Monday, April 8, 2013

Smith going backward

In Djuna Barnes’s 1936 novel Nightwood, Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor, who is not a doctor, speaks in mighty and fantastic monologues. A small sample:

“We say someone is pretty for instance, whereas, if the truth were known, they are probably as ugly as Smith going backward, but by our lie we have made that very party powerful, such is the power of the charlatan, the great strong! They drop on anything at any moment, and that sort of thing makes the mystic in the end, and,” he added, “it makes the great doctor.”
The simile “as ugly as Smith going backward” sounds as if it has vernacular authority, but try as I have, I find no source for it other than Barnes’s novel. Like the punchline “No soap, radio,” the simile sounds as if it means something, but what? I think it suggests someone who is so ugly that he does us a small favor by turning as he walks away.

I know of one other Smith going backward: an early chapbook by the poet Steve Carey owes its title to Barnes. (Does anyone else know that?)

[Steve Carey, Smith Going Backward. San Francisco: Cranium Press, 1968. Cover illustration by Peter Kanter. A long-ago used-book-store find.]

The book’s title poem seems to pay brief homage to Nightwood with the line “in moods strange as a fictional doctor.” I will guess that Carey was reading Nightwood and that the novel, like so much else — street sounds, weather, a cold sore, Oreos — found its way into his work.

Here are the beautiful last eight lines of another poem from Smith Going Backward, “Half a Western”:
When five and again when six comes
everybody just yells a name and
walks upstairs swinging keys
Myself, Buzz Sawyer, Beetle Bailey
we bother the breezes for the coat of RJ Reynolds

The mystery of me is mine
the book no one knows I’m writing
Times with all my heart I wish it showed
[Djuna Barnes (1892–1982) and Steve Carey (1945–1989). Photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Rochelle Kraut. About “Half a Western”: Carey’s grandfather and father were Harry Carey and Harry Carey, Jr., actors with long careers in cowboy films and much else. Buz Sawyer (one z) was a comic strip. Beetle Bailey is one.]

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