Refreshingly Now

111781 W. Sunset Boulevard,
Simon Smith (Shearsman) 

Simon's Smith's poetry has a surface dazzle which is attractive and immediate, concerned with capturing the moment and incorporating as much information as possible without resorting to 'overload tactics'. In this sense his work is more artful than it may at first appear and furthermore, on re-reading, you start to pick up patterns, of vocabulary, repeated phrases with different resonance, and a sense that beneath the surface shine there is more going on. You wouldn't necessarily call this poetry as critique, but there's certainly an historical suggestiveness that is rich with detail, even though this is conveyed via the immediacy of an individual's autobiographical snapshotting.

The collection is split into two parts, the first concerning California and the second, entitled 'Gravesend', which may be the author's hometown. There's a sense of 'flattening' here which combines an intoxication with the landscape (we are introduced to L.A. via a bird's eye view) and the idea of AMERICA with all the complexity that entails and a more European viewpoint, also hinting at classical allusion in a manner which feels refreshingly 'of the now':

     Sunset Blvd. The Pacific coast Highway, then north north-west
     along the coast

     canyons inland lined-up-Topanga, Corral,

     Latigo, Ramirez,

     where the miniature black Pomeranian goes surfing,

     where the porno threesomes cruise-oh, cup

     cake this ain't Proust's madeleine to bite into-

     not even if you listen hard enough
               (from 'Paradise Cove')

References to popular tv culture ('Jim Rockford's Pontiac') and Jazz ('chill to Chet Baker's / 'The Thrill / is Gone') jostle with echoes of the 'homeland' ('the hundred Croydons of the west / & time before') via a transposed poet who owes as much to Jim Morrison and Steely Dan as to any classical tradition:

     Rilke searching streets & corners, passing
     cars like the grind of sharpening knives.
               (from 'Hummingbird')

     There's an implied relationship here between the 'Brit', imbued with American culture and American glamour, which is both celebratory and yet not entirely overawed, a sort of relaxed comfortableness which retains its critical faculty, not something so easy for an early generation of 'leftfield' English writers, I would have thought.

There are poems in 'Gravesend' which have a more explicitly political content, though these are often viewed through the dual binocular of the recent past and a more classical sense of colonialism and the way in which these aspects impact upon the present. Thus we get:

     'Is anyone going shopping? The ascendant

     Activity over and above questions of heritage

     Or the role of collieries in the early 21st Century.

     Question 1: '1984'

     Where a half-brick to hand is worth

     A throw through an open window comes in handy.

     Police lined up aboard vans connive

     Two knaves and three of a kind

     Behind reinforced glass and grilles

     Juvenal, Claudius, Caesar, heading west then north.

     Maybe even Vespasian.
               (from 'History GCSE [Kent and Essex Board, June 2008'])

These two sections work on each other on re-reading and there's clearly a sense of an uneasy relationship between the two cultures, both in terms of politics and in lifestyle - 'How much do they give in the pawnshop for the lyre?' (from 'Those Were the Days') yet despite the mix of high culture and 'down-at heel' austerity, more evident in Section 2, there's an irrepressible sense of 'take-it-all-in' observation which is both sharp and immediate, offering pleasurable aesthetic moments within an increasing sense of a critical voice:


     Refrigeration and containment

     Not that far to the jail at Sheppey

     Nationalise the debt for helicopter money

     No time to think - extruded plexiglass,

     Or a few details from my own personal experience

     Is History in real time not sampled

     The exchange of containers from ro-ros to lorries,

     The male located in the female.

This is certainly a collection which you need to re-read as there's so much going on that it's easy to miss things first time around. There's also a pleasure-rush to be had by engaging with these poems, a fact which deepens on subsequent gistings, not something you could say about all contemporary poetry.

Somebody ought to do a comparison between contemporary 'political poetry' produced from within the academy - say Drew Milne, Tony Lopez, Keston Sutherland and Simon Smith, with those poets working outside this framework, say Sophie Mayer, Niall McDevitt, Alan Morrison and Andy Croft - I think it might throw up some interesting possibilities.

      Steve Spence 2014