What You Can’t Have

What You Can’t Have



About the book

In this brave and candid book, Michael V. Smith explores the experience of the modern working poor, with poems that look at sex, sexuality, and the sex trade in a straightforward manner, as well as a counterpoint of poems inspired by the American photographer William Gale Gedney, who documented the lives of the poor in Kentucky during the 1960s.

About the author

Smith, Michael V.

Michael V. Smith’s novel, Cumberland (Cormorant Books), was nominated for the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award. His poetry has appeared in Arc, Descant, Grain, Quarry, and The Malahat Review, among others. What You Can’t Have is his first book of poetry.

He has won a Western Magazine Award for Fiction, four awards for film,  a Community Heroes Award for his work in the arts in Vancouver, and was nominated for the Journey Prize. In 2007, Michael was awarded the inaugural Dayne Ogilvie Memorial Grant for LGBT Emerging Writers by The Writers' Trust.

He curates the Robson Reading Series with Matt Rader and is a past organizer for Crash the Indie Writers Fest. Also a comedian, filmmaker, zinester, performance artist and occasional clown, Smith is an MFA grad from UBC’s Creative Writing program. He has been named one of Vancouver’s 25 most influential queer citizens (Vancouver Magazine) and one of Vancouver’s Most Dangerous People (Loop).



Their mother sits on the porch,
so close to their dad in his armchair
he feels the night shift
each time she swings
her hair, tying blue ribbons
at the back. The middle sister
–Sister Three of Five
she calls herself–
helps make two bows.
The air tastes of cool damp grass,
the sun has abandoned the yard.
The children want to stand here,
barefoot on the floorboards,
relaxed, all their skin relaxed
and open to the sounds of the woods.
They each would like
to be the one who asks the question
which keeps their parents home tonight,
their father talking
the sun back over the trees.



She is the dark child who refuses
to bathe, who wears the same dress
worn through, her hair pulled
back days later only because her mother
pins it better than she cares. She eats
what she can carry to the woods, sleeps
next to the open window when she’s home.
One night her mother woke to her shadow
beyond the doorframe, walking away,
her daughter, the girl with ideas.



The child in the window
seems as thin as his breath
fogging the glass.
The world disappears
with a sigh from his small lungs
as he waits for the mist
to uncloud the street below.
The child is more patient
than the man watching
from the sidewalk
who wants the boy
to hurry up
& wipe the glass.
They are alone together
the boy curled on his windowsill
the man growing cold
outside, his feet damp
from the walk & the freezing snow.
In the next room
a woman is asleep.
She dreams a husband
who wants back in, a boy
so frail these days
she doesn’t dare.


An edgy, heart-stopping book of poems. Michael V. Smith wakes you up to the world with all its aches and wonders. He's a smart, brave master of the breath and tongue, and in this, his first poetry collection, he struts… >>

— Lorna Crozier

A collection of heartbreaking elegies for thwarted desire and unapologetic denouncements of propriety. >>


Michael V. Smith's What You Can't Have is for the most part an examination of love and loss of love in both its spiritual and physical senses, but, as the title of the collection implies, the emphasis is perhaps more… >>

— Robert Attridge Event

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