Review by J. Scott Brownlee
I LIVE IN A HUT
by S.E. Smith
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
2121 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio 44115-2214
2012, 62 pp., $15.95
Yes, I have a pretty good idea what beauty is. It survives
alright. It aches like an open book. It makes it difficult to live.
A week before I read S.E. Smith’s I Live in a Hut, I got a phone call from the director of NYU’s Creative Writing Program offering me a full ride and a completely unexpected fellowship. Shocked, disbelieving, and euphoric, I attended AWP several days later feeling strangely lightheaded and buoyant—both of which are words that aptly describe Smith’s debut collection, a suite of poems that are more concerned with surprise, misdirection, and creative flair than they are with the humdrum, conciliatory, another-day-another-dollar mindset most of us use to get through a prototypical day.
I first opened I Live in a Hut on an American Airlines flight from Chicago back to Austin, which, if you can manage to re-create, is a reading environment for this book I highly recommend. Smith, who has been publishing quirky, Dean-Young-esque poems with titles like “The Pony of Darkness,” “Big Slutty Bear,” and “Becky Home-Ecky and Her Fourteen Boyfriends” for years now, refuses to take about 80% of any given utterance seriously. This results in a first collection that is equal parts farce, diary-esque reflection, and satirical wit. Consistent in her balancing of seemingly incongruent poetic approaches, Smith weaves the ironic, intensely personal, and outrageously hilarious together with a consistent declarative line that makes zany leaps while remaining syntactically careful and clean.
“Un Peu,” a poem bemoaning the French people’s inability to gain weight juxtaposed alongside one of Smith’s failed romances, evidences the poet’s unique ability to work in several registers at the same time (something that is highly admirable, as well as distinct, about her work):
I would like to swap some of my eternity for some
of yours. I don’t know how but I love you so it may
be possible and the French are fat at last. Finally
they are fat. They move slowly, like bears. Maybe now
they’ll leave us alone, maybe now we can get on with it.
I was particularly moved by many of the love poems in I Live in a Hut—finding it easy to identify with their detached, performative, going-through-the-romantic-motions voices because, like them, I felt equally removed from the girl I was currently seeing—the shelf-life of our short-lived relationship made painfully apparent by my upcoming move to New York City.
To throw a tangential, completely out-of-place monkey wrench in this otherwise serious review, I was emotionally compromised when I read I Live in a Hut—in love with a girl I couldn’t stay with after my move to New York City—and there was nothing I could do to change that cosmic fact except read Smith’s book and feel passionately sorry for the speakers of her poems, many of whom lament similarly failed romantic experiences—albeit from a distance, and with a degree of dispassion that I doubted but remained effective, in part because Smith’s poetry evidences how unfortunately elliptical, illusory, and highbrow contemporary poetry expects capital-l Love to be. Aware of this expectation, Smith takes an enormous (and successful) risk by putting romantic expectation on display–poking, prodding, and otherwise dismantling it in these poems, ultimately revealing the vulnerability and concern present in even the most “contemporary” voice.
Heaven forbid our great loves be cliché, and we write honest, unapologetic lines like, “It is getting / dark. I love you,” as Smith does at the beginning of “Sturgeons,” a poem that has more to do with failed romantic interactions (“I propose that we / move on from this place”) and their sexy, metaphysical fallout even before they are allowed to begin (“Deep down I suspect I am a clock-watcher / anxious for this beautiful moment to end”) than it does with sturgeons, the Caspian Sea, or the Ohio River—all of which dominate the surface of what I would argue is the most important, heartfelt poem in the book.
Speaking of hearts . . . I went over to my girlfriend’s apartment when I got back from AWP to try to salvage whatever version of our relationship I could and should have read her Smith’s poem “Happiness,” although I didn’t because I was already too afraid of losing her. It has one of the best opening stanzas I’ve read in quite some time, and served as a welcome distraction from my own failure at attaining happiness during the difficult weeks of What if? after AWP:
Briefly, it is possible. The rain shines down,
the bucket is ready. It makes a nice click,
the last snap on the jacket. It doesn’t have
to be a particular kind of jacket. But it has
to be November, and you must be at the zoo.
I felt more than a bit like the speaker in “Vertical Lake” as well when I left my girlfriend’s apartment later that night, our kissing (and not being able to stop) juxtaposed sharply with the verticality of my body, the rigidity of it, as I forced the car door closed and drove away:
I said. I have to get going.
I was dead. It was snowing.
I was going into the vertical lake.
Several days before this it actually did snow in Chicago, and we had texted each other back-and-forth sporadically during AWP, apologizing that we couldn’t play more active roles in one another’s increasingly distant lives (she was on the verge of opening a hip Austin wine and cheese bar that kept her working 60-hour weeks, and I was, obviously, at AWP, meeting NYU students and faculty and trying to decide whether or not I would commit to an MFA.)
Long story short, I did commit. And we did break up. And Smith’s I Live in a Hut remained a beautiful, heartbreaking book throughout this simultaneously necessary and difficult process. While Smith took “history lessons / from a West Virginian horse thief / named Dirk,” I gave two-stepping lessons to the beautiful Jewish/Spanish/French girl I would eventually have to step away from irrevocably—and without even having the ability to repeatedly hurt her, or be hurt by her, or get in our first epic fight (which the unexpected NYU acceptance prevented us from ever having).
“Already we are off to a terrible start,” Smith says at the beginning of “Beauty,” and I couldn’t agree with her more as I thought about all of the possible ways I could manipulate the girl I loved into moving to New York City with me—eventually realizing that to do so would mean acting similarly to the speaker of “Fuck You,” who repeatedly “takes exasperated measures” and “saves [her lover] for later,” comparing his body, with its oils and sugar-sweet taste, to “a pastry . . . in a [metaphorical] bag” of possessiveness.
I had to leave the girl I loved, and Smith’s book—with its insistence on finding grace and beauty in even the most awkward, unfortunate break-ups—helped me understand why. I didn’t want to, but doing so was part of the painful (though altogether necessary) process of fully letting go.
Like the anthropomorphized truth in Smith’s “Your Scrappy Truth,” I “insisted / on taking the high narrow road / out of town.” I simply couldn’t manipulate my girlfriend and ever expect to live with myself afterwards, so I got off the plane (having finished I Live in a Hut) knowing what I had to do, realizing I had to break up with her in order to shatter completely the expectation that she drop everything in her life to accommodate me and my dreams in New York City–where I would be a poet, if only a bad one, in a city full of people far more selfish, witty, and strong-willed, even, than me, and where our hypothetical break-up would probably be three to four times as messy, eight to nine times as heartbreaking, and still—even then—not hold a candle to the raw emotional core burning at the center of Smith’s remarkable first book.
While my Rattle reviews typically tend to focus on the poet rather than his or her audience, in this particular instance I wanted to make clear the connection between Smith’s work and my own life. While such a critical leap might at first seem taboo and/or unwarranted, I think framing this review with a personal narrative is something Smith herself would applaud—her poems being, at their roots, intimate portraits of human awkwardness, honesty, and confusion. I Live in a Hut is a beautiful, delicate, daring, exquisite first effort—whether you identify with my sappy break-up story or not—one that helped me see beyond my own field of vision with a clarity I didn’t possess before reading it. I hope that, in my future writing (and life off the page), I can be half as daring, quick, and imaginative as S.E. Smith is. At the very least, reading her work, I’m encouraged to try.
J. Scott Brownlee is a poet and poetry critic from Llano, Texas. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, RATTLE, Tar River Poetry, Front Porch, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Writers’ Bloc, Windhover, and elsewhere. Involved with several literary journal start-ups, he was the managing editor and co-founder of both Hothouse and The Raleigh Review. His current writing project, County Lines: The Llano Poems, explores small-town life in the Texas Hill Country.