Book Review: S. E. Smith's I Live in a Hut
We met in the most interesting place in America,
which, it turns out, is any place that has a corner store.
These lines open "Bedroom Community" from S.E. Smith's first collection of poetry, I Live in a Hut. These lines aren't quite true. When you open this book, the most interesting place in America is inside Smith's head. From the title of the book itself to a missing world covered in flame-retardant chemicals, she reconstructs a universe that is both intellectually witty and unafraid.
S.E. Smith graduated with a BA from Carnegie Mellon University, and later earned her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also the co-founder of OH NO, an independent biannual print magazine specializing in poetry and fiction. Her own work has been published in several prestigious literary journals along the way, and the opening poem was included in Best New Poets of 2008. Published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center, I Live in a Hut was selected by Matthea Harvey for their first book prize. Lines like:
I had a theory about oil and wine emulsions re:
the perfect glaze, but was not ready to share it.
demonstrate a subtle laughter at life that is sometimes so cleverly done that you might miss it if you blink. Her style is a careful appropriation of the compressed language and zany imagination of such poets as Terrance Hayes and Dean Young. These are serious poems for the first book of an emerging writer. The collection is divided into three sections, each with a distinct voice and theme that braid together by the end of the book. She stretches her voice to encompass not only the lyrical form, but also apostrophe and prose poems. One such prose poem, "Manifest Destinyland," bespeaks the humor stitched throughout her book:
…At night when your soldiers are praying ceaselessly for less rain and more underwear, my soldiers make underwear out of rain. My underwear is more discreet than yours. Cartographers get dizzy to think of your underwear, which is almost more ceaseless than your flame but way less eternal than mine.
This might be considered her ars poetica of this first collection. The bizarre image of making underwear out of rain that is both discreet and eternal could refer to her poetry, which is pleasing and entertaining in a way that does not take writing too seriously, instead balancing it between the joy and seriousness of life. While young poets struggle to engage the world around them and channel its mysteries onto the page, Smith flirts fearlessly with the mental and intellectual landscape of our universe, galloping her "Pony of Darkness" past "Enormous Sleeping Women" and a "Chapel of Teeth," inviting you along for the ride:
I am a tiny jelly cake And today is to be my greatest adventure.
And today is to be my greatest adventure.
S.E. Smith's poetry is not bound by region, but is rather an egret flung across the literary landscape like a sprite or a storm. The simplicity of her book title, I Live in a Hut, is deceptive, and only hints at the wild, rambunctious spirit of possibility when a poet throws a party. This is a book worth reading, and a poet worth watching.