Michael V. Smith’s new poetry collection, Bad Ideas, is comprised of meditations on mourning, longing, sexuality, and gender. Throughout the book are poems about the passing of Smith’s father, poems that question masculinity, and poems that strive for joy. Oh, and there’s a bunch of loveable dogs in there, too.
Smith’s frequent tactic is to lead with humour – to disarm the reader by emphasizing the unexpected and farcical. The book is divided into four sections: “Prayers,” “Dreams of Friends and Family,” “Queer,” and “Little Things.” The first section, which sports the most sober title, also contains the most humorous material; in contrast, the final section, with arguably the lightest moniker, nevertheless contains the heaviest content and some of the book’s lengthiest poems. The section titles are inverse to the material: they do not serve as the usual primer for what is to come, but rather as a source of destabilization.
“Prayers” contains a number of wishes, some universal (“A prayer for happiness”), some counterintuitive (“A prayer for envy”– long recognized as the least pleasurable sin). These prayers are delivered in relatively direct speech that belies the complex ideas within. For example, Smith describes happiness this way: “we celebrate / the downfall of a dictator / we drag happiness through our muck / by its collar.” Or this gorgeous moment from the moving poem “Prayer for a Wig,” (dedicated to the late Canadian poet Elise Partridge): “with cancer at sixteen (what luck to be born / to outlive experimental treatments).”
“Dreams of Friends and Family” contains quintessential surrealism that emerges from sleepy symbols. There are some wonderful lines: “I practice writing Ys with a marker / on a white board. Somehow this / will make everything better.” “I Dream of the Accidental” is one of the collection’s finest pieces: “We come across a large hole / many feet wide and ten feet deep, made / by the death of my father.”
The section called “Queer” contains particularly urgent poems: the awkwardness of a mother discovering an old homemade porn tape; a list of strategies for queer people trying to survive this antagonistic world; a particularly poignant poem called “Your Peers Die Like This”; as well as romantic and erotic pieces. This section contains some of the book’s shortest poems, though the longest entry, “John Kissick’s Painting,” is phenomenal. Along with “A Little Story of the Burden in the World,” from the final section, it is testament to Smith’s ability to sustain earnest and elongated poems.
Aesthetically, Elana Wolff’s Everything Reminds You of Something Else could not be more different. Wolff offers up poems that defy linearity. As the title suggests, this book isn’t so much a pilgrimage in a forward direction, but a wander through a world that appears timeless, esoteric, and ephemeral.
“When Noah had had enough of one dull colour / he dispatched the dove,” Wolff writes in “Riding to Ronda.” Like her fictional Noah, Wolff fills her book with hues, sounds, and landscapes. And like the ark, this book is teeming with animals – elephants, zebras, horses, guinea fowl, lizards, rabbits, cats, mice, voles, walruses.
For Wolff, specificity is a form of beauty; nouns are sublime. She names and describes in detail natural formations, features of weather, and various painters. This devotion to concrete nouns prompts an important question in the reader’s mind: How much precision is needed for us to appreciate the poetry, and how much forces the work paradoxically to veer into abstraction? The poem “Cuy” had me at an initial loss with its imagery, which I assumed to be metaphorical: “Guinea pig whole and splayed on the plate.” It turns out this reference is literal – a traditional dish eaten in Ecuador and Peru.
Wolff loves the elasticity of language (she is also a translator), and crafts heightened methods to describe universal encounters. In “Walking Song,” she depicts rain elaborately as “cool-as-pewter bindi on my lip.” Occasionally, she makes a meta-references to her affinity for elevated language: “Sun-saddle. Moon-mantle. Odradek stars – whatever those are.”
Poems such as “The Bestiary” give the book overtones of the primeval or the epic, but there are also tones of the transgressive occult in poems such as “The Tower” (a possible reference to the tarot), “Ouija Board,” and “Belt of Living Things: A Zodiac Suite.” This provides an interesting tension between the sacred and profane, the explained and unexplainable.
While differing wildly in language, tone, imagery, and form, Smith and Wolff both seek to transcend flawed thinking and to fortify connections. Both offer up awe and hope in a world that can often feel uncertain, dreamlike, and distant.