J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield famously said that the mark of a great author is whether, after reading their work, you want to call them up to talk, want to gab with them about nothing much and everything in between. You want to be “terrific” friends with them. S.E. Smith’s debut collection of poetry pontificates on ponies of darkness and big slutty bears, on the variety of pilgrims the world contains and the existence of vertical lakes that stand, woozily, straight up and down. The first poem of the book’s third section is entitled “Fuck You,” a title that is followed by the declaration: “That is one thing I am not here to say.” Based on all of the above, it goes without saying that I would like to converse with S.E. Smith on the telephone. I would like to gab with her about the unwholesome habits of sexually active bears, about what doth make a pilgrim. I would like to discuss with her the unhealthy influence “Bingo Gossip” has on our society and why exactly “Enormous Sleeping Women” are a part of a “frightening story” that threatens to not end anytime soon.
Comprised of three sections—“Parties,” “Beauty” and “Devastation”— in a plethora of free verse forms, I Live in a Hut thus bears the standard hallmark of most volumes of contemporary poetry. What distinguishes Smith’s work, than, is its insouciance and wholly unabashed nature; these traits of hers were no doubt one of the primary reasons why Matthea Harvey chose I Live in a Hut for the 2011 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. Smith is unafraid of being zany. She is unafraid of beginning a poem with the lines, “My eternal flame is more eternal than yours. My bivouac is more permanent than your eternal flame. At night when your soldiers are praying ceaselessly for less rain and more underwear, my soldiers make underwear out of rain” (“Manifest Destinyland”) or “I still don’t understand why the French aren’t fat./Let them get fat. The French. Let them try to/ sadly smoke in postures of disregard and regret/as a statue now that they are fat” (“Un Peu”). She is, as has been made clear, unafraid of titling a poem “Fuck You.” Or “Becky Home-Ecky and Her Fourteen Boyfriends”; “Why I Am Not Famous.” Irony has become somewhat of a pejorative word in contemporary poetry circles—we want our poets to write poetry that is sincere, as sincere as organics apples falling off organic apple trees on organic apple farms— but Smith’s poems are often joyously ironic. A poem like her “Seriousness” revels in the pleasure of making such assertions as “I wore my honorable badness/ badly. I felt uncomfortable/ but honorable…Excuse me, I must go drink some poison.”
It’s simple, really: Smith’s poems are fun to read. This is a reductive and facile categorization, to be sure, and stating someone’s poetry is “fun” often means it is deficient in some manner or overly simplistic. The word fun has such little purchase in literary criticism because it means essentially nothing—what is “fun” for one reader is laborious and dull for another. Smith’s kind of fun, than, is of the type that is actually fun. Think laughing out loud. Think verbal waterfalls, linguistic roller coasters. Slips and slides and alliterative rolls off the tongue. Inside jokes that cement new friendships. The poetry in I Live in a Hut is fun in that it holds to the first two definitions Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (2nd ed.) gives to the word—“something that provides mirth”; “enjoyment or playfulness.” “Becky Home-Ecky and Her Fourteen Boyfriends” know what I mean. Overweight or not, the French know what I mean. And you, too, know what I mean. Fun. Fun.
To great effect Smith’s poetry employs irony, to be sure. But to use that catch-all word once again, it is also often sincere, disarmingly so. I Live in a Hut takes as its centerpiece the poem “Beauty,” which is the longest work in the volume and comprises the entirety of its second section. “Beauty” is wrenching in its presentation of what beauty means or can mean or does or can do. Early on in the poem the speaker relates that
Because with beauty there are only two
directions, the one we all know
with the cathedrals and the night-
blooming flowers, everything composed
by dull symmetries, and the other direction
which is to see beauty in gutter water
or broken shoes, and which depends
so on the entirely on the first direction
that we all know it, too.
To be able to see the beautiful in both the majestic and the hum-drum ordinary, in the luminosity of the towering mountain in the distance and in the tiny crumbs of dirt beneath one’s feet: it’s a familiar sentiment, one that the poem’s speaker acknowledges is not her own. “Let’s move on,” she says in “Beauty’s” fifth stanza. “…I/ have only promised to attempt. / I have attempted.” From there the poem discourses on beauty’s potential failures—“At this point in our exploration/ somebody should die to remind us/ how useless it is to think this way”—before seguing into what is acknowledged as “the third/ kind of beauty.” This is of a type that is more idiosyncratic than those other two kinds; it deals less in universal themes and more in personal sentiment and feeling. It’s the type of beauty that makes a reader want to call up an author to shoot the shit with them, one that is “conferred” rather than merely recognized. “The boy whose name I scratched/ into my bedroom wall behind my pillow…I conferred beauty/ because I watched him, the well water/ I conferred beauty upon because I drank it…” Beauty of this kind is the most important and the most ignored, disregarded; the fact that beauty is in the eye of the beholder means that it might be beautiful to you, just you, and no one else. It’s beauty as declaration, no matter what anyone else thinks. “[H]ow embarrassing it is to love the world/ in this way.” And yet necessary, so very necessary—Smith’s “Beauty” makes this clear.
In conclusion: After reading and enjoying I Live in a Hut I’d like to call S.E. Smith up on the phone to chat. “Terrific” friends I’d like to be. I doubt it will happen, but the desire is there—and that doesn’t happen, with me at least, very often. I Live in a Hut is worth reading. Thank you for your first book of poems, S.E. Let’s gab. Let’s talk.