Issue 18 – Spring 2010 – Stacy Cartledge on Michael Smith’s Universe

The Anagrammatic Moment

Michael Smith, Multiverse. New York: BlazeVox, 2010. 93 pp. 


Recently scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute created the first synthetic life form, a bacterium designed and created from scratch. The amino acids of DNA, lettered “A, G, T and C,” were used to write a new, original genome for the microbe. Ironically, just a few months earlier Mike Smith published his second collection, Multiverse, which uses as its poetic form the anagram. In the note to readers, Smith writes that his purpose is to “riff off the advances in biology and science that make up our current world and seem to show us just what a Petri dish of recipe and method life on this planet is—the operating principle of the anagram being something akin to the ‘letters’ of DNA.” In fact, the first of the book’s two sections is a bestiary with the subject of each poem a different animal. Each poem in this menagerie is created using exactly the same letters—all 24 poems are perfect anagrams of one another. The second section also uses the anagram form; here, Smith responds to poems by Frost, Pound, Stevens, Moore, Dickinson, and many others by rearranging the letters of their poems into his own. While most of us would admit that this is clever and would take not a little skill, some might chalk it up to gimmickry. This, however, would be a serious mistake. With Multiverse Smith has elevated the game of anagramming into a poetic form, perhaps the first new form of the 21 st century.

When the Venter Institute announced its achievement last month, questions about the morality of synthesizing life were quick to follow—so too is Smith, even with his new form, interested in deep-rooted moral questions. Smith is a philosophical poet, searching for truth (as are so many), but even more he is an ethicist, using poems to point the direction to greater meaning and honest action. He gratefully points out the dark puddles of unknown depths, those ethical questions that are muddled with ambiguity, and just as he prizes their uncertainty, he helps us find truth to the best of its ability to be understood. For instance, in “Predilections and Predicaments,” we’re told that

…discovery is but 
the processes by which we learn
there is no limit
to what we do not see

and in “Louse” Smith warns that

…to find you, we must 
remember…to pause,
to breathe, because, most times,
we’ve spotted something else

and “Clones” instructs, in a beautifully full and ambiguous line, that

any wish means to want without end.

Smith calls for a world of easy empathy, such as when he takes the achingly realistic portrait of being mistreated by a rude receptionist in “Hippo” as an opportunity to remind us that “No life is easy.” This and other lines, such as “We are / divided but no different,” might verge into the realm of trite pedanticism if Smith himself were not aware that such thoughts can lead to self-indulgence:

Beware the experiment found ingrowing
on the shelf….
What is it but the crutch of self-love
searching for a wafer-thin faith?

—a warning that makes his sincerity and humbleness all the more appealing.

The ethical theme I find myself most attracted to in Smith’s book, perhaps due to my own quixotic proclivities, is the urge to persevere even in the absence of hope; or rather, the certainty that there is no such thing as the absence of hope. In “Hellbender,” for example, the drunk speaker, while fishing, practices

Catch and release, since what we have
we are sure to lose anyway.

And yet:

[The hellbender salamander is] my patron saint
of having nothing to lose. I drink
to having nothing to lose. I rise. I drink.

It is the rising, here, within this sad repetition, which shows us that in this world of loss our stubborn response is at once heartbreaking and indefatigable.

This hopeless hope is palatable because of Smith’s use of “proper cynicism [which] suggests, in part, / sincerity” and of asides, both parenthetical and in-text, which accost the reader and invoke reflection, making each image integral and significant. Smith tells the reader—while writing it!—of his difficulties in anagramming Frost’s “Directive” and explains the process by which he was ultimately able to complete it, and in “Zebra” he mentions that in this anagram scheme he has no Zs with which to name the animal. These commentaries fill (and define) a void beyond—sometimes we don’t have “the heart or breath” to say, to do, what is needed. And so it is from Smith’s example (not just his assertions) that we learn the lesson that the only honorable tactic is to push on anyhow with the faith that “Limit relaxes as reach fails.” This is what, in “Dog,” Smith calls “the true task”; in attempting it, we often find the needed heart and breath.

Smith’s talent is such that he can incorporate a criticism of capitalists “… for whom growth / is tantamount to virtue” while at the same time capturing the emotion of a father for his daughter that makes him believe in God “today, now, this moment,” rendering it so beautifully that it nearly does the same for the reader. The theme of love is continued in “Manatee,” with a symbol of all that is good and necessary in life; notably, the eponymous animal is heavily scarred. A story within the poem, of a girl wanting to kiss the manatee’s “brown snout” even though this could kill it, can be read as an example of ranking love ahead of death, of making death an irrelevance. This seems to me a rejoinder to the trouble that plagued Auden over his line “We must love one another or die,” which became “We must love one another and die,” and finally We must strike the line from the poem entirely. Smith seems to answer We must love one another and ignore death; love is a refusal to dignify death’s claim.

It seems that for Smith, poetry is life—the thoughtful inner life that must not be ignored, even though it may never quite be shared. About this, Smith writes in the Dickinson anagram

The wisdom is simple, but varied.
It’s won
        by reaching down.

The ultimate wisdom that we learn by reaching down into this wide volume (wide both in dimension and in scope) appears, prayer-like, in “Ape”:

to leave unsolved, as she did—so wise
to resist that pressure—the mystery

of those details that make up life, like “…twirled grass, warm / in your … hands”; to realize “I’ve learned enough to want / to be good for that and nothing else.”

When, in “Zebra,” Smith parenthetically asks, “Must I say it?” the phrase inquires beyond its merely rhetorical significance to question the necessity of poetry itself. In fact, Smith tells us that we are

…right to wonder who I am
to start this work…
because I won’t endure for another moment
the way I have been…

and his plaintive need to perform this work, “To name these animals,” to use them to express his “love and trust” is manifested—the answer to “Must I say it?” is Yes; this is worthy work. Not only does he need to write it, we find ourselves needing to read it, needing to allow the sheen of Smith’s poetics to filter our vision, to become the conduit through which the poetic circuit is completed. Elsewhere in the same poem, Smith tells us of “brows[ing] stores for actual books, / roving, with worse odds, for delight.” With Smith and his “actual” Multiverse, the odds for delight are high.


Reviewed by Stacy Cartledge.

Stacy Cartledge is an Assistant Professor of English at Delaware County Community College.  His first poetry collection, Within the Space Between, was published by Spuyten Duyvil Press last year.