When TCR floated the idea that I write a review that would come out alongside their “Bad Feelings” issue, I told them I wasn’t writing reviews, ironically because of some bad feelings I was having. After some arm-twisting, I said I would only write a review of something that I cared about. I needed an antidote to all the bad feelings I was feeling about reviewing. So, I decided to review Winnipeg poet Colin Smith’s recent book Permanent Carnival Time, which is the best book of poetry I’ve read over the last few years. I mean it. It’s really excellent. But it’s also appropriate for TCR right now because Permanent Carnival Time, despite its fun time of a title, is obsessed with bad feelings. Bad feelings saturate this book, but we’ll get to that.
In Permanent Carnival Time, Smith flips registers and affects quickly, moving from sincere to sarcastic, from serious to flippant, with an estranging density. It can be tough to keep pace unless you’ve been reading Colin Smith’s work this whole time.1 It’s an excellent book of poetry that cues us to our shared intimacies across a long historical timeline that is grounded in the geographies of Winnipeg. The poems constantly flip things over in an attempt to map the structural and affective conditions of a shitty time in history. A couple of the poems declare through their titles that they’re “essaying” and we might think of the book that way—as a series of long exploratory jogs through the discourse, a reconnoiter of the cesspool of recent history.
After a short opener, the first third of Permanent Carnival Time is filled by two bracing long poems that I want to write about at length to get at why I think this book is so good. The book’s second poem “Necessities for the Whole Hog” opens with the snarky truth—“Because 100 years of capitalism is more than enough”2—before targeting a whole range of austerity follies and solidarity-breaking tactics. The poem articulates together the histories of labour organizing, settler colonialism, cultural production, and urban development in Winnipeg. Smith has a hyperlocalized attention here. This attention to the local is a distinct strength of the poetry, acting as an anchor for the broader critique at work. Smith’s work is deliberately not universal, though it sometimes feels that way when I’m able to connect my place in the conditions to Smith’s, when my precarity resembles his. Instead, it’s a mattering map, as Jeff Derksen might call it: an attempt to understand Winnipeg’s social, spatial, political, and economic conditions from a leftie angle, combining opinion, complaint, and humour to catch something of the flatfooted sincerity of the street corner, the bar table, and the food court. Smith gives us the documentary long poem as stand-up set. Jokes run parallel to facts and analysis. In Smith’s estimation, farce and tragedy are identical as, in one particularly piquing line, “Let them eat cake” mutates into a sour admonition to the poor that they should eat the shit their dogs leave on the sidewalk.
Coming from a different angle, the next poem “Essaying Pain” sees Smith link all of this to his aging body and its chronic pain. With this poem, he has something to add to the field of disability poetics, interested in mapping out the way his body connects to the same kinds of crushing social dynamics he works through in “Necessities for the Whole Hog.” From the body of the city to the body of the aging worker, Smith complains about the risks of immaterial labour, the freelance life, and the narcotic effects of the mind-body split, believing when he’s young that the body can be ignored only for it to swing back with its revenge (requiring a whole different class of drug).
Though I hate the concept of genius, these two poems might be the works of a master poet. Or, at least, they’re the product of a poet who has considered questions of form, content, and relation deeply and for a long time. Both of these poems are equal parts snarky and soulful, coolly intellectual and bracingly affective. I don’t get moved by poetry often and I find the cries that such-and-such a poem “destroyed” someone emotionally to be too melodramatically performative. Despite that, these two poems moved me, asking me to consider my own middle-aged body and its precarious positions in the collapsing fantasies of neoliberal capitalism. For me, reading these two poems by Smith offers a glimpse into one possible future—aching pain and endless struggle only with rising temperatures and rising inequity. But I’m being hopeless and Smith isn’t hopeless, just dourly pragmatic, finding glimpses of hope in refusal and solidarity (when he can find the energy to work towards it).
But I’ve only talked about the first third of this book and the rest of Permanent Carnival Time is just as strong throughout. The poems in “Folly Suite” chain one-liners to repeatedly poke fun at the obscene follies of every systematic -ism you can imagine huffing from America’s (and Canada’s!) exhaust pipe. Smith leverages one joke after another to expose all kinds of papered over and not-so papered over contradictions. “Snap to Grid” pulls a similar trick, but blasts us back to the war on terror. I’m struck by the way that even as the specifics change, the conditions have some continuity that we don’t choose despite the ephemeral pendulum swinging of our election outcomes. And if you’re not exhausted by this point, the final two poems “Transmutable” and “Essaying Fun” both continue the fun by playing paratactic slapsticktician across the contemporary field.
It’s ironic that Smith found himself cut off from the Internet during the pandemic, because his open-ended essaying often resembles the one-offs and threads of Twitter’s heyday, mixing knife-edged hot takes and clever one-liners. But that feels dismissive even if it is apropos. Each line in these poems is an essay on its own until they begin to accrete and concatenate. With enough time and attention, these loose agglomerations reveal themselves as powerful assays of the world as Smith lives in it—field notes of the soul, mash notes for an increasingly dark night. As I follow Smith through his poetic trance states, I’m moved to anger, to sadness, to awe. It’s objectively powerful stuff. But if you need some kind of evaluative assessment to finally convince you, I can oblige. As YouTube music critic Anthony Fantano would put it, I’m feeling a strong 10 on this one.
- But reading Smith’s work can actually be a difficult thing to do in a material sense. During a recent chat I had with him, Winnipeg writer and musician Cam Scott joked that he hoped that Colin’s work might finally catch a break because there always seemed to be some issue when one of his books got published. Copies of Smith’s first book Multiple Poses famously fell apart because they weren’t glued properly. Smith’s second book 8x8x7 fared a little better but wasn’t distributed in Canada. Smith’s third book Multiple Bippies was published by a press that went out of business soon after. You can get all these books, but it might involve some work. So, Scott opined, Permanent Carnival Time should’ve been able to skirt all these problems. Cue COVID-19 and its magical ability to disrupt book promotion. Can’t a poet catch a break?
- Smith, 8.