Imagine if Canadian poets bpNichol and Milton Acorn were somehow able to have a child together, and that child decided to follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a rambunctious, experimental and politically engaged poet, and that poet spent the `70s and `80s crashing around the nascent small-press literary scenes of Kingston and Toronto, going on to publish a number of books of verse and engaging in such counterculture hijinks as giving three-hour readings or tying himself to a chair on stage, and then imagine that poet deciding to exile himself from the literary life in the late `90s for about a dozen years in order to study and practice law, and then imagine if that poet came roaring back after his long hiatus with a big, bold, angry, exuberant collection of his new and old poems, a book that screams out those long-ago parental antecedents on nearly every page, a book that tries to capture those oh-so distant Springsteenian glory days when poets could still be agents for genuinely radical activism – imagine THAT, and you might be able to imagine what you’d find between the covers of Jim Smith’s Back Off, Assassin!
Make no mistake: this book is an absolute fucking rat’s nest. But it’s a glorious rat’s nest. Pungent, militant, deeply personal, often cryptic, occasionally sloppy, but ultimately able to keep an open-minded reader engaged from the first page to the last. Few Canadian books of poetry could pull off such a loud and relentless truculence. I see this collection as a kind of antithesis to my usual fare of more sombre, reserved poetry books – like, for example, David Helwig’s The Year One, which I reviewed favourably earlier this month.
Mind you, because many of Back Off, Assassin!’s poems date back to the 1980s, the targets of Smith’s socialist vitriol seem a bit dated: Reagan and his treatment of the Sandinistas; various Hollywood action stars of the period; and several acts of political injustice in Latin America. But we tolerate these references, I think, partly because our post-9/11, post-Bush world feels like it’s come back around to the dark days of the 1980s, thus resurrecting the relevance of Smith’s zesty critiques. This collection would have a lot less bite had it been published, for example, at the height of the swingin’ Clinton years.
Still, some parts of this book could have benefited from some updating. I’m thinking specifically of his sequence of poems about Arnold Schwarzenegger. When Smith originally wrote these lines, in the late `80s, Arnold held a much different role in mainstream culture than he does now. Back then, he was solely the hulking star of the Conan and Terminator films – or as one New Yorker film critic put it, a symbol of Hollywood action movies juiced up on “perposteroids”. But Schwarzenegger has since mutated into a political entity, and one worthy of Smith’s rapacious jibes. Had the poet chosen to modernize this sequence (or at least add an addendum to it) in order to explore the current version of Arnold, it would have gone a long way to tying the collection as a whole more closely to our current epoch. It may have also helped to avoid lines like these: “perhaps it is because you/ are a democrat/ transplanted from the fecund soil/ of Europe”. Arnold may be a democrat, but he’s no Democrat, baby. That guy is Republican through and through (“Don’t be an economic girly man!” he once admonished those who believe governments should regulate corporations – just about a year before unfettered financiers caused the global economy to collapse, if I’m not mistaken), and Smith misses a great opportunity to take a poke at him because of it.
There are tons of these little digs one could exact on Back Off, Assassin!, but to do so would be to miss the broader point. At its heart, this collection is full of a deeply held sense of trauma, both of the political and personal kind. The trauma of a socialist living in an increasingly unsocialistic world, but also the trauma of a man whose brother died too young, a man who had a strained relationship with his father. Even the trauma of a poet trying to find his place in Toronto’s already overcrowded lit scene.
Yes, much of Back Off, Assassin! is zany and silly, but it should still be read with the utmost seriousness.