Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Review: Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra, by Jim Smith
Raging counterculture versemeister Jim Smith has returned with a new collection of poetry, Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra—a book at once frothing with quirks and puns and all manner of Smith’s trademark zaniness as well as a serious deference to the Spanish-speaking political and poetic traditions to which it owes a debt. Indeed, the Nicanor Parra of the title refers to the famed Chilean poet (now 99 years old) who won the Cervantes Prize in 2011. Both Chile and Spain loom large over Smith’s book as he mixes his bizarre cocktail of random absurdity and pointed activism.
Take, for example, the piece “Things I’ve Died from Recently,” a list poem that—like the best Smith’s work—deliberately destabilizes its own centre, acting as a real-time palinode to the rapid-fire lines it lays upon the page. He writes:
Running away from bears.
Running toward bears.
Failing to look at a diabetic’s feet
carefully when they are my own.
Getting angry & holding
my breath while swallowing my tongue.
Reading too much
reading not enough
While we as readers can only glimpse at the motivating factors behind this poem, we can still abandon ourselves to the cadence of its contradictions. Compare that to Smith’s poem “The Fate of Chile,” which makes no attempt to mask its driving force. This piece plays with the phenomenon of those who were “disappeared” during the brutal reign of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet—and paradoxically credits his actions for bringing so much of that country’s poetry to Smith’s consciousness:
I know what happened to Jara,
but where is Luis Navarro now?
I know what happened to Allende,
but the fate of Sam Rojas is unclear to me.
Friends I never would have had
but for Pinochet
Never would have read Parra
but for Pinochet
Another poet haunting this collection is Lorca, who was murdered during the Spanish Civil War. It was interesting for me to read Smith’s musings on this writer after reading Patrick Friesen’s recent collection A Dark Boat, which also taps into the Lorca mystique. Whereas Friesen relies heavily on reverence when referencing the various legends that surround Lorca, Smith works in his tributes by weaving them into his book’s broader panoply of cheekiness. Indeed, whether writing about Lorca, Neruda, or Milton Acorn, Smith acknowledges the sacred by reminding us that nothing is really sacred.
In my review of Smith’s previous collection Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems, I referred to his arrangement of poems as “a rat’s nest”—which shouldn’t in any way be taken as an insult. The same description fits Nicanor Parra: this book is wild mix of list poems, counting poems, fragments, long poems, minimalist poems, experimental poems and lyrics. They’re all over the map, and this can prove to be a disconcerting or invigorating ride, depending on how open-minded you are. That said, Smith’s influences can occasionally overwhelm his verse—shadows of bp nichol, Stuart Ross, Acorn, and David McFadden weigh a bit too heavily here. But it’s a minor grumble about a book that is, for the most part, tremulous with its own originality and verve. These are poems that practically vibrate in your hand as you read them.