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Back Off, Assassin! by Jim Smith
reviewed by Richard Stevenson

Back Off, Assassin! New & Selected Poems
Jim Smith
Mansfield Press


Welcome back, Jim, and sorry I wasn’t at the launch and am arriving so late to the party. That might be an appropriate opener. As these things go though, I`m picking up a review copy from a pile of books my publisher wants reviewed. The pile of books to be reviewed accumulates quicker than the pile of books assigned for review wherever you happen to be, and whatever literary publication you happen to be writing for, of course. Still, wasn’t it Pound who said “poetry is news that stays news”?

I'm happy to say there is no “best by” date sticker on this collection’s cover; indeed, while the bulk of the poems here come from the period 1979 – 1998, when the poet was most active on the Canadian poetry scene, and before he got “sidetracked” in pursuit of a law degree in the mid-nineties ( ;-) ) and started practice as a civil litigator, Mr. Smith wrote a lot of wonderfully quirky neo-surrealist political poems. His avowed purpose has always been “to personalize the political, and politicize the intensely personal” (back cover blurb).

I’m happy to say this new and selected volume has not only “stayed news”; it’s met Pound’s other dictum to “make [the poetry] new” as well. Not that this volume doesn’t have antecedents: the Latin and South American neo-surrealist “leaping poetry” Robert Bly has long championed—and specifically, the revolutionary poetry of Neruda, Vallejo, Parra, Roque Dalton, Mayakovsky, and Leonel Rugama, among others, is often imitated, parodied, echoed or answered poem to poem directly. This habit is not just the most sincere form of flattery, but a kind of acid test of its internationalist flavour, and a testament to the poet’s skill and wide reading. He’s definitely found the right mentors to help him with his poetical agenda. Gary Geddes offers this assessment: “Jim Smith, laying down the law, places himself squarely in the line of fire, where the poet belongs” (back cover blurb).

Understand, we’re not talking about a dire, deadly serious political polemic here. Rather, we’re talking about a poet who has mastered the sub-genres of political fable, prose poem, the incantatory list poem, sudden or flash fiction, serial narrative, the shaggy dog story, lyric, and anti-lyric; a poet as comfortable with the Beats, San Francisco Renaissance poets, Tish/Black Mountaineers, oulipos post-modern deconstructionists, etc. as he is with the mainstream modernists. He’s not a documentary realist like Geddes; he’s an neo-surrealist satirist. More loose and shambling with his vernacular poetic line. Best of all, his work is witty, even hilarious, and trenchant—often all at once—and is never inaccessible or precious. It’s not surprising that Stuart Ross is listed as editor for the current volume either.

Jim Smith’s work stands comparison with Ross’s work and the droll vernacular delivery style of other strong Canadian neo-surrealists, fabulists, and absurdist poets—David McFadden, Robert Priest, Robert Sward, Frank Davey, and Robert Zend all come to mind—all poets who have carried the anti-poemas approach of Nicanor Parra forward in unique ways.
Jim Smith is a really observant chronicler of our computer age too, and it’s a telling detail to say that he’s chosen to mix in the new poems with the older ones and not follow a chronology of composition. So: no section breaks, no saying which poems came from which book until we get to the Acknowledgments page at the end of the book; it simply doesn’t matter. The voice and dark comic tone carry the book, and the skill level is very high and consistent throughout.

A wide cast of characters—strange bedfellows too!—make cameos: not just the literary luminaries mentioned but Alexander Graham Bell, Arnie Swartzenegger, Williams Blake and Burroughs, John Wayne, Robert Heinlein, bp Nicol, and Nibbles the dog as well. Highbrow and lowbrow culture both get a seriously funny drubbing:


a big kid
afloat on popcorn and pop
in a carnival his dad owns
looking for heroes

(section 1, from The Schwartzenegger Poems (for Nora Astorga)

This is a book of poetry that belongs on every seriously funny poet’s shelf.

Richard Stevenson’s latest books are Fruit Wedge Moon: Haiku, Senryu, Tanaka, Kyoka, and Zappai (Hidden Brook Press, 2015) and The Heiligen Effect: Selected Haikai Poems and Sequences (Ekstasis Editions, 2015). A documentary realist long poem sequence, Rock, Scissors, Paper: The Clifford Olson Murders is forthcoming. He currently lives in Lethbridge and will be moving to Nanaimo when his wife joins him in retirement.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 20.