Much Like You Shark by Logan Ryan Smith
(dusi/e-chap kollectiv, 2007)
[on-line PDF here!]
Vast are the seas of poetry, including the mighty ocean of the contemporary!
The poetry-life in these waters is so abundant that it’s just not possible to see everything, even when the currents bring so much so close. So much gets away!
Still, the ever-flowing bounty of poetry creates energizing possibilities. Keep your eyes open, maybe poke around a bit, and all sorts of wonders can come your way, even if it’s later than you’d like.
Logan Ryan Smith’s Much Like You Shark is a chapbook length poem. It has approximately 450 lines organized in 23 unnumbered and untitled sections. No section is longer than a page and each section, regardless of length (some are quite short), has its own page.
The opening six sections (about 100 lines) of Much Like You Shark were first published in March 2007 as a super-limited (50 copies) Big Game Books / Tinysides chapbook. The entire poem was then published twice later in 2007, first as a limited edition Dusie chapbook and then as part of Smith’s collection Stupid Birds (Transmission Press). In early 2008, Much Like You Shark was again published, this time as an on-line PDF in a dusi/e-chap kollektiv post.
I missed every single one of these publications when they first appeared. And missed too Jared Hayes’ August 2007 blog-rave for Much Like You Shark (“Fuck! This book is the shit!”) and C.A. Conrad’s May 2008 enthused comments (“FANTASTIC BOOK!”) on Smith’s poem.
But a few months ago, while browsing the used poetry at Books and Bookshelves here in San Francisco, I came across the Tinysides chap that prints a long excerpt from Much Like You Shark. The chap’s cover – an intense toothy Great White – was an eye-grabber, and the title intrigued me. After all, the apex predator is a kind of neighbor, given that here in the City where I live The Red Triangle is just off-shore.
And so I read Much Like You Shark right there in the bookstore. The poem’s sharp energy (sorry about this) bit me hard. I bought the chap and as soon as I made it home found the full PDF version on-line. I’ve read the poem many times since, including via the Dusie chap hard copy that Galatea Resurrects kindly provided for this review. Smith’s poem continues to put me in a kind of poetic (you know it’s coming) frenzy.
Much Like You Shark takes the form of a dramatic monologue addressed to a shark. In the poem – and I borrow here from C.A. Conrad, who I think got it right – Smith uses the shark, or the idea of one, as a way to find the world and see himself. All this is apparent right from the opening lines:
Much like you sharkThe poem moves with similar rhythms and energy through its 450 plus lines. And it’s the poem’s rhythm and energy – its start-to-finish propulsive movement – that’s most impressive to me. It may not totally be “the even, liquid grace of a creature completely at home with its place in the Universe” (that, natch, is how scientists describe sharks swimming) but it has a lot of that feel, I must say. The words, the lines, the sections, just keep coming. Attention stays taut.
I meet the world harmlessly
but in bad weather and murky waters,
in the noise of the blue open
tree-lined city street chatter
little gums ringed with blood
tiger shark . . .
Smith creates the motion-energy of the poem, the sense and feel of something alive in action, through several methods. One key technique is varying the length of lines, stanzas, and sections. With regard to line lengths, the look in the opening stanza above, in which medium and short are irregularly mixed, shows up in many of the poem’s sections. The shorter lines, obviously, move quicker than the longer ones, and thus insert a bit of speed the text, but the main point is that you can’t predict what’s coming next.
Similarly, the twenty-three sections of Much Like You Shark vary, both in format and length. Five of the sections are single stanzas, and they range in length from as few as six to more than two dozen lines.
Smith mostly arranges the lines in the other eighteen sections into stanzas (i.e., groups of lines with spaces in between). But these stanzas vary widely in length. Smith for example will start with a tercet, then have a couplet followed by a quatrain. Or in another section he’ll book-end couplets with stanzas of five and eight lines, respectively. Only two sections have stanzas of the same length throughout (couplets are used) , and both of those are sandwiched between sections that contain no couplets at all. There’s also a section that begins with an indented block of prose followed by a mix of stand-alone lines and couplets.
The variations of form, the changes or shifts within and between the sections, are relentless. It’s energizing, the changes in rhythm and densities, making Much Like You Shark seem alive, as if it’s constantly in movement. Not knowing what’s coming, you keep your eyes on it.
There’s also variation and unpredictability in the substantive matters observed and reported.. “I keep my eyes moving,” Smith states (twice) in a section near the middle of the poem. He also has (as it’s put in another section) “heightened senses sensing.” As such, he brings in all kinds of things. Sometimes he’s “amongst the hammerheads” but other times he’s far from the water as in the report, in the ninth section, of everyday urban traffic:
the consistent circlingThrough either simple references or sometimes more elaborated description, Smith brings into his poem matters as diverse as a blackbird’s struggle with a hawk in a parking lot, shadows off the coast of South Africa, memories of standing on a shore, “glorified / doppelgangers,” migraines, glass-sided buildings, “saddle-weary city walker bloody / mary shit talker,” the shadow of clouds, the Atlantic and Missouri, and the shores of Japan.
no left turns
As he addresses the shark throughout his poem, Smith makes a number of assertions about himself and the world. Two of these are particularly memorable. The first is an explicit criticism of his and our way of being, of the human condition:
how sickly we all seemRelated to this criticism is a recognition of forces within that can’t be controlled. Two excerpts from different sections, one short and one longer, point to the centrality to Smith of desire:
crowded in the street
at a party
or in the bar
with our sick glances
and sidearm touches
how stupid we are
not owning what we hold
like you sharkI like this focus on desire, the acknowledgment of its power and mystery. I think of Andre Breton (“the marvellous precipitate of desire”) and the theories of the 19th century French utopian Charles Fourier, who championed the role of the passions.
I find my desires
overcome my will
by my needs
[ . . . ]
much like you shark
when they find my
in the gutter
and they roll me over
to cut open my gut
a bunch of rot
a lot of things
I had no business putting in me
but I’ll speak now
I’ll speak for you and me
since it’ll one day be our innards
they’ll be judging:
I cannot claim that I didn’t know better
and I never meant to hurt a thing
but I cannot explain
than you can cause time to stop
Time to stop.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the instincts and behavior of the animal that serves as the poem’s central trope, there’s much that is violent in Much Like You Shark. Particularly explicit and forceful in this regard are the lines in the poem’s next to last section:
and when I rip your face from your face from your noseThis is unsettling, to say the least, and thought provoking. Throughout the poem – as the excerpts above illustrate – the “I” has referred to Smith (or the voice of his poem), and the “you” to the shark that’s addressed. Here, however, there seems to be a shift in that the “your” with its forearms, biceps, legs, ankles, etc. can’t be a shark, obviously. What’s getting ripped apart is us, or perhaps – remembering here the earlier reference in the poem, mentioned above, to doppelgangers, some other within Smith himself.
and your skull
and your skin from your arms your forearms and biceps
your triceps and wrists
and when I rip the muscle from your legs the calves
your thighs and ankles
when I tear into your stomach your liver your intestines
I can’t fully connect the meaning of this climactic rampage to the rest of the poem, and the same is true of the short (five line) final section which follows. There, Smith flashes to a moment after the above-described attack:
when standing again
we’ll watch the terns
turn and scurry
as we stupid birds
get pulled under
The conclusion here may look or read as if its neatly wrapped, but I don’t think it is. First, a poem-concluding uplifting affirmation this is not! It’s suggestion of foolish life drowned, is anything but that. Plus, the pronoun “we” disorients: I can’t pin it down. Does “we’ll” and “we” in these lines refer to Smith (or the poem’s voice) and the shark? Or the poet and his readers (including me)? Or is it instead different facets of Smith’s mind or personality? I like this uncertainty, especially here at the end: it sends me back to the poem for yet another reading, to again (yep) swim through Much Like You Shark.
Steven Fama among other things tends the glade of theoric ornithic hermetica. Previously here at Galatea Resurrects, Steve wrote about Jessica Smith’s bird-book (click here to read) and John Olson’s The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat (click to read, if you please).