Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra, Jim Smith, 98 pages, Mansfield Press, mansfieldpress.net, $16.95
A prolific poet, Jim Smith’s seventeenth book of poetry is full of energetic, irreverent and sometimes overworked verse. Ostensibly it’s a birthday gift for Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, who turned 98 in the year of the book’s publication, and was a favourite of next generation Latin American authors like Roberto Bolano. Borrowing from Parra’s model of “anti-translation,” Smith borrows fragments from history, politics and other writers to construct a fractured, exuberant poetics.
Even if Parra is the most explicitly named influence for Smith’s book, it’s telling that it’s Ezra Pound that gets name-checked in the first lyric in the collection. Smith work has the same hyper-referential, playful and sometimes maddening quality of Pound, and the reader is often left with the impression of Smith disgorging the contents of a lifetime’s reading and traveling onto the page in a rush of jokes and anecdotes. Of course, your mileage with this book may vary, depending on whether you find this kind of erudition compelling or, on the flip side, you’re left with the feeling of having to look up the punch line to a joke. By the book’s end, I felt that the poems were being stretched towards distraction as Smith struggled to find room to involve everything he wanted.
Despite being uneven, Smith’s book is absolutely loyal to the subversive poet the title honours. It forces its way in among the canon of modern poetry, couched in distinctions between the high and low, the serious and unimportant, and undercuts the pomp in bursts of parody, appropriation, and yes, even a healthy dose of self- indulgence. (Tom Buchanan)