Ed Smith is a deceptive poet. Many of his pieces are so offhand, so attenuated, they hardly seem like poems at all. “I would never do this,” he declares in “Denial,” originally collected in his 1983 debut, “Fantasyworld.” “This isn’t me. / You’d never catch me being words on paper, / Being written down, / Being in a position where / I could always be come back to and read.” Those six spare lines reveal the tension that motivates his work.
On the one hand, they’re a game, a trick — ironic, playful, self-negating: “I would never do this,” Smith informs us, even as he does. On the other, they take us underneath the surface, exposing the poet’s complicated heart.
Smith took his own life in 2005 at age 48; before that, he published two books, “Fantasyland” and “Tim’s Bunnies” (1988). That material fills less than half of “Punk Rock Is Cool for the End of the World: Poems and Notebooks of Ed Smith,” a combination Festschrift/reclamation project edited by his longtime friend and fellow poet David Trinidad.
Both Smith and Trinidad were key figures in the literary scene that coalesced around Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center during the 1980s, along with Dennis Cooper, Amy Gerstler, Jack Skelley, Benjamin Weissman, Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose. The level of their work was — and, for those who survived, continues to be — extraordinary; for proof, check out the nine verse tributes (by Cooper, Skelley and Gerstler, among others) with which Trinidad has chosen to close the book.
“I’m suspicious of you,” Cooper writes. “So I get loaded. But / that doesn’t change / things.” The sentiment is one Smith might have claimed as his own.
And yet Smith is not defined by that sort of intention. If nothing else, his career didn’t go on long enough. Instead — as “Punk Rock Is Cool for the End of the World” reminds us — he represents something more akin to potential, the poet in nascent form. The casual quality of his writing emerges not only in its shape but also in its content; reading it, we have a feeling of fragmentation, of small moments and observations that almost willfully do not add up.
“All day long we try to put it together,” he acknowledges in an early prose piece, “but it just keeps falling apart and there’s no money and I can’t hold a job and we live in the bed and the drugs fill our lives with terror and there’s nothing more to do. I try to be honest but all that comes out are lies and it’s so bad to hear ‘It’s gonna be alright’ with broken glass on the floor and the disheveled furniture.” The power of the language grows out of how unmoored it is from past or future, its static sense of present tense.
For Smith, such positioning was equally beneficial and detrimental, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the seamlessness between his living and his writing cut both ways. As Trinidad notes in his introduction, “[H]e always struggled to understand the difference between what it means to be a poet (i.e., write poems) and what it means to have a career as a poet. … He appears to have found it impossible, ultimately, to reconcile these two impulses.”
“Punk Rock Is Cool for the End of the World,” then, offers a back-and-forth between despair and aspiration, ecstasy and degradation: a lens (or set of lenses) on the shards that make a life.
What makes this work is the implication that, even as he speaks for himself, Smith is speaking for all of us. I did not know him, although I know many of his peers and contemporaries, including Trinidad, but the existence he describes is one I recognize. Not just the desolation, the hand-to-mouth uncertainty of the young artist, but also the developing engagement with the self.
Smith was a punk before he became a poet, and the upshot of having a foot in both communities was that he never fully felt himself a part of either one. “Just keep writing / they told me,” he laments in one of the more than 50 previously uncollected poems Trinidad has gathered. “[I]t hurts to be a / human being / and for me that / is poetry.” What he’s tracing is the sensation of being an outsider — which is, of course, as universal as it gets.
In “The Hardest Thing,” also previously uncollected, Smith makes that idea explicit: “for me,” the poem reads in its entirety, “the hardest thing / would be to / experience that / much happiness.” There’s loss in these lines, but not only that — also distance, from others and himself.
“One of / those many things that just / gradually got replaced by / what’s become everything / else, everything else that’s / just always never enough,” he writes in “My Last Beer,” and the lines resonate because of that repeated “everything,” with its inference, really, that beer is the last thing the poem means to address.
That’s not to say Smith’s work is best, or most appropriately, read as metaphor, although this is an open-ended question: “I thought I had / outgrown this metaphor / thing,” he admits in his 1982 poem “Return to Lesbos,” “and here I am using / writing as a metaphor / for myself.” More to the point is the issue of self-expression, self-exposure, poem as mechanism through which to be revealed.
“This is not a diary,” Smith insists in one early effort, although later, in a 2001 selection from his notebooks, we come across the inverse: “I deal with information as a living thing.” Here it is again, the friction between saying and withholding, between living on and off the page.
It’s fascinating that so many of Smith’s notebook entries are broken into verselike splinters, even after he stopped imagining himself as a poet. “I don’t want to be just a guy who wrote some good poems for a few years but didn’t really take off,” he admits in 1984, but by 1991, the perspective has shifted to one of resignation: “I will die unfulfilled.” There’s terror in that statement, but also the unexpected beauty of a soul in contemplation of itself.
Smith was not wrong, after all, in either assessment; he knew what he was up against. In the late 1990s, he left Los Angeles for New York and became an animator on the children’s TV series “Blue’s Clues.” “[A]nd when I’m gone,” he writes in April 2000, “put / on my stone: / here lies / [insert name] / the first person / to put eyelids on Mailbox.” The reference is to a character from the show, and it’s a riff that echoes the sensibility of “Denial,” self-deprecating and self-erasing all at once. In the end, he has little more than silence: “[M]y job is to feel / angels whisper to dark ambassadors.”
Where this leaves us is someplace deeply moving, as much for what Smith doesn’t say as for what he does. Like everyone, he was engaged in a lifelong struggle to make meaning out of the chaos at his center. That he was unable to sustain this effort, either in his writing or his living, is less a failure than an inevitability. “I can’t stand dying alone,” he wrote in 1992, “but everyone’s so busy.” The back-and-forth again, the tossed-off line that draws us in even as it pushes us away.
Edited by David Trinidad
Turtle Point Press: 372 pp, $24
David L. Ulin is the author or editor of 10 books, including “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms With Los Angeles.”