March 2023

Back to Issue 13


By Hazel Smith

ES PRESS, an imprint of Spineless Wonders (2022)

Reviewed by Jane Frank, StylusLit

What is most striking in Hazel Smith’s fifth collection of poetry is the far-ranging scope of topics explored and the wide number of poetic approaches employed, the poet still succeeding in retaining a powerful, unifying voice throughout. Smith’s poems challenge both intellectually and emotionally. Familial poems written in free verse are sandwiched between computer-generated works and list poems. Politically and socially aware poems about Trump, Brexit, the Berlin Wall and Covid-19 share space with poems such as the one that we first encounter, ‘The Collection’ [8-9] in which the poem’s third person narrator confesses to their process of writing and curating the book, a heads up to the reader that the poems in it  

                                         all originated in her however

                                          creolised their prehistories

— a reference to poems conceived as part of a number of current and past creative collaborations.  The poet, using centred text, explains a wish to

                                                       spit out

                                            the volume in little bits


                                            embrace amputations

                                        rather than the whole body

                                        limbs clasping and releasing

                               each other in sweaty improvised alliances

                                        far from their poetic birthrights

 Smith is a poet, performer and new media artist. These roles are vividly realised in her work as are her scholarly research interests in writing and society such as technology, cross-cultural exchange and the relationship between music and literature. The collection of 56 poems is divided into six parts, each with a different thematic emphasis. However, each section is carefully curated with a smorgasbord of poems in experimental forms including a playful survey poem where the reader is asked to ‘Rank-a-Poem’ [23-24], stream of consciousness pieces, discontinuous poems, dialogue poems, double column poems and poems that take material from the Internet using ‘cut and paste.’ Voice and performance are also prevalent in many poems and the ebook includes URLs to audio and multimedia collaborations that are able to be further explored through interactive links. 

Smith, like a growing number of poets in Australia and around the world, embraces digital technology as a means of harnessing creativity in experimental ways. She is particularly interested in the potential of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to inspire creative research and explorations about human creativity and human control. Possibilities include the creation of what Smith calls ‘posthuman language.’ Her work in this discipline involves collaboration with academic colleagues. ‘Cool Shrug’ [61] is one of four computer-generated / computer-assisted poems that experiment with various machine settings and levels of machine versus human intervention. In the notes to this poem, Smith explains the process of words generated by means of machine learning (deep learning) techniques in the computer platform Python. The poem consists of three stanzas of justified text made up of nouns with descriptors separated by short spaces that, when read aloud, almost take on a narrative form by the end.

The first section ‘is my microphone on?’ explores the art of writing poetry from an array of angles. In ‘Personhood: A Few Preliminaries,’[12-13] Smith employs wonderful imagery to express the vulnerability of the writer’s life:

                        The poem as ice rink, writing as risk. My personhood stalks my

                         body, unhinged.

This depiction of the self as a machine ‘learning to be human’ is a recurring metaphor throughout the collection. Smith’s wry wit is also a constant. Towards the end of this poem she asks:

                        Where are Adam and Eve? They have left us with a lot of gardening

                         to do.

Other poems in this section explore forgery and fake writing. In ‘Faking It,’ [17-20] Smith controversially asks questions about the creativity of achieving ‘good’ forgery in writing and its ‘hybrid languages’. There are statements to ponder such as:

                                           (artificial flowers

                                           are not the same as

                                           artificial intelligence)

Again, this is a reference to robots in relation to the falseness of poems ‘struggling to be sincere.’

There are powerful poems addressing social and political dilemmas in the second section. A memorable example is ‘Days of Rage [36-43] about the case of radical US activist David Gilbert of the Weather Underground Organisation in the 1970s who was incarcerated for 40 years until 2021 for his involvement in the Brinks armed robbery. A standout line is:

                                       if only we could evolve by

                                  sliding wormlike on our bellies

                            … but maybe the limit comes with killing

Smith uses intertextual references to great effect, including a quotation from Charles Olson’s ‘The Kingfishers’ published in The Distances (1950):

                                   ‘what does not change / is the will to change’

‘elliptical orbit’ —section 3— investigates personal, familial and virtual relationships. ‘Postscript’ [50-52] is a third person prose poem about reading a letter that changed the narrator’s life, dividing past and future to ‘form the basis of everything she had since read, everything she had since written.’ This highly personal poem is one of number of affecting poems about the poet’s father. 

Similarly, in the section titled ‘passport without destiny’, ‘Hem of Memory’ is one of a number of moving poems that unpack cultural differences and values. This is a prose poem of remembrances and vanishing images that contains text written originally as the voice track for a 2018 video installation of the same name directed by Ettore Siracusa, exploring issues encountered by Italian migrants in Australia’s post-war years. A poem such as this is the result of painstaking research and collaboration. As Smith explains in her notes to the poem, the video draws on extracts from the feature length film Il Conratto (1953) including an interview from 2008 with Halina Kisilevski, the woman who played the lead role, highlighting her changed thoughts, feelings and memories in three overlapping ways, each narrative thread delivered in a distinctive font that seems to conjure moving images such as in the juxtaposition that occurs here: 

                        There is always a camera burning through you, however much you            

                        forget it. And as you are about to die, so they say, it plays the

                        firestorm of your life. 


                         During the filming you were obsessed with the storyline, even

                         though parts of it were always missing. But now, watching the

                         film, you barely remember the story itself. What you see is a tree

                         swaying in the wind; hands plucking vegetables from the ground;

                         your reflections side by side, on the surface of the river.

A series of poems in the compelling fifth section address women, creativity and age. In ‘Time Machinations’ [105-106], the poet asks, again with reference to the relentlessness of non-human discovery:

                                    If the machine that could reverse age

                                    was newly minted in the shops

                                    would she want to slide back

                                    to being a teenager? 

This poem goes on to discuss the conditions that would apply if one was to ‘run backwards …to mug time / stalking the forking paths.’ Other poems explore the lives of women from the past. A stand out poem in this part of the collection is ‘Lee Krasner (Not Mrs Pollock)’ [93-95] exploring the life of the extraordinary and prodigiously talented American expressionist artist lee Krasner who never relented in striving for self-satisfaction as an artist, or withered in the shadow of her famous husband, Jackson Pollock. That she saw her own worth irrespective of the market and the bias towards men is brilliantly captured by Smith. Krasner:

                                    … never wanted to showcase

                                    the signature style at which

                                    dealers swoon

                                    … played her name like a cunning card game …

                                    … breast fed her paintings

                                    rather than bear children

 Smith also explores the plight of German Romantic composer and pianist Fanny Mendelssohn in ‘The Riddle of Fanny Mendelssohn’ [90-92], challenging the history books’ account of another woman supposedly unable to compete with men in her field. Despite social prejudices and patriarchal mores, Smith refreshingly questions historical assumptions by portraying Mendelssohn’s husband as a ‘closet feminist’, asking the reader ‘who to believe’ when ‘we are clamped / in the stocks of contradiction’. The poem concludes with an impassioned list of questions for the reader to answer ‘if the real Fanny Mendelssohn won’t stand up’. Smith’s poems force us to question the assumptions of history in intriguing ways, allowing new perspectives.

The final section of the collection, ‘time ripped’, provides various accounts of time—for example, ‘The Knockings’ [118-119] is a poem about facing mortality and ‘In No Particular Order’ [117] is a bullet point poem where the poet bombards us with the sonics of contemporary existence. One that especially draws the reader in is ‘A Fertile Reading’ [113-114], a poem with an enticing array of ingredients — strangers, gardens, books, wristwatches, windows, an argument, a planting of torn pages and like so many of Smith’s poems, a thought-provoking question as a means of closing.

There is a sense of displacement and unease as we read this collection but it is compelling to read to the very end as each new poem confronts us in a contrasting way, sparking our curiosity and drawing us into its often carefully researched or strategised details to reward us with poems that shock and surprise. Hazel Smith is a poet at the height of her powers.