To read u&i, Cassandra Smith’s frustratingly gorgeous and gorgeously frustrating full-length collection of poetry, is to be immersed in an experience that changes you. I began reading for answers; by the end of the collection, I gained not answers but a deeper appreciation of questions themselves.
u&i is the perfect example of a work of art that takes full advantage of the traditions, freedoms, and limitations of the medium – a fact that is of little surprise, as Smith herself is a visual artist whose work in collage and bookmaking elegantly stretches the boundaries of what can be considered static and kinetic art. In u&i, Smith presents a cycle of prose poems that move recursively through meanings and meditations on identity. This is largely achieved through Smith’s master manipulation of one of the most intriguing facets not just of poetry but of language itself: the slippery nature of pronouns. In his essay “The Lyric: Problems of Definition,” Werner Wolf explores the complex and oft-confounding nature of pronouns – namely “I” and “you” – in lyric poetry. Wolf suggests that the lyric voice, long been perceived by readers, theorists, and critics as monologic, is more reflective of dialogue and multiplicity. In other words, the “I” and “you” in a lyric poem, to paraphrase Whitman, is contradictory, is large, and contains multitudes.
This is certainly the case in Smith’s collection, where the lyric “I” and the lyric “you” are often replaced by the term “u&i,” which serves as the central character (or characters) of the sequence. As a reader, I could not help but read u&i as a series of mathematical equations, a proof I sought to solve. Smith’s poems, however, work constantly and consistently to frustrate not only any search for a solution but the idea that there is a solution at all. u&i is at times a pluraility – “dear then us” – that cannot be separated – “i seem to cant go on without you.” The speaker asks, “are we a we if there is no difference between,” suggesting a similarity, solidarity, and singularity. At other times, there is a clear distance and difference between the parts that make up u&i: the I finds things for the you, asks questions of the you, travels away from and towards the you, exploring “how one might roam. how two might meander.”
One thing becomes clear about u&i as one travels through Smith’s dizzyingly beautiful variations on the term, and that is that nothing about u&i is clear. “u&i,” Smith writes, “were not he nor she nor we but something different.” I could not help but recall Bertrand Russell’s statement about the connection between mathematical and poetic beauty: “The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.” This idea of the beauty of containing multitudes, of possessing many meanings at once, is echoed in Smith’s use of language. The function of mathematics is to provide a language to explain the things we cannot explain in verbal language; the language of poetry does the same, pushing against the rules of logic, the laws of the signifier and the signified, to describe a deeper realm of human experience. Smith combines these languages to explore questions of identity. For instance, in “u&i as logic of pronouns,” Smith shows how definitional language fails to capture the complexity of identity:
u&i would be we when we were with others and u&i would be i when u&i were alone and u&i would be you when u&i were speaking to each other and u&i would worry that every concurrence might become felled.
In the end, there is only one logical solution to the equation: there is no single factor represented by u&i, no solution to this variable or to the variable of any self. The very language we use to build our worlds, to tell our selves and others what we experience in these worlds, is ultimately indefinable, slippery, and strange. This shift in meaning and identity extends to the meaning and identity of the world outside of the self, to places outside of the body: “is it a city or a country,” u&i asks, “or is it only alone.” Places aren’t just differently perceived: they are different, and radically, depending upon who is there and what their experience is. It is only through one’s experience and perception of the world that the world exists. The book is about the struggle to create a language that can contain the multitudinous experiences of identity in the world, but this idea of identity extends to the world in which one exists.
Throughout the book, u&i seek a way to make sense of the world, which ultimately means making the world itself. Once again, language proves problematic. Smith writes that “u&i began in a forest and u&i ended in a wood,” bringing the failures of language into sharp relief: “forest” and “wood” can be read as synonyms, which means that, in the linguistic equation of this sentence, “began” and “ended” could also be synonyms. u&i seek(s) to put together a coherent idea of a world from the pieces of the world perceived, but perception leads only to more perception, and the search for definition just leads to different definitions: “u&i in this forest in this chair in this place of what only u&i saw and could saw into smaller pieces would take these pieces and try to piece them together.” To perceive the world is simply to experience perception, and to live in a world is to live inside of a construct created from our perceptions. Ultimately, the world itself – and what we experience of it, and who we are in it – is every bit as beautifully indefinable as the language we use to create it. We all exist in the same state as u&i, who “found a photograph of looking at a place through a small hole and we never left the room we made of it.”
Emma Bolden is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press, 2016) and Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013). She’s also the author of four chapbooks of poetry — How to Recognize a Lady (Toadlily Press); The Mariner’s Wife, (Finishing Line Press); The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press); This Is Our Hollywood (The Chapbook) – and one nonfiction chapbook – Geography V (Winged City Press). A Barthelme Prize and Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Prize winner, her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry and The Best Small Fictions as well as such journals as The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, and Copper Nickel.