I’m Sorry This Book Ended
I finished Bud Smith’s Everything Neon after about 3 months of reading and re-reading. It’s a generously sized collection, over 90 pages, but I’ll admit I dragged it out. I paced myself slowly both because I would rather it didn’t end and because I kept trying to articulate for myself why I enjoyed it so much.
As much as I can articulate my reasons, then, here they are.
Love Poems Without Sappiness
I enjoyed Everything Neon in large part because it manages to be a loosely linked narrative of love poems without being sappy or overwrought. Tender without agonizing touchiness, masculine without minimizing the value of emotion. It’s worth reading for that experience alone.
I often run across poems that undercut the value of relationship, generally by downplaying the idea of love if it isn’t accompanied by some wrenching, awful, desperate experience –the idea that, if it doesn’t hurt enough, it isn’t real. Thank you, Bud Smith, for not subjecting me to another round of woe-is-us. There’s a time and a place for the distillation of wisdom through the stages of pain, but sometimes enough is enough.
Another approach I see — and wouldn’t mind seeing a little less of –insinuates that the speaker is too broken, elitist, male, or just other, to comprehend the full relationship or be a full participant. This follows the logic that one person is so separate from the other that any relationship can only be understood in terms of flaws and brokenness on the part of one or both parties. Again, perfectly good approach, but not for every situation.
Everything Neon doesn’t paint an unrealistically rosy portrait, but it doesn’t dwell on the downside either. It celebrates what works, in all its imperfections, without celebrating or wallowing in the imperfections.
Images in Motion Tend to Stay in Motion
I like to take something craft-oriented away from poems when I read them, an understanding in part of how the poet makes a poem do its work. Something I can employ that in my own work, or attempt to.
The poems of Everything Neon are lyrics first, grown out of the Imagist tradition, but without the Imagists’ tendency to strip away as much as possible, leaving almost no narrative. Smith’s images work within a scaffolding of narrative possibility. What’s arresting is the use of motion — allowing a moving image to stand for a point frozen in time.
When we talk about the Imagists, we often limit ourselves to the idea of a static visual. Or, if motion or sound is involved, there may be a sense of profound loss, motion / sound which cannot ever be recaptured. In Everything Neon, Smith captures the spirit of a moment which is simultaneously passing away and frozen in time.
It’s a bit like creating in words the equivalent of a perfect Vine clip & then posting it for the world. Image clips that can be play & replayed without loss of fidelity. I’ve included some examples below — not enough to see a whole poem in action, just a few excerpts to discuss the images.
An example from “Purple Gel Tab”:
items I’m looking for in the glovebox:
bleach that works on our lives
road maps back
flying out of the bed springs
The temptation in the above lines would be to list the specific realistic items found in any glovebox that would then symbolize the speaker’s inner state or relationships. Instead Smith gives us items that act — or the speaker hopes will act — on the relationship: bleach for it’s sanitizing activity, and maps that imply movement back in time to a preferred emotional state, where sparks are “flying”. The items the speaker looks for are not dead objects but those things that might be transforming. The glovebox acts as a hoped-for time machine.
Another example, this one from the poem “Summer”:
together we’ll cross the bridge
bright lights and mixtapes
The moment is ephemeral but iconic, and the sense of hopefulness and possibility is extended into the night as if into infinity. Not on the bridge (static), but crossing the bridge (dynamic), to the sound of mixtapes as if a soundtrack to life were looping continuously.
Here are the last lines of “*Thursday”, from the poetic sequence “A Week”:
then, we move to the gold couch
just talking, talking, talking
when I fall asleep
I dream of today
and can feel her kiss my eyelids
Action abounds — move to the couch, talking (and more talking), dreaming, feeling a kiss — yet all frozen in time.
Here’s another of my favorites, from “Love Song of the Insane”:
…as the moon
comes over, scraping the top
of a tilted building
The moon’s huge presence in the sky, so low and large it scrapes the building, evokes the feel of those times when the potential of everything is so close you can almost touch it, so apparent as to be both unreal and real simultaneously, and you can just about grasp even the moon.
I could go on. Hopefully you get the idea, despite my imperfect explication. That’s the thing about imagery — you can never quite hold it, never quite say what it means. If you could translate the meaning of the poem into prose, you wouldn’t need the poem in the first place.