Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Gospel of Thom Smit

I.-- Once upon a time was the Word. And the Word was without form, and void.

In short, the Word was many words, and sometimes even things.

One could not tell the difference in any place, for all words and things were different; they were all different from each other, and they were even more different from the Word. And the Word, in its turn, was different according to whom you asked, and in what words you asked.

What's more, all was such that one could not fix one's eyes on any thing, or fix one's ears on any word, and expect it even to stay the same as itself.

In short, all words were different from themselves, and all things were different from any words, and also from each other, and also from themselves.

Even one's eyes were different, the left one from the right, and either eye was certainly different, very different, from either ear; and the ears protruded from each side of the head: in short, they were very different.

Then Thom Smit was born.

II.-- And Thom Smit did grow to be a youth of fourteen years, and his virtue did show forth in many ways.

And the people were astonished by his words, for he spoke as one with wisdom, and not as one who watched TV.

Said he: "Just as our elders, weakened by years of compromise, submit to the presence of those they loathe, so do our melons soak the fouled waters of the plain, till they poison both themselves and those that partake of them."

And: "Submit not to both these poisons. Though you eat the melons to the skin, yet leave the elders to chew their own bitter rinds."

And Thom Smit did take ceramics class at the Pottery Barn of the strip mall as you drive into town from Monona.

And he did throw him many a mean pot. And he did paint upon his pots designs and symbols, and the people did look at what he painted, and did say, "What hath this youth?"

For they said: "This youth is not like others, but hath him a perversion of the head."

And the owner of the Pottery Barn in those days was named Chuck, and Chuck did keep the pots of Thom Smit in the back, lest other youths should see them, and lest they should speak of them unto their parents. For on the pots were many things that youths should not see.

And some of Thom Smit's pots did the owner break outright, pretending they had cracked in the kiln. "For this one," sayeth Chuck unto his assistant, "this one is surely too much; I will not even fire this one."

And Thom Smit did suspect Chuck of thus breaking his pots, and spoke sorely unto him.

And Thom Smit did take him a can of maroon glaze, and did pour it into the drawer of Chuck's desk.

And the can was a large can, and did foul the books and papers in that desk, dripping even unto the floor.

And Thom Smit did break seventeen ceramic owls made by the ladies of St. James Lutheran. And Chuck did see him do it, and did hear him speak bitter words as he did it.

And Thom Smit was no longer welcome at the Pottery Barn, but did take up tennis.

Said he: "Our world is all preprocessed, and full of fakes; fakes upon fakes. The boredom of Formica covers all things here, even unto death."

And all of these things were when Thom Smit was still but a youth of fourteen years.

III.-- And it came to pass as Thom Smit was a young man that he went forth like many of his generation to work as a barista.

And this work was as he was a student at the university in the town of Madison; and the cafe in the which he did work was near upon the university, and was often filled with people.

And the people of the cafe were of many sorts.

And Thom Smit did work next to the scribe of that place, and he did serve forth the drinks unto the people.

And the prophet of that place in those days was named Cosmo di Madison. And Cosmo di Madison did preach the word of the Lord unto the people there. But the people heeded him not.

And Cosmo di Madison did resent the presence of Thom Smit at the espresso machine, and did make him out to be a servant of Belial.

And Cosmo di Madison complained sorely to the scribe of that place, and spoke many bitter words.

And the scribe of that place recorded the words of Cosmo di Madison, for in those days did he note down all his words.

And it came to pass when Thom Smit heard the words against him, that he did say unto Comso di Madison, and he said it unto his face: "A prophet art thou not, but art rather a paranoid schizophrenic."

And: "The symptoms are obvious upon you, O Cosmo di Madison, and all do know it. Thou art one who barkest at the moon. Woof woof!"

And Cosmo di Madison did not suffer the words of Thom Smit in silence, but did rail against him to all that would hear.

And Cosmo di Madison would drink no drink made by his hands, but did speak of such drinks as having a poison in them.

And one day Thom Smit did say unto Cosmo di Madison: "Today it seemeth you have not taken your medicine, O great prophet, and so it is that you speak forth loudly your prophecies, and the people heed you not."

And: "Today I have a hangover, O prophet, and care not to hear you. So get you hence through the door, or pay for your coffee like the others. If you cannot pay, so must you go hence to the street. For today I have a hangover, O prophet, and care not to hear your prophecies."

And upon hearing these words a rage did come upon Cosmo di Madison, and he did complain ever more sorely of Thom Smit, and did attribute to him many conspiracies and sundry larcenies.

And the scribe did write down all his words, for in those days did he write down all the words that the prophet did say.

IV.-- From the Scribe's Journals:

Thom Smit--to think he is a student of engineering! He's blond and small, of muscular build. He's a great reader of Gilles Deleuze, and considers himself a Nietzschean. It's lucky for me he's at the cafe. He's proving an excellent foil for Cosmo di Madison. I've recently got him reading Rabelais. --May, 1992

Cosmo di Madison now recognizes in Thom Smit a nemesis worthy of the swiftest action. That I'm responsible for his being hired at the cafe is generally known, and I confess it openly. I should have seen the man's character for what it was. Needless to say, Cosmo di Madison has forgiven this lapse on my part, pointing out that Pseudo-Sergeant Major Smit is obviously a professional and had been trained by Kissinger's people specifically to pull the wool over my eyes. Cosmo di Madison himself was almost taken in. "At first I thought he was just a loser like all the other losers. But it's worse than that. He's a fucking impostor--ya hear me?" --July, 1992
Remarks of Cosmo di Madison on Thom Smit:
1. "That useless fucking bastard calls himself a fucking lieutenant major, but he's just a fucking high school dropout drug addict who couldn't tell his ass from a hole in the ground if his life depended on it."

2. "How many customers do you think that fucking punk is gonna short change before Mark [the owner] wises up and fires him?"

3. "You know he's got his finger in the till and he's supplying all the barbiturates to Craig and Monkey Butt. Kissinger's got him working the joint to make sure they do their job and try to drug me every fucking chance they get. I wasn't born yesterday what do you think! Pssh! That fucking Craig has been selling the barbiturates on the side too.... Oh, don't act so surprised! You know it goes on."

4. "Mark needs to spend more time in his shop. I got enough stuff to do keeping the customers clean. If Kissinger buys out your staff, this place is finished, ya hear me? I won't come back. Ya hear me? You just see what'll go down then. Mark will wish he never even heard of this town. Ya hear me?"
V.-- And soon after these things had come to pass, behold it did happen that the spirit of the Lord came upon Thom Smit, and he began to speak in parables.

And all at the cafe did wonder upon it, and did say, "What hath Thom Smit, that he speakest thusly?"

And he did leave his work at the cafe, and ceased from his study at the university.

And Thom Smit went forth to preach unto the people like Cosmo di Madison, for the spirit of the Lord had moved him.

And Thom Smit did wander the streets on the west side of Madison, whereas Cosmo di Madison did preach in the downtown.

And Thom Smit preached the word unto the people of the west side, as you head out of town toward Monona. And the people heeded him not.

And thus it was that the people said amongst themselves: "Is Thom Smit also one of the prophets?" And these words are as a proverb even unto this day.

VI.-- And Thom Smit built his house on sandy ground, and sowed his seed upon the rocky wayside, and combed his hair with a goblet.

And he took a fox for a mango, and made of it a hairy puree.

And many did laugh at him, and said: "Thom Smit does not know his ass from a hole in the ground."

And they said: "Thom Smit could not find his ass with both hands."

But verily it was said unto them, and it was said by Thom Smit: "A day shall come to pass when none shall be able to tell their ass from a hole in the ground. And then shall a great wailing be heard."

And he said: "Only those who from the very beginning could not tell their asses from holes in the ground--only such as these shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven. All others shall be cast out, and their asses shall be grass, and they will know not if they have been turned into a golf course, or what. Boy, will there be wailing then."

And he said: "Those who mistake their asses for a wheelbarrow shall inherit the earth."

And he said: "Blessed are they who try to catch flies in their mouth. Blessed are they who would rather hang out in a juice bar than flay the fox with the big boys."

And he said: "My father is a colonel and I am a sergeant major. My father could thrash all your male relatives with his left hand if he wanted. My father has forty-seven Cadillacs."

But the people heard him not, and they sent him packing from their patio parties; and their daughters did tend to throw garbage at the back of his head.

But verily, reader, can you tell your ass from a hole in the ground even now?


NB: Written in 1993 or so, and published in Heretic Days. Cosmo di Madison, whose real name was Robert Hicks, was a well-known charismatic in Madison, Wisconsin, from the 1980s until his mysterious death in 2008. Thom Smit was, like myself, a student and barista in one of Madison's busiest downtown cafes in the early 1990s. "Monkey Butt" was, if I remember correctly, one Dean Estrada, and worked at the cafe with us and "Craig", Craig Kilander (sp?). Further matter on the Great Cosmo di Madison here: Gospels from the Last Man

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gudding's Bestiary

I first encountered Gabriel Gudding's hair-raising work not six months ago in David Lehman's anthology Great American Prose Poems. Lehman included Gudding's stately, footnoted tirade "A Defense of Poetry," in which the poet unleashes what I now know to be very Guddingesque gambits: no-nonsense direct address, Rabelaisian bodily humor; a subtle, defamiliarizing mix of verbal registers, animals, and more animals. It's fair to say this last struck me most. My own writing tends toward animal tropes and fables.

After reading the piece in Lehman's anthology, I had to place an order to Amazon to get Gudding's first book, which I read and reread while waiting for his second book to arrive, his 436-page road poem entitled Rhode Island Notebook. Written between 2002 and 2004, Notebook records the writer's musings as he drove back and forth between his wife and daughter's residence in Rhode Island and his own residence in Normal, Illinois. It's a journal of sorts, written by a brilliant poet working to keep a long-distance marriage together and struggling in particular to stay close to his young daughter even as the marriage finally fails. There's much agonistic battling of heartbreak in its pages, but there is also, all along, a preternatural poetic verve, a new kind of American beauty that is both virile and playful. I've read nothing like it for years. As writer and humane observer of himself and others, Gudding has accomplished something I wouldn't have believed possible: he's written a long poem that is, through most of it, unputdownable.

Aside from the many themes the poet delves into (dung, the life of rivers, the Iraq war, alcohol, American history) Gudding also displays his penchant for animals. There is in effect a kind of Gudding bestiary one can construe across his two books. Rhode Island Notebook contains one of his many poetic epistles to animals, this time a letter to the whole huddling lot of them:


Many of you do not have breasts. This is
undeniable. I think immediately of amphibia,
the reptilians, birds--none of these possess
breasts nor anything upon which a nipple may
be mounted. I for instance have no fur.

. . . Though you and I
have very little in common, and I find your
bodies disturbing, I must say that despite your
biological distance from me, you and I ought
perhaps to have some coffee, should you drink
it--or possess a mouth.

What's more, I know that many of your penises
are odd, your vaginas strange, and your
faces long, flat or otherwise with horns. I
notice none of you wear watches, whereas I
gain distinct pleasure from a new watch . . . .
This is a totally human delight. Yet you must
have your own delights, like honking in a pond
or looking at your hooves for hours.

Gabriel Gudding
The flatness and wonder are characteristic of many of Gudding's most unsettling and effective passages. Elsewhere we find gnomic evocations like the following:
The chicken will never be let into
the European union because
it is not only impoverished, it is also not a
European country it is a chicken (47)

Butterflies are the bowties of fairies. (69)

Spiders are held together by very small tendons. (55)

I took the pig's shadow and made a
suit of it. The suit smelled of ham
and slop. A suit of ham shadow. (69)

A substantial portion of a cat's energy
goes into the production of fur.

The mentality of the housecat is principally that
of a decentralized bureaucrat, she is a loose soft
clerk who has lost the hallways. The groin
is full of leaks. (47)

A chicken is a chain of meat and bone
and a two-watt brain. (48)

There was no summer because the memo
ordering it was swallowed by the Gar. Stella
should not have. Who but the fish
can fully know worrisome lilies. (122)

I did not understand the dog, I think
that is why it bit me. (121)

A dog at heart is made of dust
and dust is wind that's mad (122)
There is the long sequence on "meat bees" which begins on page 123 and is woven into the next dozen pages:
Just crossed the Hudson. It is
caked w/ ice floes. Very deep
snow along hwy

A mammoth cloud is strapped to a bee
who tows it down to make
a slow fog. The meat of
a bee is weak and tastes of egg.

Meat bees are few in the
winters around Birmingham. Yet
here they fly, like flecks & bolts
of squeaking mutton.

. . .

Bees come from a
land of Clocks.

. . .

The face of the puppy was a
bumpy bacon. Yet we did not
skin the dog for its face. Instead we
sought to catch and flay the meated bee.

The beefy bee was like an large airborne pill
but w/ a coating of meat that made it

. . .

If I do so drive my rubber car
through the winds and plains of night
It is for to hunt the bee
and bring my family food.
Illinois State Line 9:52 PM CST
1012 M
But I do so for the sake of Merica,
to quieten its cloying huzzing.

A bee is a pill between wings.

I am like Cordelia who remaineth
quiet. But the bee is not. The
bumblebee reminds America
of the internal combustion engine
--and therefore all bees
must be suppressed:
bee meat is loud. (123-133)
There are the 70-mph drive-by observations:
Intricate nest of dogs and heavy cats
on hillside
garnished in a fluttering of Ducks.(69)
There are many hawks observed as Gudding covers his thousands of miles, many flocks of geese, and two sequences around the eagle, the first beginning:
We burned the eagle w/ Petroleum, pumpin
2 bullets into its tiny knees. We took a
nutcracker to its beak. (32)
I quote these animal passages only because they continue what is for me one of the most interesting strands in Gudding's work: his ongoing poetic adjudication of the oddness of animals and the oddness of our sameness/difference from them. Much of the poet's writing on animals is rough and tumble, but there is fellow feeling: a recognition of the importance of animals to any assessment of our own place in the world.

There's much else in Rhode Island Notebook to slap one awake besides the fragmentary bestiary. Gudding's poetics has in huge measure just the things I most value in literature. Foremost, he has a strong sense of the complex relations of literary humor to both suffering and healing. This is a theoretical or philosophical insight which, for Gudding, is of a piece with his practice as poet. The humor he deploys is not that of the aloof satirist, but rather that of the clown--a clown whose understanding and suffering lead to laughter and who laughs in order to further understand, and perhaps be healed.

Gudding's theory of humor has many antecedents, but I'm guessing one of the more important ones is Rabelais (a writer who, besides, is alluded to in Notebook), particularly in those aspects Bakhtin underlined in his writing on medieval laughter and the carnivalesque.

The poet also has a keen awareness of defamiliarization as one of the essential functions of literary language: namely that literature exists to break the frozen perception of things by exposing it as merely conventional. Literature reawakens the strangeness of all those things we'd come to take for granted. In one interview he puts it thus:
The purpose isn’t to be strange for the sake of strangeness. The point is to slow down the perception of the reader, so that the reader is not experiencing the poem automatically. Once our perceptual habits become automatic, we’ve dampened our innate capacity for wonder. So, one enstranges language not to put on a gratuitous display, but to allow again for wonder, to make, as Shklovsky says, “the stone stony again.”
All poets employ defamiliarization to different degrees: strong rhetoric is often a matter of effective defamiliarizing. Strictly speaking, one may say that tropes do double service: in service to the poetic, they defamiliarize; in service to ideology, they are agents of familiarization. It would be interesting, I think, to study Gudding's own arsenal of defamiliarizing moves and to compare them with the similar/different techniques of his contemporaries. There's something in Gudding that stands apart, and it seems to me that this difference is in the way his work defamiliarizes.

Finally, Rhode Island Notebook shows a poet ever aware of how language is used to hoodwink the gullible--aware especially of how depressingly effective official rhetoric is. Part of Gudding's work, then, is ideology critique, and in this vein his essay on dung is a masterpiece, a concise American rejoinder to the psycho-corporal economics of Freud and Bataille. Gudding pinpoints the "prissy" right there in the heart of what many compatriots take to be the most manly segment of the population: the red-state South. In this he is certainly correct. A central point in this road journal is that America is no longer so much the home of the brave as the echo-chamber of the fearful: security obsessed, isolated, prissily afraid both of the other and of its own private dung.

Alan Sondheim has called Rhode Island Notebook "the first 21st century classic." Sondheim also underlines what the book is not: "What could have been an experiment in conceptual writing has emerged into an exhilaration that makes me glad I'm still alive." This is apt. Gabriel Gudding's theoretical sophistication hasn't kept him from writing a brave and hilarious and readable book.

Rhode Island Notebook is published by the Dalkey Archive Press, the same folks who bring us Flann O'Brien.

Check Rhode Island Notebook book at

Links of interest:

"On Kindness and Hipness as They Relate to Cultural Production":


The above-quoted interview on poetry and creative writing:

Gudding takes part in a roundtable discussion on humor in poetry:

Some of my teen students in Taipei try their hand at Guddingesque defense: