[Nightboat Books; 2022]
“You notice everything & want to live / in that noticing,” imogen xtian smith writes in “here,” a poem from their debut collection. Published in October 2022 by Nightboat Books, stemmy things is a strikingly beautiful homage to paying attention. Each poem is an invitation to take a good look, feel, and taste of everything—plants, lovers, group chats, music, the past, the self—and a case for how doing so might guide us towards joy on a broken planet.
In “here,” the speaker describes scenes from a winter day in New York City like a long tracking shot. Warm indoors spaces that steam up your glasses when you walk inside, banal smells of pizza, coffee, car exhaust. Sounds of train tracks and men. “You notice nothing seems / easy yet everything’s given.” It’s possible to read this poem addressed to another, or as if we’re let in on an internal monologue, lyrical mutterings to the self. Either way, the “you” of the poem elicits admiration. It isn’t the poet’s job to invent images; everything is already here. But looking is hard work, the stakes are high. “To notice everything / & still wanna stay. Here, I mean / in body or city — this world.” Even the relatively benign scenes in this poem force recognition of difficult truths: poverty, cold, the relentless motion of the city.
It can be terrible to pay attention. There’s also no hope of experiencing joy if we don’t. “I love being alive — is that crass of me?” smith writes in “year of the rat.” The answer is yes. smith’s poems are as crass as they are earnest. In “towards an economy of anal delights,” a steamy exaltation, smith writes: “imagine—August so gross, your sweetie’s ass dripping / in your face like A/C units on a Lower East block.” The experience of getting splashed in the face with warm condensation from one of the thousands of air conditioners jutting out of windows in New York apartment buildings is an iconic experience of summer in the city, one of the more benign hazards of the season. I love how smith makes this fact a metaphor to illustrate a psychedelic, uncivilized horniness. Delight in the grossness of the body is as innate to loving as a drippy A/C is to a city summer.
This delight can be startling, even political. “A poem means / shit if it won’t cum in yr face, swash like hungry ocean / all spit soak & tongue.” I read these lines in relief against the backdrop of a masculinist canon, imagining a Latin love lyric, or an English sonnet by one of history’s famous horny white guys, where semen discharged into a feminized receptacle represents the creative act of writing. Here in smith’s poem, cum takes no part in even simulating the reproductive act. Mercifully freed from signification, it is both oceanic and bodily. Pleasure triumphs over production. stemmy things lives up to this axiom, hitting the reader with a sticky frankness that elicits both surprise and gratitude.
While smith strips sex of its polite, socially acceptable dimension, in stemmy things, the body doesn’t fully escape meaning. “You cannot swap a set of bones, nor / come from any other ruin than,” smith writes in “deep ecology.” Our conditions shape us, whether we like it or not. In “leaflings,” the speaker describes life from their Brooklyn bedroom, arranges plants on the windowsill while looking out at the street below and considers what it means to belong. “Desert succulents & suburban transsexuals—settlers either way.” The speaker’s identification with their houseplants is both funny and incisive. Plants or people, we can only be who we are and where we are is rarely an accident. The path to where we end up is paved by a haunted past as well as our resistance to it.
The world of smith’s poems is made up as much of plants and people as the forces that shape, constrain, pleasure, and politicize them. Things that enter and alter the body, or that the body enters and changes with its presence and distinct shape. In “the way we get by” smith writes, “May the muck / receive me, the plastic pass freely through / the belly of a bird, her tubes unknotted / & loosed of debt.” While many of smith’s poems seek and demand revolution, the speaker here isn’t asking to have been born into a world without debt or microplastics, although of course that would be nice. Instead, they wish for as much tenderness and dignity as possible under the horrifying circumstances.
Song lyrics and bits of other people’s poems are a part of smith’s world, too. Pieces of the poet’s present and past, other artists who have made them the person and the poet they are. “Lonely mountain town” is a powerful example of this. I read it as a biography of queer adolescence. The solace of friends and lovers are a balm and a bulwark against a violent foreground of homophobia in Appalachia: “cloistered in girlfriend’s closets from folks who’d clock me faggot / out of F-150s, hang your head tom dooley stuck in their teeth.” The poem uses the ballad as a through-line, the fear of being murdered connects the speaker, young and queer, to Laurie Foster, a girl killed in the mid-1800s by her confederate lover, Tom Dooley, in the eponymous ballad. In the poem, Appalachia is a place the speaker has left—needed to leave—but hasn’t abandoned hope in: “i dream we dredge rivers & find no women there.”
Grief and joy are often found together in stemmy things. The pandemic lingers in the background of the collection, a general sense of strangers’ fates feeling closer and loved ones seeming less immune than we sometimes imagine them to be to the horrors of illness and death. In the poem “mother, mother,” smith writes: “she, released of toxin & phlegm, / soiled sheets, metastasis, the bitter & bittersweet / joy of her on volitions.” The poem recounts the physical and emotional facts of dying. Death as the release of suffering, but also a release from responsibility. Joy itself can be bitter, free will a burden. “Death beguiles—,” smith continues, “you’ll lose your mother too. Earth remains, / a shell against the clobbering.” The line stings. smith isn’t being cruel. They are reminding the reader that the poem doesn’t exist as lyricism alone—death connects us as much as it beguiles. Earth, cruelly, remains. But also, thank god.
Olivia Durif is an essayist and cultural critic. Her work can be found in the Los Angeles Review of Books, High Country News & other publications. She lives in New Mexico.
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