The House a Hut Built: I Live in a Hut by S.E. Smith
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.
As an ekphrastic poem, Smith writes through a filter: relating to and defining elements of the film to illuminate the subject of her verse more visibly for the reader. Through such a device, Smith does not avoid confronting the subject head-on; rather, she challenges the implications of form and content: “Bedroom Community” insists its ekphrasis be revealed almost incidentally. By this I mean that form is not exactly counter to content, but that form should not supersede content, and that content can exist discretely from form while serving as the basis for it.
…Smith is a bold poet who risks obscurity and the seemingly arbitrary to achieve luminance and the shades inherent in it.
This creates what I call a palindromic effect: while the poem may not be read the same forward and backward, the reader, nevertheless, is compelled to read (forward) and re-read (backward) in order to de-mystify former confusions and, more importantly, one’s experience is rewarded with an enriched knowledge of the poem’s meaning and intentions.
“Bedroom Community” benefits greatly from this effect despite any uncertainty our understanding suffers. We are never kicked out of the poem because we trust the poet will ultimately deliver the meaning to us. And she trusts us as well — that somehow we will get it, as Smith is a bold poet who risks obscurity and the seemingly arbitrary to achieve luminance and the shades inherent in it.
The four-page poem, “Beauty,” begins the eponymous second section. It is here that Smith displays a remarkably evolved engagement with language. Where “Bedroom Community” showed us how form and content may collude to disarm us, if only momentarily, with uncertainty, the language of “Beauty” gives us music. If I were to appropriate a a particular kind of music, a score for this section, I believe Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration would serve it well, and “Beauty” would be the fourth movement, moderato — the sought-after transfiguration. Smith begins this section with an anti-apologia:
Already we are off to a terrible start.
with the cathedrals and the night-
which is to see beauty in gutter water
that we know it, too. Already
and similar to your own. But I
— p. 31
Smith is graceful, though without any illusions to her shortcomings: “Already we are off to a terrible start,” she states, not placing blame on any one person, but including herself as a participant, because what readers will have witnessed to this point is a series of poems — “Why I Am Not Famous,” “Un Peu,” “Discourse Against a Reluctant Lover,” “Manifest Destinyland,” et al. — that shows us Smith’s continual battle between joy and despair. “I can hardly bear to tell you more, / my knowledge being so silly / and similar to your own,” she warns us with charming self-deprecation, but also in commiseration, because “everything composed / by dull symmetries” seems to evoke a universal language, according to Smith. And “composed” is such an apt word here given what deepens this poem — ergo, the section — is the composition of music inherent in her lines: “the one we all know / with the cathedrals and the night- / blooming flowers…” (p. 31).
Jack Gilbert insists that “there will be music despite everything,” and Smith has taken this sentiment to heart, transposing “beauty” for “music,” and does so not only with rhetoric — and I use this term loosely — but with abundant passion, however tonally variegated it may be, and the power of her poetic facilities, and this is why she should be read. Not by sheer talent alone, but with the skill of a technician unabashed to say “… I / have only promised to attempt. I have attempted. Let’s move on.”
When finally we do move on to the final section, any reader might assume the transformative Smith we found in the preceding section, “Beauty,” has been replaced with the regressive one we believe we’ll discover in “Devastation.” How will grief be recapitulated, here? — one might wonder. Though when we turn to the first poem of the section, “Fuck You,” there is a deeply embedded fear in the pit of the stomach that something terrible is about to happen: that it is possible we are about to encounter poetry journalistically confessional, that every terrible thing the speaker encountered in the first section, “Parties,” is to be heightened to such retaliatory degrees we readers just might become collateral damage. So, we brace ourselves as we enter the poem “Fuck You,” as Smith writes:
This is the one thing I am not here to say.
Surprisingly, this is not what we expected, and Smith, as though with a wink, knows she has evaded our expectations because she quickly dismisses any trace of scorn, asserting: “That is the one thing I am not here to say,” continuing with greater specificity to proclaim: “I would never say it to you.” And who is this “you”: is it us, the readers? or any number of grief-perpetrators we’ve already encountered? If it is the latter, is this poem, then, the apologia Smith resists in “Beauty”? Or, since the “you” is characterized as being “so splendid and general,” is the “you” some heretofore unnamed persona we will have to read further in the section to encounter?
Later, in the second and third stanzas, Smith suggests the evolved person she is becoming:
My throat is thick with phlegm
Fuck you, gilded air.
— p. 37
What strikes me most is her use of the world “gilded,” how it denotes privilege, which, as we must remember, is the antithesis of the “hut” she lives in. Therefore, her throat is thick with phlegm. (But why? I will argue that “gilded air” represents the currency she has imbued all the problems in her life, as represented here in this book). Symptomatically, “phlegm” symbolizes its destructive powers. Therefore, when she is able to say “fuck you,” it is to the “gilded air,” to “green dust on everything” — to all things denigrating. And it is with this understanding that it becomes clear that Smith intends to say “fuck you” to Devastation as well. That this final section is the transfiguration that “Beauty” promises.
With an eye toward spiritual recovery, Smith begins to view life as an accumulation of the good and the bad as a holistic experience. As a result, the hut she has been living in gains new rooms and corridors to resemble a house, a dwelling large enough to accomodate her and her baggage. For example, in the poem “Seriousness,” she states that “I wore my honorable badness / badly” (p. 41). In “Paperweight Eiffel Tower,” she portends: “Because I knew everything / I could not avoid feeling / sometimes like a maggot / in the eye of a saint” (p. 46). However, these are not self-reproachful assertions; rather they illustrate how self-aware she is. And nothing evidences this than in the closing moments of the poem “Enormous Sleeping Women,” when she resigns herself to this fact: “I will take no / for an answer if it’s the right answer. For days I tried to rub the new freckle // off my hand until I realized what it was / and began to grant it its sovereignty” (p. 56). I can think of no better metaphor for self-discovery, at least in recent memory, than this. There is more to unearth, as I imagine Smith herself does, looking forward to it, as implied in the final poem, “Too Bad”: “I am a tiny jelly cake / and today is to be my greatest adventure” (p. 62).
If only we could all be so whimsical.
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