Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper, 2002-2004

Jessica Smith

Outside Voices


Saturday, September 16th, 2006

Back when this review was just a gleam in your reporter’s eye, a brouhaha was, well, brewing on Ron Silliman’s blog. Silliman praised Jessica Smith’s Organic Furniture Cellar for its "ambition," calling it "the most important book of 2006," and this brought about a predictable slew of negative reactions from comments-field trolls with mostly male blogger profiles. [It should be added that Smith also started her own press, Outside Voices, to publish Organic Furniture Cellar, and the fact that she snuck around the gatekeepers also brought out a snobby outcry from the comments-fielders. These protectors of poetry should be relieved to learn that Smith has since gone on to augment her authors list with up-and-comers Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee.]

What Silliman found fit to praise about Organic Furniture Cellar was the fact that, unlike her twenty-something peers, and like a certain twenty-something who once penned a bagatelle called The New Sentence, Smith has the gumption to both build and climb the ramparts, to identify, which is to say, launch, a new movement for poetry, namely "plastic poetry." Smith appends this, her first book, with a 9-page introduction laying out the tenets of plastic poetry, its goals and how it builds on and departs from related poetries of the past. Silliman calls Smith’s introduction "the most serious theoretical discussion I’ve seen at the front of a book of poetry in some time," which admittedly makes you wonder how long he’s been holding his telescope backwards, as does his conviction that writers younger than himself aren’t trying to make much happen with and through poetry. Still, "The Plasticity of Poetry (A Poetics)" yields much under careful consideration, though not necessarily what Smith intends. Instead, her essay raises interesting questions and exposes still more interesting flaws, and if in the end its relationship to the poems that follow seems not entirely apt, it is in itself a compelling piece of provocation, well-dosed with moxie and rhetorical flair.

In laying out just what plastic poetry is supposed to be, Smith begins with an analogy to architecture, and a reference to Gins and Arakawa’s Architectural Body, with some Enlightenment-era German aesthetics thrown in for good measure. Just as Gins and Arakawa imagine that users create space by moving through it, and thus envision architecture as "a site of reciprocal becoming,"

With plastic poetry, I want to change the reading space in such a way that the one who reads is forced to make amends for new structures in his or her virtual path. The words on a page must be plastic in virtual space as architecture and sculpture are plastic in real space. Thus, while plastic arts disrupt an agent’s space: plastic poetry must disrupt the reader’s space. This rupture does not stem from, as in the ordinary plastic arts, a real physical occupation of space, but rather from the disruption of the virtual space that one moves through when reading a poem.

All italics are Smith’s here, as is the emphatic colon in sentence three, a colon I wholly ratify. Apart from these typographical flourishes, however, I am already beginning to take issue with Smith’s approach. For one thing, I am not so certain why she insists that poetry is somehow apart from"real space," or why she insists that "reader’s space" is a virtual one and not a real one.

After all, in the next paragraph she insists on the material reality of plastic poetry, in that it "usually has a fragmentary visual component" and thus "calls attention to the physicality of reading." Meanwhile, plastic poetry "interferes with syntactic continuity by disrupting what the reader expects to find, or by suspending her memory of a word by breaking the word into unrecognizable fragments." The end result is to draw "attention to the way a reader uses the virtual space of memory to syntactically organize language into meaning."

It is at this point that plastic poetry begins to feel a bit tautological, or at least redundant, an anxiety Smith tries to refute somewhat lamely in various places in the essay. I mean "lamely" in two directions—lamely, in that I would prefer for her to ignore the haters and just trod on with her gumbooted brio, and also lamely, in that her parries are rather lame. She defends against plastic poetry’s redundancy thusly: "To be sure, the interdependency of space and time characterizes all reading, but the distinctive trait of the following poems is that they reinforce this condition"; and "I recall my high school teachers saying that books are never read the same way twice, and that each person brings something different to the text. This is reciprocal becomng at the basic level, but in my poems I really mean it […]."

Smith’s anxiety that she might not be laying out anything particularly new is evidenced in the strained way she makes straw men of both calligrams and concrete poetry, in order to brush them aside and usher in her new and improved Plasticity. She skewers the calligram on two points—firstly, that "the calligram’s ‘playfulness’ is simply a joke," a riddle that, once solved, closes its doors to meaning-making. This seems a suspiciously sweeping statement; equally suspect is the fact that as an example she references only Apollinaire’s much-anthologized chestnut "Il pleut, and that not once but twice. Secondly, Smith asserts that a calligram’s ‘obviousness’ means that there is "no syntactical (virtual) space for the reader to explore; the reader is not forced to hesitate between the memories and potentialities of meaning." This may be obvious for Smith, but it isn’t so for me, and I’m curious as to why a writer supposedly so invested in the spectrum of approaches to reading any single text would be so adamant in insisting there is only one way to read any text, including a calligram. By the time she argues that " [u]nlike the calligram, the plastic poem makes the reader aware of her eye’s movements across the page," I wonder whether Silliman, or blurbsters Bernstein, Spahr, and Bok, or even Smith herself believes this trumped up boast (one wonders if the blurbsters even read it). Certainly, whatever pooh-poohing one may feel for "Il pleut," calligrams depart from conventional printing techniques and thus require unconventional eye-movement across the page, a movement which radically combines looking and reading and which must be reconfigured by each reader, each time. If there was one moment in the history of literature where people were forced to become aware of their eyes’ unconventional movement across the page, it was Apollinaire’s.

Concrete poetry fares slightly better than calligrams, but eventually it, too, must fall on its sword so that plastic poetry may have its day. "Like calligrams," Smith declares in a closing salvo which still shocks despite its being so predictable, “concrete poems do not allow the reader to enter their syntactic space like plastic poems do.” But what concrete poetry is Smith talking about? Brazilian concrete poetry? Swedish concretism? Whole movements of 20th century avant-garde poetry are being not just dismissed but blithely ignored here, pre-20th century traditions notwithstanding. Since she gives no examples at all, her argument seems arbitrary at best. In the footnote she refers us to two poems by Steve McCaffery and bpNichols, but if this is the extent of Smith’s experience of concrete poetry, I wonder what they are teaching them up in Buffalo these days. At any rate all this bluster about concrete poetry becomes a bit quixotic since Smith also admits that she has included concrete poems in her book, namely a map of islands made up of ‘Ö’s, the Swedish word for ‘island’. So sometimes, it would seem, concrete poems are plastic poems, as long as they are by Smith, McCaffery or Nichol, and as long as they are never, never calligrams.

The most contradictory aspect of Smith’s general argument, however, is that while it feints in the direction of radically opened texts, texts which challenge the reader to forge their own paths for reading in would-be "virtual" space (I’m still not sure why it’s virtual), her ideas about reading itself, its ends and its means, seem limited, even conservative. Her footnotes doff their caps to the usual formally radical suspects: Fluxus scores, Futurism, LangPo elders, etc. But these hardly seem absorbed into the body of her thought, not if she is so ready to dismiss the visual dynamism of the concrete movements that have preceded her.

Smith seems very ambivalent about the task of meaning making in the reading of plastic poetry. On the one hand she asserts that with plastic poetry, "the reader can choose from many possible syntactic paths. She is not forced to follow just one path that makes sense; many methods and routes make sense in a more complex way than linear syntax does." Elsewhere Smith asserts that even if her reader "should encounter only nonsense, the labyrinth of fragmented words itself becomes meaningful (if only because taking a certain path will lead to nonsense, thus warning the reader to choose a different one)." Why this prohibition on nonsense? Why must the end of reading be to ‘make sense’ at all? What else and why else might we read? Opening up the text to these types of questions is not in Smith’s program. Instead, the reader of the plastic poem "becomes aware of her memory’s activity of putting fragments into letters, letters into syntax, and syntax into narrative." And further, "What is at stake in the plastic poem is […] the logic of syntax and its relation to the workings of memory." That’s a pretty prescriptive formulation of reading for a movement so supposedly opened to multilinear readings, so supposedly radical in its openness, so supposedly new.

The problem with plastic poetry is not what it does, but what Smith thinks it’s for, which is to say, not much more than making us self-conscious of our reading. With her whistling-past-the-graveyard absolutism, Smith seems afraid of nonsense, afraid of jettisoning narrative and memory and vague spots-in-timish "virtuality" in which syntax becomes apparent to us. She seems afraid to consider the implications of a truly opened and undetermined text for a reader, for reading, for event, for temporality, for politics, even. In this sense her program seems incomplete, and, for now, shallower than that of the Language Poets she reveres, shallower than that of the Fluxus artists, particularly Jackson MacLow, who had a functioning theoretical framework for his indeterminacy and who is nowhere referenced here. A reading of his recent volume of performance texts, Doings from Granary Books, might add some nuance to this nascent movement.

My favorite part of "The Plasticity of Poetry (A Poetics) " is the infloration of terminology that takes up its last few pages. Here Smith provides a kind of roadmap to the poems that will follow, including a taxonomy of their fragments, which include "spines," "nodes," "splits," "shards," "splinters" and "ghosts." Here it strikes me that Smith is really onto new ground, pronouncing a new system of categories for thinking about poetry, entirely idiosyncratic but joyful as well. It is provided as a guide for readers (which again seems a bit deterministic in this context) but reconceived of as a theory of process might add some dimensionality to Smith’s discussion of temporal dynamics in her texts.

As for the poems themselves, as examples of plastic poetry, as sites of "reciprocal becoming," they are hit or miss, as even Silliman seems inclined to admit. In a poem such as flores para los muertos, I enjoy the action of reading that creates a double path through the text when read vertically and yet glimpses words alternately lifting off and being pegged back down to the page when read horizontally

at any moment
everythingcould be lethal […]

On the other hand, so many of these poems deal with travel, memory, leisure time, and nature that I can only wonder just why Smith built such an elaborate frame on which to mount this latest version of Wordsworthian subjectivity. Is the plasticity of plastic poetry meant to denature this naggingly conservative content, to suppress it, or just conceal it? A descriptive poem about leaves seems a case in point:

fire explosion
yellow burnt
bursts of
bright musky
soft green with
orangeyellow […]

Not only is this a fairly conventional descriptive poem on one of the most conventional of all poetry topics (autumn leaves), but to my eyes all those random falling letters are making the whole thing look more than a little (gasp!) concrete. Even her less overtly concrete pieces still exhibit the old subterranean tug between form and content that plastic poetry would theoretically have no need for—poems about train journeys, canals, locks, slanting rain (il pleut indeed!), walking on bridges, looking into a lover’s eyes, all of which are linear vectors inevitably mimicked in the linear vectors of the page.

I’m not sure which is most dismaying, to arrive at Smith’s extremely reductive treatment of Ulysses(if there was one text that does not need to be made more ‘plastic’ it’s Ulysses; what’s next, a more ‘open’ version of Finnegans Wake?) or at her touristic treatment of the Swedish language and landmass. Smith makes limited use of the Swedish language, exploiting its funky-looking vowels and resultingly funky-looking place- and flower-names while at the same time ignoring a poetic heritage which includes an entire movement of concrete poetry (including the invention of the term ‘concretism’ by Swede Öyvind Fahlstrˆm in 1953.) She even ignores a contemporary poetry scene which is rewriting that same countryside along lines much more radical than those Smith has as yet taken up (to wit, Aase Berg’s most recent volume, Uppland, among others.) The Sweden poems are the worst examples of the travel-journal tendencies of this book.

So why has this review grown so long—longer, I think, than the infamous essay which spawned it, "The Plasticity of Poetry (A Poetics)"? I think enough of Smith’s project and her chutzpah to want her to succeed. I’m perplexed by both the unstinting praise showered on this project by Silliman et al, who seem to have accepted Smith’s rhetoric at face value without considering its lapses, limits, and contradictions, and the player-hating on the part of those who are jealous of this praise. At a time when many young writers are pushing against the boundaries of the page, the single poem, and the genre of poetry itself, I agree with Silliman (!) that it’s a good thing when poets take the time to actually think about and try to theorize what they’re doing. I also think that while this essay and volume fall short, the lapses point the way to a more interesting and complex theory of plastic poetry, one that makes a consideration of process, one that allows for the lapse and the ellipsis, the reading strategies which are truly open ended, which do not seek after meaning, but rather to be always arriving at a state of radical becoming.

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