it stalks through history and haunts the heart."
- Lisa Jarnot
"When the wake of the ship of state seems too oily to swim another stroke Music or Honesty will remind you of just how powerful the pleasures of the tongue are and how invigorating a succession of historical moments can be. It will read well under pastoral sunlight too. At every point an exceptionally lively social polyphony waits here for you to complete it."
- Bob Perelman
The two terms separated by an “or” in the title of Smith’s most recent collection finger out of the lineup of guiltless aesthetic pleasures the axes around which his work to date—collected in two previous books, In Memory of My Theories (1996) and Protective Immediacy (1999)—decidedly revolve, never in fact choosing one over the other but melding them in what must be the most melancholic and vulnerable, and often immediately appealing, writing to come out of the Language poetry tradition so far. Like his two earlier efforts, Music or Honesty is a slim volume that can be read as a single work, and each book can be seen as some continuation of the last. That there is purpose in this overflowing of borders is apparent in the second section of the book, “Autospy Turvy,” which starts with the prose poem “Ted’s Head”—a short parable about the US's latest salesman President based on the Mary Tyler Moore Show that ends: “Now imagine if Ted were Lou, if Ted were the boss. You know how incredibly fucking brainless Ted is, but let’s imagine he understands & is willing to use force. That’s the situation we’re now in as Americans.” (27). The section then segues into a 10-page poem called, again, “Autopsy Turvy,” a more indeterminate but still strikingly satiric excursus on the dark whims of testosterone-driven government (“the sportive hucksters are carping / to the gunshop retirees in the gold dawn”), and ends with the three-page “Dissociadelic,” which, as the neologism suggests, escapes the circuit of rational summarization entirely and usurps the page for the staging of some classic Langpo pyrotechnics: “Look, he’s up in the sky--/ gasping & the roof falls in, etc. / an entire ladder company / holds its bladder America, / It’s not magic if you trust it. / the soft night of weasel balls / beeps” (38) Smith’s more characteristic run-on-but-sonorous style – such as in the section “No Minus,” with its homage of Tom Raworth – is a stand-up theorist’s channeling of both the absurd and the sublime, or perhaps absurd into the sublime, forcing a collapse of both categories in a microtonal melange of lingual rubble. It’s a style one associates with Kevin Davies or John Ashbery's first books after The Tennis Court Oath, in which he's beginning to use a mellifluous line but letting the waves break on the crazy, recalcitrant detail he’s culled from children’s books, dictionaries of old slang and similarly evocative detritus, forcing bizarro yokings of disparate strands of culture: “The mist rises from the bourgeois canopy / to reveal Warburton’s tome Philosophy: The Basics / which is inimitably blurbed by “some / dead motorcyclist’s demystified rock start status” / & it can’t imagine the lord uploading / that hot mass at half-price without checking / with Doctor Said first.” (48) The real game, reading Smith, is the play between determinacy – what the poet “intends” to write and what he “means” – and chance – how the poet grabs onto what swims across his ken and places it, wholesale, into a poem – a collage aesthetic mated with a sort of discovery narrative of the decidedly un-islanded mind. This is ultimately the question of life itself, understood as a daily improvisation dependent on the tools at hand, some of the most useful of which are distraction, unreason, humor, pity and piety, not to mention music and honesty themselves.
Publication date: March 2003