In Memory of My Theories

Rod Smith

1996 • 82 pp. • $12.00
ISBN: 9781882022298

Purchase from Small Press Distribution

“Rod Smith, in In Memory of My Theories, creates a poetics of indeterminacy. Indeterminacy in 20th-century poetry has often reflected a great debt to the Dadaist poets, which include Kurt Schwitters. In this case, poetry questions how one decides to designate a piece of writing as poetry, as well as asking why and when a piece of writing becomes labeled “art.” What is revealed through all this is that very often art is “Art” when it reflects the values, motives, and intentions of the people or groups who “allow” art to exist as “Art.” These conceptions of art are at the core, utilitarian, and they are precisely what Smith resists.

A poetics of indeterminacy suggests that the work does not lend itself to facile categorization or reduction. It is much more open to the notion of conceptual poetry, which is completely analogous to conceptual art in as much as it incorporates or constitutes a “conversation” between various theories or notions on the nature of art, poetics, and art-writing.

The poetic space contains an implicit ideology – it is framed by the expectations of art, and even if the poet chooses to undermine the conventional ways of viewing that particular space and that particular mode of expression. In Memory of My Theories confronts meaning, representation, and linguistic certainty by deviating from the forms and practices of poets who suggest that the function of a poem is to elicit some sort of emotive correlative to the form of the poem. The ideology of the poem cannot be reduced, suggests Smith. Instead there are multiple ideologies just as there are multiple conversations.

Smith avoids the conventional ways of constructing perception, even if the conventions are ones formed in the last five or ten years. Smith’s vision is one of whimsy irony, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, responsibility. Responsibility manifests itself in the attitude that each reader is responsible for his or her own take on the poem and the world. Interpretation is a choice, never an absolute, since meaning is always in flux. Of course, this is what gives contemporary conceptual poetry its great intellectual freedom and energy. To read is to participate in art production; to write is to enter into a conversation. Language is construction and process; poetics embodies the toil and the playfulness. How nice it is that Rod Smith has brought it all together in In Memory of My Theories.”
–Susan Smith Nash (Rhizome 1)

“Smith takes standard dichotomies (interior/exterior, mind/body, etc.) and reconfigures them, removes the standard value grid to reveal a more wrenching grid of doubt. “[A]nd the body you have/is entirely the body/of vacuous mental images//constant round of becoming/bless me to transmute them//we are by nature heavily there//and there appears” (“In Memory of My Theories”). Everything is false, and yet incessantly weighted. Or weighted by the inability to distinguish. The same details reappear (clocks, dust, habit) as if markers that we are lost and covering the same ground over, though someone has been there in the interim to rearrange things just a little. “[T]hese savored days/these cycles/lapse back into statement//certain non-abstractions melt the equal sign and once/cloned become the dust we use to protect our paintings” (“In Memory of My Theories”). And we are back to the real, to detail, to staring at the impenetrable details of accumulated history with which we obscure the distorted image of ourselves we chose to show posterity.

This de-dichotomizing is also a part of how Smith’s work is structured and moves– motion, if not arrival, being key. He revels in the habits of syntax, and breaks them. The action lies not in the action of event, of verbs, but in that of connection, a linguistic motion– derived from his use of prepositions–of what belongs to what, what suture, what addition. Even the verbs are sometimes made to work like prepositions. “So It Is that/the direction is indented by the dubious double affect of the undone area she/is to be believed to inhabit” (“Sieff”). The motion is made constant also by musical combination, vowel-sound surface progressions and Anglo-Saxon sound patterns within a Latinate (however interrupted) syntax.

The emotional impact of the work is neither representative nor reductive. Though in some contexts notational, it carts a “life-size freight,” takes place on the one-to-one scale at which it is written. Alongside these philosophical, linguistic, and emotional (by which I think I mean a manner of tragic pleasure, “hoarding//surely intense//loss//his mouth//shuts his//stammering//tools” [“For Loss”]) effects, In Memory of My Theories is also frequently funny, sometimes vulgar, and never sentimental or lax. It is not (a venial, if not a cardinal, sin) the re-telling of a pre-processed experience, interpretation included, but an investigation of, the very act of, experience and interpretation, a thought-experiment protocol on itself: “Always to know the pattern//being difficult//things this//is called//to make” (“For Loss”).”
–Deirdre Kovac (Poetry Project Feb/Mar 1997 Issue #164)

“In these “subnanosecond studies” in “juiced space,” Rod Smith is the Orwellian ringmaster of an aleatory circus where Chomsky performs Cage and Wittgenstein meets Debord. The ensuing spectacle calls the “varicose polis” to collaborative action against the carceral-corporate state. There is no higher calling.”
–Carolyn Forché

“Art is no consolation, but it is art. Rod Smith sends us this “thinking event of the pulse fetish tone handle” from America’s capital, where each day blank, pig-eyed men, hissing a kind of English, work toward the further redistribution of wealth from the children of the underclasses to the orbiting robots of capital. Tinned and untinned, Smith’s art speaks in resistance to treachery, and on behalf of several supressed tendencies and human possibilities, some new, some older than agriculture. “A fringe limitation/structures history,” but “no analysand can indent this largesse.””
–Kevin Davies

“Replacing the last word in Frank O’Hara’s 1956 “In Memory of My Feelings,” Rod Smith augments O’Hara’s ironic nostalgia for emotion with an exuberant splattering of social thought. Because these poems constantly violate the norms of form, voice, topic, trope, and style, they are virtually impossible to read without abandoning all hope of any overarching agreement. You just have to climb inside them and experience their bumpy contours for yourself.”
–Kit Robinson


Rod Smith, who was born in Gallipolis, Ohio in 1962, is an American poet, editor and publisher. He grew up in Northern Virginia and moved to Washington, DC in 1987. Smith has authored several collections of poetry, including In Memory of My Theories, Protective Immediacy, and Music or Honesty. He has taught creative writing at George Mason University where he is finishing his MFA. Smith currently teaches Cultural Studies at Towson University, and was a visiting writer at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the Spring of 2010.[1] Currently, Smith is editing The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley with Kaplan Harris and Peter Baker for University of California Press.


and recently, more
of art realization
the shuddering
stilled by one who
births, or by one who
creaturely recent
mediated apostasy.
a fringe limitation
structures history, no more
is mistaken
“in its own realm”
the world as a whole in its
relation to that which is not the world – form
(to all who read impartially)
the wandering stars now rule in senseless and oppressive night.
can be subjected
to scrutiny.
it is seized. It is called
incorporeal. Therefore
who builds
the one