The Bathos of Impact: Ed Smith’s Notebooks and Journals

Sabrina Tarasoff revisits the poetry of Ed Smith.

By Sabrina TarasoffMay 16, 2021

The Bathos of Impact: Ed Smith’s Notebooks and Journals

ON OCTOBER 1, 2005, Ed Smith ascends the utility stairwell of his apartment building and collapses somewhere between the eighth and ninth floors with an “[a]ngry note,” as Amy Gerstler writes in her elegy for Smith, “stuffed in your pocket after you’d gulped / your overprescribed meds all at once.” Two decades prior, the rise and fall of the poet’s voice had already found its unsettled momentum in suicidal fantasy: “I’ve really got my work cut out for me. Swallowing 200 pills of any kind takes real effort and I ought to know.” These lines, from the bluntly titled “Three Suicidal Fantasies,” detail two hypothetical scenarios with gin-clear precision in which the poeticized self seeks to self-destruct. The prose-poem is unsettled by a neurotic calm; the lines move at the logorrheic pace of an overwrought mind. Smith opts out of floral attributions and flighty adjectives in lieu of action verbs, affirmations, and droll literalism. The fantasies gain traction in acts of “swallowing,” “regurgitating,” and “gagging,” as much as in moments of poetic self-assurance: “Because I am wise, and have put enormous thought into this,” he writes, “I make it back to my chair without incident. I lean back and pretend to sleep.” Like the drunken rampage in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1934), where Dick gets smashed outside of a bar “in savage triumph,” Smith’s fantasies of self-harm are felt in the weight and measure of his language, in the momentum, the excess of words in each sentence, clogged up with consonants and gradually slowing to a psychiatric calm: “I lean back in the seat and pretend to sleep.” Where the second fantasy fits snugly into a dorm room, windows snapped shut and furnishings doused with heady petrol, the third fantasy never makes it to the page: there is a blank space where the last paragraph should be. In part, the nothing at the end of the poem is a sign of the third fantasy’s final success: dead men tell no tales. But it is also an absence of language that aligns Smith with an aesthetics of negation, a practice built on refusals, denotational emptiness, blank books, black-outs, no-shows, and dead-ends. His suicidal fantasies and other works court the self-destruction of the poem as a canonical form bound to its own imperatives. They are “anti-poems,” as David Trinidad writes in his introduction to Smith’s collected notebooks and journals Punk Rock Is Cool for the End of the World, and ones that equally controvert their own cause; see “Denial”:


I would never do this.
This isn’t me.
You’d never catch me being words on paper,
Being written down,
Being in a position where
I could always be come back to and read.


Smith’s poetic exits are incursions on poetry’s presumed politesse; he often leaves without a proper goodbye. These denials and departures, dissociations, salient orgasms (i.e., petit morts), overdoses, and zero-degree experiences are face-offs between the relative obscurity of the individual poet and poetry’s colossal voice as it resounds through the canon. “Nowhere,” Trinidad writes on places to find Smith’s only two volumes, Fantasyworld (1983) and Tim’s Bunnies (1987), and so inadvertently situates the poet in another space of absence, not only the lamentable non-recognition but the timeless place the poet was writing from: Los Angeles in the 1980s. Smith’s poems are shone through with the stagnant sunshine of an amnesiac city as its substance slips in and out of resolution: dreamlike drifts, drug binges, cigarette breaks, sexual experiences, fantasies, near-fatal encounters, all-night parties, listless pastimes, cars, cartoons, nameless phone numbers, swings, secrets, department stores, streetlights, and “Large Cola Slurpees.” There is a sharpness to his language as it traffics through the “nowhere” of Los Angeles’s psychic landscape in various poetic vehicles: cars (“We’re rolling along nicely. No one / is driving”), buses (“I sat in front of you on the bus today / but you didn’t recognize me”), elevators (“and each time it’s new / in a boring way / you know like a power drill ha ha ha”), and airplanes (“Imagine, if you will, British Airways”), each of which must be read as sweetly disaffected and very SoCal recuperations of Arthur Rimbaud’s drunken boat. Smith sets his verse in motion by transports of the imagination that seek to stand in for a fragmented first-person narrative (i.e., as proxies for the poetic voice) and, as such, rewrites himself as Captain Maudit of his own Bateau ivre. Bemused by his synesthetic sight-seeing around Hollywood’s more reproachable joints, Smith becomes a seer of the anti-sublime (“Imagine pissing with a hard-on”) but unfortunately gets a bit too bombed in his drift:


I can’t have fun unless I get drunk
We like to make pretty parties
with glass bottles smoke brown
believe me
you drink eighteen beers in one hour
and it’s bound to affect your life
I just can’t remember what it did to mine


In the posthumous Court Green, volume 10 dossier on Smith, Bruce Hainley described the “cover illustration for Tim’s Bunnies that perfectly depicts the sweetly ominous aftershock of Smith’s toy time bombs,” picking up on the miniaturist sensibility and wind-up-toy-like spin of Smith’s poetic setups. In their candy-coated cultural malaise and ad hoc animating principles, the poems bear an atmosphere of suburban daredevilry, of backyard skits, homemade stunts, sight gags, and handmade explosives, drafted with a delicate and facile hand. Tersely stating his repudiation of poetry’s more pretentious acolytes, Smith arranges his poems like the carefully planned and impetuously executed antics of the Jackass series. Edging an air of fatality with romantic irony, Smith’s poems are gratified by their pratfalls. The minimal setup and lowbrow absurdism speak to a kind of punk satori; the poems enlighten like the small thrill of a sudden deflagration. Scattered throughout are prompts to jump, to roll, to be awash, to agonize, to give head and be given head in return, to come, to explode. His language plummets and falls. Many of Smith’s poems bomb. He is also frequently bombed (“I’m almost drunk / after four little bottles of Inglenook”) or building imaginary bombs (“if this were a bomb / you’d be dead”), not to mention dropping f-bombs (“SHIT FUCK DAMN HELL / Boy am I in a bad mood”). In contrast to the idea of poetry as the more sophistiqué and prudent form of address, these terse lines test the limits of language’s proper conduct as questions of process, or progress: momentum. His one-line wordplays, double entendres, slurred meanings, bad jokes, ekphrastic loops, and anaphoric pestilences push toward an irreverent yet serious self-excision from the cesspool of post-1960s Beat romanticism: “molding young minds / into penicillin.” Certainly Smith was into what it means to “construct a sort of bomb — secret, and devastating in its ‘effects once it exploded,’” as Francis Ponge once wished of his poems in the wake of World War II. Yet aside from the immediate thrill of witnessing such explosions, Smith was acutely aware of the diminutive form’s potentially forceful impact: “But the issue at hand is not the deadliness to which I refer,” he writes in “Sharing,” “but rather the education or convincing of an opponent”:


… of the futility of engaging me: tiny incisions appear miraculously about the hands and face while I stand there casually holding my blade out before me will ofttimes afford an opponent that enlightenment approximated within those victims of Kafka’s engraving-tattoo machine; although, it is hoped my clients will survive their lesson. My choice of the exacto-knife, however, does not stop where the blood flows, rather it continues metaphorically in a manner erratically erotic symbolizing the means of my draft, how I cut up time, not unlike those magical tweezers our scientists use to pick apart and re-arrange tiny strands of DNA.


In “Sharing,” we see the atmosphere of Los Angeles’s 1980s poetic scene condense into the voice of a disaffected member of the literati living out their last adolescent offenses in the name of erudition, science, and progress, as a means of poking fun at the previous generation’s cut-and-paste pretensions of verse’s political potential. Smith’s poems proceed with the sin of literalism to examine gravity’s impact on language. He messes around with face value for the sake of poorly impersonating the scientist’s straight-laced inquisitiveness. Smith’s nihilism makes meticulous incisions into the fabric of poetic history. In the posthumously published Return to Lesbos, Smith crawls into the poetic canon only to shoot himself out into history to observe where and how he falls. His poetic voice projects in a thin line of short syllables, page after page, trying to reconcile the act of writing (“I’m just / a guy who / can hold / a pencil / yeah yeah”) with the responsibility implied in the role (“hey this is / my fucking job / to cry for / civilization now”). Channeling Sappho, the fragmented “epic” gestures toward the fatalism, impending failure, and endless hilarity implied in any writer’s self-serious attempts to approach the limits of expression in language — “but I’m just a guy, / who can hold a pencil what the / fuck are you doing here,” he goes on, and on. It is an elegy written as a poetic comedown; Smith basks in the bathos of impact.


In scientific observation, he finds a literary device capable of creating the distance he needs from this imposed identity in order to recognize, as he writes, the painful “error of / metaphor you / can’t trick me, / I have this boy / firmly in my grip / he’s me he’s / mine he’s / poetry.” What he witnesses as he coasts through a history of poiesis is the collapse of the “psycho-analysis of the cave” into the “poetics of exploration,” as Roland Barthes once wrote on being captain of another poetic boat. The poet crawls into the canon only to treat it on par with this mythic image of self-enclosure, the drunken boat, whose traveling “I” mostly moved through its own vessel —


Sylvia


Plath was


too trapped


to write


poetry


bullshit!


I will


have to


check her


out sometime


(Ed Smith, “Return to Lesbos,” as published in Court Green, volume 11)


— which made for a claustrophobic reality. Again, something had to give. SoCal suburban youth, the Rimbaudian antics of young poets then active on the scene, and the fallen sublimity of Hollywood Boulevard all combined in Smith’s satirical sense of the poem as skit. Not unlike Johnny Knoxville’s marriage of sick skater-humor to “a slapstick tradition that went back to the rougher end of vaudeville,” as James Parker reflected, Smith’s poems had minimal setup, were delivered with gin-clear (and drunken) expedience, and this all for the sake of examining the repercussions of some higher form of violence. This is particularly true in Smith’s second and last book Tim’s Bunnies (1988) wherein most of the poems are setup as short vignettes of absurdist, propositional, or dreamy caliber. This follows the same logic as Smith’s suicidal fantasies, where language becomes the jokester-poet’s double act. A straight-man in comedy is expected to have an affective response, though never laugh — never acknowledge the joke. There is an assumed innocence to this role, which in Smith’s poetry has to do with the guileless, almost miraculously effortless documentary impulse. The language is immediate, directive, and affective. In an interview shortly before his death, Smith noted: “Well, right from the start I had thought of poetry as a form of information processing, and of the poet as a form of information processor.” Smith’s poems bumble and thrash against a blank and inexpressive facade. His computation reads clear:


attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet
attention i’m a poet attention i’m a poet attention


To put Smith’s dedication into context, Peale was the American minister held largely responsible for popularizing the concept of “positive thinking.” The poem is a cartoonish and smart-ass ode to the power of being oneself, self-expression, and having faith in one’s abilities; it is meant to be read as an affirmation. Until, that is, its repetition slips into robotic hysterics, becoming a malfunctioning machine stuck on the same panicked sentiment. In the last line, the whole dumb spectacle of attention breaks down, coming to a sudden halt like a broken ride at Disneyland. (This must be related to Smith doing acid at Disneyland and figuring out he “can do something with his writing.”) We are left with a slight sense of dread, like a roller coaster clicking to some impossible peak. As with the three suicidal fantasies where the third one is void, Smith suspends us in that moment of negative excitement. Positive thinking becomes panic, panic becomes a poem, and the poem becomes a phenomenon.


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Sabrina Tarasoff is a Finnish writer and critic based in Paris, France. Her writing dwells on the mysterious movement between popular culture, poetry, and art, with a particularly keen eye on the nebulous “poet gang” that formed around the Wednesday Night Poetry series at Beyond Baroque Literary Art Center during the period from 1976 to 1986.


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Banner image: "Creepy Crawl boys room" by relux. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been darkened and cropped.

LARB Contributor

Sabrina Tarasoff is a Finnish writer and critic based in Paris. She is a contributing editor at Mousse Magazine and writes regularly for ArtforumFlash Art, and X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly. Her writing dwells on the mysterious movement between popular culture, poetry, and contemporary art, with a particularly keen eye on the nebulous “poet gang” that formed around the Wednesday Night Poetry series at Beyond Baroque Literary Art Center during the period from 1976 to 1986. Her work is currently featured at the Huntington Library as a part of the biennial, Made in LA 2020: a version, with the art installation-cum-home haunt, “Beyond Baroque: A Haunted House.” She also runs the Summer Room, an annual art writing residency at Treignac Projet in Treignac, France. 

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