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W.W. Norton, $23.95 (paper)
The poems in Word Comix are difficult, funny, and hard on themselves. Time and again, Charlie Smith, who is also a celebrated fiction writer, underscores the fallibility of language, like the boy on his way to war who “thinks he understands years of bickering, / but doesn’t.” Elsewhere, someone confesses, “The year I admitted I was lonely / I didn’t know what I was saying.” Accordingly, Word Comix employs tangled syntax and rich diction, though the poems frequently slacken just when we expect the syntactical knot to pull tight. They pick up with ellipses, as though there is no sense to starting somewhere definite: we enter poem after poem in mid-thought, and the poems end this way too, collapsing after the muscled acrobatics of their central movements. Smith gives up on particulars: “Blah blah blah she used to say / when I tried to explain.” Or “Help me help me.” In “Materialism,” definite language is lost again: “because nothing, blah blah, is.” As that poem closes, “The prison is outside the prison / is what they kept saying, but it was just to go on talking.” Perhaps blah-blah-blahing is a way of continuing to talk, a placeholder for “Help me help me,” until Smith reaches “something important, / yet I don’t know if I’ll recognize it when it gets here.” But the poems “get here” most successfully when they are long and rangy, allowing the lyric to develop through the repetition and accumulation of strange and lovely words. In this somewhat recondite collection, which asks us to accept that Smith has “left behind the designs / and purposes I was built for,” we find that “All the old possibilities—corrigendious, / bone-headed and radiant—are here.”
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