Rich Smith’s first book of poetry, All Talk, from Poor Claudia, is over a hundred pages filled with play: form, sound, repetition, meta-poetry, character, setting, image and language are all put into the hands of a poet looking to have fun.
The first poem, “The King of the Babies”, is a poem that introduces us to this idea. Told from the perspective of a neonate, it is about the fleeting nature of being human, trying to experience what is worth experiencing, missing some, regretting, but ultimately finding everything fascinating all the time. The closing lines read, “… and then I was amazed / by my hands. First the right one, and then the left one, / and then by the fact that I had two.” These lines focus on the newness of experience and situation that the rest of the book tries to give us through odd images, odd turns of language, odd story and playful forms. The speaker of “King of the Babies” is the perspective we are supposed to inhabit while reading All Talk.
The simplest, or most obvious, form of play in All Talk is form. Smith plays with form several different ways. Some poems rely of rhyme, many contain dialogue. Two poems in particular dance with the form of poetry and each have an entire section in the book composed solely of themselves. The first poem, comprising all of section four, is called “Glut.” In it, the poet writes two short stanzas:
I have consumed
so much information
I cannot think
Was it any different
in the land of only
a thousand cornstalks,
the local catastrophe?
The first stanza on the next page reads:
I’ve consumed. My heart is now 40% off.
So much information is too much information.
I can’t think through the metadata. Sift
it out? Taylor Swift, Ex-Girlfriend, Holy War;
it weakens my glasses and dims my sensors.
The walls arise, billow, blacken, blind.
And in the end, we have five (six including the first manifestation) permutations of the same poem. Each successive poem tweaks, tricks, deletes and adds to the previous one, playing a game, dancing with itself and with expectations of what a poem, a series of poems and a whole book of poems is expected to do. Smith simultaneously acknowledges our expectations as a reader, calls attention to this expectation and then has fun.
The other poem that allows form to dictate what happens, and follows “Glut,” is called “At This Rate”. The poem goes:
In the pines I saw you yawning back
a glass of wine. The next day I saw
you yawning back. And the next day
you yawning. And then
only you. Thereafter,
Smith this time deletes each part of the poem, the opposite of what happens in “Glut.” Clearly, the author chose to do this, clearly the form, in both poems, takes precedence over anything else. Form, in these two poems as well as others throughout the book, is the invented rule to the game Smith plays. Whether or not poetry should serve a higher purpose, should instruct or reveal or investigate humanity, emotions, feelings, death, etc, is not something these two poems are concerned with. They are like the box score in the newspaper the day after a ball game, they show us what happened with Smith sat down to play a game called Poetry.
Another instance of play is with a recurring character named Sarah. Sarah clearly was the speaker’s lover, at one time. The final section of the book mentions Sarah in every single poem, albeit sometimes obscurely. The poems meander their way through seeing Sarah at a bar from an omniscient point of view, bringing her a croissant at Jiffy Lube where she works, getting married to an angry version of her, and, ultimately, moving on. The main stages of the relationship are skipped because we already know the first-kiss feelings, etc. Instead, we get a series of poems with the same title, “From Sarah:” in which, presumably, Sarah writes poems to the speaker who is in love with her. This is the choice Smith makes: rather than having a love-section, Smith has a section where a single woman will constantly be the focus, even if it is not the same woman, and then he plays with as many permutations as he can that are enjoyable to see. We have a poem where the “I” becomes “you” and the speaker teaches us how to fall in love in a new town; we have a poem where the speaker cuts open a bag that is inside Sarah’s body and sees her life-history come falling out. These are the choices Smith makes with his poetry.
Because this book has fun, Smith constantly turns corners that entertain, something a lot of poetry doesn’t value. The opening of “The Possibility of Actual Happiness” reads:
A week earlier I might have despaired of the world’s
grandmother hobbling toward Planned Parenthood,
its reflective man holding what looks like an electronic briefcase
over the manhole cover on Second Ave.,
its belches resounding in late afternoon’s sleepy courtyard,
but now it seems as if dying winter
shook them all out to bolster the color of this,
the most recent spring, the first day this year
I’ve set out to stroll for strolling’s sake.
Yes, the first sweat portends a deluge.
And, oh yeah, taxes. And, daunting, the pressure
of enumerating each awakening daffodil.
“stroll for strolling’s sake.” The voice, the word choice, the focus, the movement, all exist without presumption, without justification, “And, oh yeah,” don’t care about justification or explanation or enlightenment. Poetry doesn’t need a reason to exist, in any form. Poetry doesn’t even need a form, and Smith’s large first collection champions that perspective.
The first time I read the book, I was frustrated because I didn’t feel like I learned, I didn’t feel like I felt anything as I read, but as I looked back through, I enjoyed the play, the fun, the complete lack of superficiality: All Talk is exactly that, it’s all talk. It is not meant to be philosophical, or enlighten what it means to be human, it will not fight the world or rush politics or change your heart or mind by breaking walls with poetic devices, it is not out to be different or make a statement or try to push the boundaries of what constitutes poetry. All Talk is out to dance and have fun and play games, by itself if it needs to, but if you want to join in the fun, All Talk welcomes you.
All Talk, by Rich Smith. Portland, Oregon: Poor Claudia. 112 pages. $15.00, paper.
Jacob Collins-Wilson is currently earning his MFA in Poetry at Syracuse University and has poetry published or forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Barely South Review, The Finger Literary Magazine, Spillway, Rathalla, and Poetry Quarterly, among others, in addition to being a finalist for the Best of the Net 2013 anthology. He can be reached by everyone at: firstname.lastname@example.org.