In this substantial and original analysis (which is more a review essay than a simple review) Joy Wallace further extends a series of five reflective pieces on the renowned Australian poet, performer, and multimedia writer, Hazel Smith.
Hazel Smith’s latest volume of poems, Ecliptical, engages us in several ways. Attractively produced in both print and electronic formats, the book offers a journey through linguistic, sonic, and visual worlds. The title evokes the ecliptic plane, “the imaginary plane containing the Earth’s orbit around the sun”. For the Earth-bound watcher, in the course of a year, “the sun’s apparent path through the sky lies in this plane” (nasa. gov). The poet’s project is to propel earthly dwellers on paths we cannot immediately discern but must help to carve out. Our role is defined in one of the “bullet point” poems in the volume: “for enjoying music, you are more of a performer than a listener” (“Emergent Emergencies” 24). As always in Smith’s work, the creative tension between abstraction and representation engages us vigorously through multiple levels of apprehension. The cover of Ecliptical, which features the artwork “Becoming” by Sieglinde Karl-Spence, figures the experience ahead for the reader. The abstract idea of orbiting vast space exhilarates while the experience of the traveler, captured in those eloquent feet, anchors us in materiality, which we must negotiate. The feet are at once suggestive of the winged figure of myth, Mercury, and the traveler of great distances, coming thankfully to rest.
A welcome feature of the e-book is the inclusion (in the Notes) of URLs linking audio and multimedia versions of four of the print texts in the volume. While there are many ways of reading Ecliptical, we might choose to go straight to one of its richest texts, “The Lips Are Different”, and plunge into the linked multimedia version, a collaboration with Roger Dean performed by austraLYSIS. The poem heads the fourth section of the book, “passport without destiny”, texts that use themes of migration, surveillance, and racial discrimination to explore the complex matter of identity. From the notes to the poem, we learn that “The Lips Are Different” concerns Suaad Hagi Mohamud, a Somali-born woman who migrated to Canada and became a Canadian citizen. She visited relatives in Kenya, but Canadian officials would not let her board the plane home to Toronto because they said she did not look like her passport photo; in particular, they claimed that “the lips are different”. Although she gave convincing evidence of her identity, the Canadian authorities would not accept that she was telling the truth, and she was unable to return to Canada for several months. Using her characteristic second person voice, Smith invites us to consider what the experience was like for Mohamud:
Have you ever been interrogated at an airport?
it doesn’t take long before your find that
everything you say is incorrect
it’s uncanny but
innocence can adopt
features more fitting for the guilty (71)
The matter was only resolved when Mohamud belatedly took a DNA test which proved she was telling the truth:
after months of hardship
barely housed in Nairobi slums
separated from her surrogate homeland
a DNA test proved
Mohamud was Mohamud
at least biologically
she said: ‘I thought my government would back me up.
I was alone when my government let me down.’ (71)
Thus, the poet makes us ponder what tricks racial prejudices play with our senses, what it feels like to be subjected to a hostile and sceptical gaze which challenges bodily identity – and what this does to a person’s trust in government. The final vision of the poem is one of abandonment, disorientation, and displacement:
The Canadian officials had
sent her into an unlit world
without documentation, without support, without status
the netherworld of fumbled transit
with only a flashlight for comings and goings (71)
“The Lips Are Different” involves the reader in the drama and dilemma of surveillance and race relations, exhorting any white reader to confront the strong possibility that such a challenge to identity as that meted out by the Canadian passport official would not have been issued to “us”. The way that this challenge is written on the body of the woman, Mohamud, is graphically realised in the multimedia version by a montage of different lips, some of them the grotesquely luscious, lipstick-coated ideal of the surgically enhanced Western world. Sonic elements likewise accentuate the racial drama as the voice of the Canadian immigration official is created through speech synthesis, both de-identifying and universalising it into echoes of a sinister Kafkaesque realm. Further illumination of the technical methods used to reinforce and intensify the themes of “The Lips Are Different” is provided by the article (also linked in the e-book of Ecliptical) by Smith and her collaborator, Roger Dean, which discusses and plays selected sections before presenting the entire multimedia text at the end.1Smith, Hazel, Roger T. Dean, austraLYSIS and Western Sydney University, “Creative Collaboration, Racial Discrimination and Surveillance in The Lips are Different.” The Digital Review, 7 June 2020, https://thedigitalreview.com/issue00/lips-are-different/
While the role of the reader in completing or co-producing the text that is received is most apparent in the four multi-media pieces linked in Ecliptical, it is no less important in the total reading experience of the volume. The other texts with multimedia versions are “Fractals” and “Headless Reminiscences”, both linked to audio versions, and “Hem of Memory”, a poetic text by Smith to accompany a dual screen short film.2The co-creators for these four texts are listed in the Notes to Ecliptical, pp.126-131. But there is plenty for the reader to do with the other texts in Smith’s book. For instance, the reader is interpellated insistently in two genres sampled in the volume: computer assisted/generated poems and what Smith calls “bullet point poems”, in which “each line brings a different observation or insight” (Spineless Wonders, 1). While only the one computer-generated poem is designated “A Flirtation with the Posthuman”, this and the three computer-assisted poems bear witness to Hazel Smith’s tireless quest to place herself in new compositional situations which challenge human-centred concepts and techniques. While Ecliptical includes some poems that are recognisably lyric, it does not maroon the computer-generated/assisted poems as misfits but rather embeds them in a collection of texts which complicate the conventionally emotional occasion of lyric address with the materiality of found objects. We find collage poems, samples of google cut and paste texts and several poems like “The Lips Are Different” which work with the documentation of real life. From this perspective, the computer poems are a logical progression of Smith’s long journey away from confessional and seamlessly narrative modes.
All four computer-generated/assisted poems, “Cool Shrug”, “Corn, Ask Mother (A Flirtation with the Posthuman)”, “Tottering”, and “Trilling Feathers”, employ deep learning (machine learning) techniques, which the interested reader can find clearly explained in several places.3Smith, Hazel. “Pitching the Poem-Essay: Subversive Argument in the work of Charles Bernstein.” Electronic Book Review, 6 July, 2020, https://electronicbookreview.com/essay/pitching-the-poem-essay-subversive-argument-in-the-work-of-charles-bernstein/Dean, Roger T., and Hazel Smith. “The Character Thinks Ahead: Creative Writing with Deep Learning Nets and Its Stylistic Assessment.” Leonardo, vol. 51, no. 5, 2018, pp. 503-504, https://doi.org/10.1162/leon_a_01601 These four poems are collaborations between Hazel Smith and, Roger Dean, who executed the text generation. In “Cool Shrug”, “Tottering”, and “Trilling Feathers”, Smith used further systematic approaches to shape the poems. So, while “Corn, Ask Mother” is entirely generated through deep learning, Smith notes that she has “non-computationally organised” the others, adding, “the four poems in this volume that are computer-generated or computer-assisted experiment with different types of machine learning settings and different degrees of subsequent human intervention” (127). The place of these texts in a volume of poems arranged into broadly thematic sections argues that we feel inspired, even compelled, to find some coherence in them with the broader preoccupations of Ecliptical.
With this brief in mind, we might note that the three computer-assisted poems display different grammatical patterns which in turn could be thought to suggest different pathologies for meaning-making. For instance, “Cool Shrug” is devoid of verbs. It consists entirely of pairs of words in which objects, body movements, states of being are created by qualified nouns (“bloated stance”), modified adjectives (“suddenly deft”), or gerund phrases (“resisting incest”). The subjectivity creating the poem could be one overloaded with sensory impressions, trapped in synaesthesia and unable to articulate the distinction between the whole and the parts, blind to any narrative in the arrangement of phenomena yet peculiarly confident that weird juxtapositions are entirely logical. We could read the poem according to the Systemic Functional Linguistics model of the Australian Michael Halliday, a model that analyses the communication act as tripartite, composed of field, tenor, and mode. Reading thus, we could say that the tenor (role relationships of participants in the speech act) is wildly distorted and the field (the area the text treats, what it is about) throws the reader into generic chaos. The repetition of “chicken” suggests the field of food and cooking and the genres of recipe and food writing – but nothing else in the piece supports such a generic diagnosis, and “chickenfeed” really disconcerts us! Another of the computer-assisted poems, “Tottering”, presents a different grammatical challenge. The repeated words are confined to the semantic-free staples of sentences, articles, pronouns, relatives, conjunctions, perhaps encouraging the reader to play the part of speech therapist who treats a patient and arrives at the end with a sense of meaning triumphantly grasped: could this be the discourse of a trauma victim stuttering on the connectives, repressing semantics and deixis? The emboldening of (mainly) nouns and adjectives could be something like Lacan’s points de capiton, the “quilting stitches” through which the unconscious temporarily pins down meaning. “Cool Shrug” and “Tottering” each suggests a subjectivity incapable or unwilling to become propositional, perhaps suggesting a world in which nothing can be clearly said – a cultural dilemma making new the discourse of Romantic poets, stuttering on the Augustan confidence of Alexander Pope’s claim, in “An Essay on Man”, that “whatever is, is right”. The third of the computer-assisted poems, “Trilling Feathers”, continues the anatomisation of meaning-making that can be discerned in the other poems. Now, finally, verbs are trialled, proliferating in active form and present and past participles. This poem seems to mimic the discourse of a pathologically prepositional subject, ever reaching towards a meaning that is just out of sight.
Such an analysis of the computer-assisted poems in Ecliptical suggests in turn a way of reading what Smith calls the “bullet point poems” in the volume: “Emergent Emergencies”, “Snow Monkeys”, “Off Limits”, and “Time Lapse”. In each poem, each line is end-stopped and propositional. From this perspective, the four poems could be thought to offer an exit path from the avoidance of or at best hiccupping on propositions that characterises the computer-assisted poems. Strikingly, the first positioned of the bullet point poems appears to warn us not to avoid the propositional (“it was unclear from the muggy conference paper what the speaker was mistily proposing”; “don’t treat as metaphor that which is completely literal” (24). But how are we as readers to cope with this plethora of propositions? There is no down time: no scene setting, no connectives, nothing we can take as merely phatic. Can genre help us – perhaps – but Smith’s generic title, “bullet point poems”, pulls against the visible form of the texts. First, bullet points usually descend from a stem, and none of these poems begins with a stem. Second, the length of the poems is tantalisingly close to that of the traditional propositional form in western culture, the sonnet. I began counting the lines in “Off Limits” and “Time Lapse”. Each is sixteen lines and I thought of George Meredith’s sixteen-line sonnet sequence, Modern Love. While the other two poems slightly exceed that number (seventeen and eighteen lines respectively), the length kept me interested enough in the potential alignment of the poems with the sonnet form. But trialling the sonnet as generic cue, we are immediately pulled up short by the consistently self-contained lines. The bullet point form strenuously resists the enjambment used by the sonneteer to construct an argument, so the reader is given no smooth passages across the line breaks. Further, whereas the Elizabethan sonnet’s argument is divided into two conveniently readerly parts by the volta, the reader permitted to rest and take stock before pressing on to the point of the argument, the reader of the bullet point poems is allowed no pause.
What can we make of “Emergent Emergencies” if we take the bullet point as generic guide? The departure from grammatical conventions disorients us; there is no stem, and the bullet points are grammatically complete. If “Emergent Emergencies” challenges us to supply the missing stem, we might alight on the one line that is not a proposition: “the miscapes of our senses, the mistakes of imaginations” (24). Could this be a grammatically radical stem, deliberately misplaced from the head of the text, and hidden in plain sight from the reader? If we check the lines with this in mind, we find that this could be a descriptive stem with the bullet points as illustrations or examples, which might imply that the propositions were at best wrong turnings, at worst, delusions. But perhaps another clue for reading the poem is planted in “for enjoying music, you are more of a performer than a listener” (24). A further clue might be that the title of the first section of Ecliptical, in which “Emergent Emergencies” appears, is taken from this poem. The poet asks, “Is my microphone on?”, suggesting that she might be bent on “igniting the loose switch of hearing” (p. 24). While this looks like a metaphor, the warning about metaphor in the poem argues we should take it literally, and certainly a loose switch of hearing is semantically similar to our potential stem for the bullet points, “the miscapes of the senses, the mistakes of imaginations”.
So, is the poem enacting an anxiety of the speaker, afraid that the mic is not working, concerned that use of a traditional form (whether it be the prosaic bullet point or the more flowery sonnet) will fail to switch on the hearing of the audience? If so, what does the speaker want us to hear? The only clue we can reliably follow from “Emergent Emergencies” and the other four bullet point poems is the end-stopping of each line which suggests that meaning is at best discontinuous, and that propositions may prove false or misleading guides. A line from another poem in Ecliptical, “Musing”, might serve as a leitmotif for the bullet point poems: “I don’t need flow: my muse, interruption” (16). Has the speaker, along with many modern scholars, called Coleridge’s bluff (the great Romantic bluff?) when he lamented that the inspired flow of his intuition of the complete “Kubla Khan” had been interrupted by “a person from Porlock”, leaving him with barely a fragment of the whole poem? Perhaps there is no mystical whole – perhaps what remains after the interruptions of life is the text.4Magdalena Ball perceptively suggests that the end-stopped lines in the bullet point poems recall the form of the koan, which would suggest that the genre of the poems might be akin to a Zen Buddhist meditational text: Ball, Magdalena. “A review of Ecliptical By Hazel Smith.” Compulsive Reader, 31 Oct. 2022, https://compulsivereader.com/2022/10/31/a-review-of-ecliptical-by-hazel-smith/
After all, a wider scan of Ecliptical reveals that real life is integral to, not interruptive of the text. The poems in the volume rest on and interact with a diverse and expansive set of events, issues, and actors as Hazel Smith reacts to, researches, abstracts from, and transmutes material into text. Her brief is to watch the world and urge the reader to watch it with her. In giving us perspectives on political prisoners, on the afterlives of Holocaust survivors, of a woman artist condemned to live in the shadow of her husband, or simply of an “everyone” figure trying to make sense of a child’s disappearance, she involves us in a journey at once ethical and intellectual. How, she persistently asks, is it possible to remain a reflective, sentient being in the face of the incipient disorientation produced by watching the world? She answers this question by offering the reader many models for re-orientation to past and present events and situations. Trumpism is captured in a witty “revenge drama” between Trump and James Comey. The confusions and idiocies of transmitting information about Brexit are anatomised into a series of deceptively logical propositions: for instance, “We could set off an emergency evacuation, then everyone would have to leave the world” (“The Accountant, or Brexit for Breakfast” 28). Those subjected to prejudice and persecution like Suuad Hagi Mohamud in “The Lips Are Different” are made visible alongside the bizarrely diffuse subjectivity of David Gilbert, “born in and out of a Boston Jewish family / a self-proclaimed political prisoner / behind bars for his natural life” (“Days of Rage” 39). Women fettered by patriarchal values appear, sometimes effecting their own escape, as “Lee Krasner (Not Mrs Pollock)” did, and sometimes not (“The Riddle of Fanny Mendelssohn”). A striking triptych of feminist portraits is presented by the consecutive poems, “The Lips Are Different”, “Hem of Memory”, and “Overworld”. The stark realities of current prejudice in the first are dissolved in the poignancy of “Hem of Memory”, a poetic over-voicing for a short film, directed by Ettore Siracusa, which uses dual screens to juxtapose an unfinished 1953 short film about migrant experience in Australia with the female actor in the film watching the old footage as a much older woman. Then, after this respite, the reader is plunged again into the persistence of patriarchal violence against women in some traditional societies.
Yet, despite the actualities of prejudice, discrimination, and violence that are canvassed repeatedly in Ecliptical, the poet’s perspective is never moralising. She consistently involves the reader in a drama of empathy, played out across multiple scenarios. The Kurdish husband in “Overworld” figures the crux of the problem:
imprisoned only for being a Kurd
victim of a brutal system
on parole for a week
he travels far away
to retrieve his wife
she was forced to become a prostitute
while he was in prison in Turkey
what else would feed her?
his family have encaved and demeaned her
to them she is an adulterer
deserving only of death
they insist he
take revenge on her
he does not think about
what he wants
his own kindness
does not reflect on
whether he can forgive her
even though he
knows he can
he knows he does (77-78)
Yet, empathy itself is not sentimentalised. Its difficulties are enacted by the poet before our eyes and we participate, willy nilly. This technique has been a constant in Hazel Smith’s poetry since her first published volume and is used with sophistication in Ecliptical. “Street People” is a case in point, as it dramatizes the fluctuations of empathy towards the homeless, who “create stuttering diasporas, threaten breakouts from suburban rules”. The poem continues:
Some of them hold out their hands expectantly. Most are too proud. I rehearse the conversations I might have with them, plunder the feel-good fantasies only the housed can hold. Sometimes I put a five dollar note in a hand, hoping it will buy food. Sometimes I walk past as if I do not see them even though they know I can. (35)
The insoluble complexity of our perceptions of the homeless is caught in “Street people are as transparent as water, as opaque as the most intense pain” (36) and the poet concludes, plangently:
No one knows what to do with the homeless. I have grown fond of some of them since I have the privilege to pick and choose. Sometimes a familiar face goes missing and I wonder if she has passed away. (36)
Further, how are we to be sure empathy does not curdle into (potentially baseless) fabulation? In “Waiting in Buenos Aires”, the speaker, perhaps too conscious of Argentina’s troubled political history and too concerned about the waiter’s unhappy demeanour, casts him instantaneously as a former military commander hiding in the service industry.
The case of “Waiting in Buenos Aires” takes us back to my opening gambit. In reading Ecliptical, we need to be highly active and engaged readers – not least to catch the poet out at her metapoetic games. Because the volume opens with the section called “is my microphone on?”, we are invited to think from the outset about how questions of ethics and aesthetics are vulnerable to the mundanities of technological glitches and the wavering of human attention. While the other five sections of the volume are less obviously metapoetical, the reader does well to keep this possibility in mind. Ethically lucid poems like “Overworld” are mixed in with the discombobulating computer-generated/assisted and bullet point poems. The fastness of the word on the page dissolves once we open the links to the multimedia versions. We are invited into empathy and deftly warned of its misprisions, urged to watch the world, and alerted to its confusing channels.
Smith, Hazel. Ecliptical. ES-PRESS, imprint of Spineless Wonders, 2022,
Spineless Wonders. Flyer for Ecliptical by Hazel Smith, 2022,