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April 4, 2008

On poetry, and Six Mats and One Year by Alison Smith

Kate Sutherland has put out the challenge— why don’t we talk about poetry this month? And since I’m celebrating with my own Poetic April, I thought I’d take part. First by answering, why don’t we talk about poetry? I know I don’t because I don’t have the confidence. I could talk about it casually as I do fiction, but I’d feel altogether vulnerable. Even accessible poetry– I lack the formal approach to it. But I will forget about that, if you promise to be patient and tolerate my pedestrian meanderings. If you promise to also tolerate my own little poems too, which I’m only writing for my very own self.

All of these provisos, basically because I suspect I’m quite poor at all of this, and it’s my nature to deprecate myself before you do. Though I have another reason for avoiding talk of poetry– a formal approach I say I lack, but I am not sure there is even one. I understand “novel” and I understand “story”, but “poem” seems as broad as days are long, as are ways to read one. I understand that this is true of stories and novels too, but it seems truest of poems most of all. When everything is so contained, absolutely nothing extraneous– including the reading experience– it seems impossible to find a poem the same way twice, rendering generalizations impossible. This becoming all the more evident as I begin to reread collections of poetry I own.

I reread Canadian poet Alison Smith’s book Six Mats and One Year today. Published in 2003 by Gaspereau Press, I must get away from the poetry for a moment to comment on this book’s design. The cover laid out like a Japanese tatami room, six mats of course, grooves in between them. The book is gorgeous. When I read it the first time, the poems were so tied to my own experience as I was living in Japan at the time. It was remarkable then to see the most quotidian details of my own life expressed with poetry– the ticking clock in an English conversation school, purikura shots, “counter girls heralding the public in a caffeinated chorus”, Hello Kitty, the yearning for home (“I left as we do our childhoods: rushing to escape, without souvenirs”) which I knew would soon be my own experience.

To find this book again four years later was quite different. No longer did it resonate so personally, and perhaps it was the schooling I’ve had since then or what a better reader I’ve become, but I read the poems more for themselves than for what of me I found it them– Smith was attempting more than just a scrapbook of my memories after all. I found an odd nostalgia, of course, but now I was able to achieve distance. Also to understand some structures and images that had seemed abstruse before.

Here is the problem– I can’t articulate much about the language. Perhaps with some practice I’ll get better and will revisit this book later in the month? Now I can just say that Smith uses accessible language, though some of it wrapping up strange and curious images. Other bits laid out in ultimate simplicity: “Me too, I realise, I do/ want to be happy.”

The poems are structured cyclically, the “one year” of its title with four sections. The first concerns teaching in an English conversation school, the second written about time spent living at a Buddhist monastery. Home creeps into the third section, as the novelty and exotic wears away. The final section is home again: “where you can finally read/the signs on the wall”.

In each poem and the collection as a whole, Smith blends the material and spiritual in an airy fashion. Accepting Japan’s incongruities, its seamless gaps (the priest’s second son in his Ghostbusters t-shirt), all contained within a perfect package. The literary embodiment of a gaijin‘s Japan.

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