Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Sustained beyond reverberation; resonant beyond deafness (from The Disappeared) is an apt appellation to Hazel Smith’s active conscience. She has never been known to dodge the odd bit of controversy and her latest collection of poems follows a well-worn path. If there is one word readers might use to describe this poet it would be ‘engaged’. Her poetry tackles contemporary issues in a direct way – climate change, the disappearance of dissidents that have embarrassed a regime, civil unrest, the list goes on. It is not that she offers solutions so much as she heightens the tensions that already exist. In many of her poems she identifies issues that dominate the headlines and gives them a personal dimension to increase their importance to the individual who is reading her work.
Who is Hazel Smith? Well, first of all she is a Research Professor in the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. She has authored several academic and pedagogical books including The Writing Experiment and The Contemporary Literature-Music Relationship. Her book jacket describes an artist who ‘gets her hands dirty’, one who does not only theorise but makes a practical endeavour to develop ideas. “Smith is a new media artist and performer, and the poems employ a variety of techniques drawn from these fields, flourishes of linguistic coloratura, the evocation of virtual realities, cutting and pasting from the internet, remixing, sampling and quotation, to drive home their effects” (blurb, back cover).
A casual glance at the back cover blurb will reinforce the view that Smith is well read and in command of her material. Her opening salvo introduces The Forgiveness Website and she leads with a poem that demonstrates the control she exercises over her verse. Entitled The Disappeared, she delivers the simple message that: ‘I took little notice of what you were saying or doing before your disappearance. I followed the path of least resistance, we debated each other, I read about the horrifying atrocities but considered it was not my fight. “Perhaps secretly I was reconciled to liquidation” (3). I kept myself aloof. “Before you disappeared my aloneness was the vibrations of a coastline, I could feel the pitches of the waves beneath my feet” (3-4). But the disappearance has awakened the writer, stirred her into aggression.
Most readers will have no difficulty understanding the message underlying the poem “Soundtracks”. It is a simple tale told in a simple way but holds magic in the lilt of its verse.
In The Poetics of Discomfort Smith opens with an attack on a legal system that refuses to punish deviant behaviour because its own members have created sufficient confusion in the mind of a complainant that she no longer knows if she has been abused or not. Her mind “runs the rusty algorithm/pours the dried-up potion for the assay” but is no match for “sniffer dogs on the scent/of messed-up sixties liberalism. Asylum is another poem that does not hold back – “whatever feeling they are fleeing/makes them think death hardly/worthy of description…” (32).
In the section called Mismatch appears the poem Choice. The reader can only marvel at the accuracy, and the ordinariness, of the events Smith describes. The summation is inspired:
The poetics of the crookback, the lyric in the lean-to
Legs and arms poking out at gawky, buck-teethed angles,
The seasons stewed and stirred up, the ocean noisily emoting (52).
A lesson in the best use of verbs, describing a familiar collection of scenes in a language of the spheres.
The book does not finish there. More sections, each filled out with poetry that is thought-provoking and often downright uncomfortable. A poet of the intellect with a touch that all welcome.
Buy the book; read the poems; debate them with your friends; and return to them again and again.
By Hazel Smith