SALLY HEGGEMAN Reviews
Organic Furniture Cellar by Jessica Smith
(McNaughton & Gunn Inc., Charlottesville, VA, 2004)
In Jessica Smith’s Organic Furniture Cellar, Smith bravely goes where most poets don’t. In this thought-provoking, mind-bending collection, the words used in the poems occupy the space of the page in a much way different from what one is accustomed to. At first glance, the pages may not make sense but as one engages with the text, it becomes clear that what appears to be disorder is actually the natural order—hence the word ‘organic’ in the title—that is exactly how this writing is crafted.
The words are arranged on the paper in the same manner that they are arranged in our minds. As humans, when we hear words, we make associations. Most natural thought is not straightforward and linear. Smith takes us into her own inner landscape and reveals her thought processes. In these writings, Smith is recounting memories, so the scattered layout of wording is effective and engages both the eye and the mind of the reader. Through a series of words, numbers, and many different “furniture” arrangements, the reader is given the opportunity to engage, decode, and rearrange the given words.
Because the writing in this book is not linear, each word chosen by Smith carries a heavier weight than one from a traditional novel. Organic Furniture Cellar also draws the reader’s attention to the space on the page and how the arrangement of words may change the message the reader gets (from a certain page) altogether.
w c i
e bursts of
little specks of brown
smell of wet leaves
like bananas ll
trees like fireworks brown
eaves some trees turn utterly yellow
more quickly than others
The text above is a passage (though the layout is not identical to the published one) of one of Smith’s passages in Organic Furniture Cellar titled first leaves. I find this passage to be my favorite. This passage embodies the experience of time passing in the fall. The individual, lower-case letters that stand by themselves are arranged in such a way that they mimic the same, free falling motion of leaves. One can sense the passing of time as Smith takes us from the initial burst of colors in the beginning, to the slow falling of the leaves in the middle, and finally to the end when the leaves turn brown.
In the opening of Organic Furniture Cellar, Smith introduces the reader to the concept of “plastic poetics”. Plastic poetry melds together word and image, while also dealing with the spatial components of the characters, yet poetry can only be considered legitimately “plastic” if it disturbs the reader’s mental path. A good example of this would be the way architecture disrupts and controls our paths in physical space. We must yield to objects that are in our way; we must move around them. This same sort of movement is required in order to read plastic poetry; the reader’s space must be disrupted.
Smith introduces us to the metaphor of the “house” in the opening, and illustrates the role the reader will play in creating his or her own “space”. Entering the house, the visitors find that in order to do anything—move, sit on furniture, cook—they must constantly lift the fabric “roof” of the house high enough over their heads to slither through the space. One of them observes, “Rooms form depending on how we move. If I bend down, I nearly lose the room.” This interdependency of agent and architecture is characteristic of Arakawa’s work, which consistently explores the theoretical problems of being a body in space. Questions of how one occupies space, how one affects and is affected by architecture, move to the fore. A building is no longer a dwelling-space, but a site of reciprocal becoming. Smith’s approach to plastic poetry challenges and invites the reader to travel with her through the depths of her mind.