Jim Smith — Toronto small press provocateur, ex-publisher of The Front, civil litigator and adventurous, heroic poet — is back with Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems: a collection that mixes offerings from three decades of writing. I say this with no small exaggeration: Smith’s return to poetry is true cause for celebration. Though oddly enough, it’s an event you probably didn’t know you were missing. I certainly didn’t — up until now I’ve been blissfully unaware of the long, frustrating years of drought this country must have endured without him.
For those of you new to the man’s work, Back Off, Assassin! provides a short but essential introduction. Stuart Ross traces Smith’s explosive, controversial Toronto lit-scene presence, making this reviewer long for a return to the sort of experimental performances for which Smith was known (and resented) during the 1980s. Without much ado, we’re immersed, intoxicated and lost in Smith’s incredibly singular cosmology.
Unique is an insufficient term. This is an utterly individual constellation of poetic and political heroes; fascist villains; the strangely intimate strangers on the television; the ghosts of friends, lovers and family members whispering from their plots; even a handful of beloved dogs. After a slow, cover-to-cover exploration of the many canyons of Smith’s memory, one becomes certain that one has encountered an entirely singular personality, the way in which all great poets have found the sacred way to express themselves and no other.
For Smith, this means marrying confessional lyricism, surrealist attacks on comfortable, sometimes lazy realism, and an echo of the pitiless, relentless certainty of the headline news. It seems Smith is ready and able to do almost everything: passing between short and long lines, lists, dedications and prose poems (over which he finds exceptional mastery). His observations and announcements can range in elevation and tone so widely that the absurdly hilarious and the crushingly sad can often resonate in the same line (for example, in his “Declarations of War” we get a confessional voice describing his dog: “he was naked for sixteen years,/ then he died”). Just when we’re most lost in Smith’s personal history, he turns his gaze outward, becoming a strident political poet for our apathetic daze.
Back Off, Assassin! explores the seeming impossibility of positing an adequate ethical response to a world that sanctions such baffling degrees of cruelty. Smith’s poems express a large-hearted politics, aghast at the monstrous machinery of imperial, colonial policies: the covert murders and tortures of CIA Central America, the bold-faced genocides of Fascist states. As such, his poems celebrate solidarity with those who fight tooth and nail for freedom, whose words and right to language are held more precious than comfort. But enough meditation on the failures of our first-world indifference or the broken promises of the revolutionary avant-garde can shatter the speaker into hallucinations, fancy, sightings of space ships and near-Blakean religious visions. What can the sensitive speaker do to make him or her worthy of the role of poet, knowing the world to be so cosmically sad?
And yet, just as Smith hits his spiritual bottom, he’s back again with sublime comedy, musing on the heart of America in his Schwarzenegger poems, or dreaming of the Big House all great artists share. As a testament to his experience and acuity, Smith embraces ambiguity over certainty, reminding us in beautiful Buddhist fashion of the dream of the world, the little bird whispering at the stump of your severed limb that it “none of it is real/ that none of it matters,” after all. As with all great books, there is too much to talk about in Back Off, Assassin!; I can only now hope that it is read, and celebrated, and that its publication has incited a torrent of productivity from the author — an urge to once again flood our magazines and live readings with his weird sort of sanity. (Spencer Gordon)
by Jim Smith, $16.95, 148 pgs Mansfield Press, 25 Mansfield Ave, Toronto, ON, M6J 2A9, mansfieldpress.net