The House a Hut Built: I Live in a Hut by S.E. Smith

I Live in a Hut

I Live in a Hut
BY S.E. Smith
(Cleveland State University Press, 2012)

Selected by Matthea Harvey for the 2011 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, I Live in a Hut debuts S.E. Smith’s admirable talent for plumbing the “woe is me” mode of self-deprecation, though Smith’s poems are not overwrought, but suffused with uncertain risk, music, and desire for transcendence as they tilt between misery and hilarity, fostering an absurd logic that underscore her poems. Of course, by “absurd,” I don’t intend the general meaning associated with the ridiculous or nonsensical, but the philosophy born from existentialism — the absurd which exposes our human predilection for seeking inherent meaning in the world and how this desire clashes with the impossibility of finding “true” or “pure” meaning. We get this in Smith’s poetry: whimsical excavations of varying neuroses, of fears that are often unassailable, fears, which her poems suggest, one must try to endure — lest they corrupt the spirit.

Let’s consider the poem “Bedroom Community,” the first of the book, from the first section, “Parties.” Superficially, it is a “boy meets girl” story in which the speaker informs us that: “We met in the most interesting place in America, / which, it turns out, is any place that has a corner store.” Note the swift change in tone: from matter-of-fact to caustic in the space of a line break. Smith will, throughout the collection, employ comparable modulating strategies to characterize her speakers and personas as three-dimensional subjects that enrich the dominant style she writes: the narrative-lyric. She further illustrates this when the reader is privy to the following exchange:

…And he said,
“You look like the kind of girl who has a cat.” And I said,
“Who doesn’t?” All that steady lamplight turning
the sidewalk into snow.

We may not know in its totality what Smith wants us to understand about this relationship; we can, however, appreciate her acuity for juxtaposing the slightly obscure with moments striving for lyric clarity. Consider how we move from this odd conversation about cats to how light either creates the illusion of or more clearly illuminates the presence of snow. In doing so, Smith’s speaker arrives at two emotional responses — though none of them exactly lachrymose, they do, however, seem sadly defensive. When she quips: “Who doesn’t?” it so teems with sarcasm and apathy that it feels like an unjustified slap in the face to the male persona whose manner of “making conversation” is less a bad come-on than it is, probably, a nervous, if not oddly humored, attempt to chat. And given we have already encountered the speaker’s caustic tone in the first few lines of the poem, we may not be reaching when we assume she, indeed, responds with defenses poised, as if she so fiercely resists vulnerability that she reacts with one-liners and eye rolls (‘Who doesn’t?”). However, the second emotional response arrives the moment after, when, internally, she changes the subject, noting: “All that steady lamplight turning / the sidewalk into snow.” Here, a beautiful, albeit simple, description surfaces to expose the speaker’s suppressed tenderness, one she cannot, as yet, reveal to her male companion, but what she allows to exist safely within herself, and therefore, it exists to us.

Later, toward the end of the poem, the speaker contemplates how it might be cosmic intervention that brings these two together, and how are we to understand the “what for” and “why,” an absurdly impossible notion to understand with our limited human intellect. She asks:

If god wanted us to be strangers, why would he place us
next to each other in the movie theater and make us think
our knees are touching when they’re really a few inches

At this point, we might feel (justly) discombobulated, wondering, perhaps, if we have been paying close attention to the unfolding narrative. Until now, we’ve followed as the speaker and persona contemplate finding a fountain in which to play; they compose letters to American Bungalow magazine — which seems like a competition to see who can be the weirdest: “I am writing in response to your September article / on unconventional salt and pepper shakers, which, in my / estimation, can only be considered ‘unconventional’ / if they are filled with something other than salt and pepper.” This seems delightfully absurd without any philosophical extension, yet engenders a quirky milieu that is at once endearing and mildly disconcerting: we are not these people, but far be it from us to judge them too harshly. However, when we become supplanted in the theater with nothing to contextualize our being here, especially how easily we arrive, we can’t help but feel as though we’ve missed something — except for what comes next:

Looking at Anita Ekberg’s breasts, we can see
the future. It is soft pink, and frolics in a fountain
where the sea gods bathe their weary feet.

— “Bedroom Community,” p. 3

It seems we haven’t missed anything, but that we’ve been reading the poem askew, out of context; however it is a meaningful misunderstanding once we realize the narrative is an allusory one. Smith has extrapolated the story of La Dolce Vita, a 1960 comedy-drama written and directed by Federico Fellini, starring Anita Ekberg, a Swedish model and actress who would become a cult sex symbol, perhaps due to the celebrated scene in the film where her character, Sylvia, uninhibitedly, gambols in the Travi Fountain alongside her love-interest, played by Marcello Mastroianni. Furthermore, given the poem mirrors the story of La Dolce Vita — in which a man seeks happiness that never comes, the love of an unattainable woman that is unrequited — we may also argue the poem is an ekphrastic one.

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