Review of What You Can’t Have

What You Can’t Have

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


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What You Can’t Have

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 strongly on loneliness than on fulfilment. Again with this collection, the image on the cover--a black-and-white seascape with the blurred image of a lone figure at the water's edge--helps to set the tone for what is essentially a rather dark view of homosexuality from a poet whom, according to the biographical information, Vancouver Magazine has 'named one fo Vancouver's 25 most influential queer citizens.' The poems are often explicit in their language and gaphic in their depictions of sex, and to some extent they celebrate sexuality, but what makes the collection as a whole so poignant is the poet's recognition that pleasure is momentary and love is elusive.

Smith is the author of a novel, Cumberland, which was nominated for the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and he brings a novelist's sense of narrative to individual poems and to the collection. The first and the third of the three parts of the book form a loose biography, moving from adolescent sexual awakening to loss of innocence and adult disillusionment, with individual poems effectively being scenes from a life. The book's second second is, as Smith explains in the acknowledgements, his attempt to 'translate' what he saw in 'William Gale Gendey's black and white photographs' of 'a few dirt-poor families in 1960s Kentucky' into a language that is an expression of both Gedney's vision and Smith's own. This section connects thematically with the other two in its depiction of people who are, as Gedney explains in the journal entry that Smith uses as an epigraph for this group of poems, distant from and different from those who enter their lives only briefly: 'Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveller recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have. Italo Calvino. Invisible Cities.' The collection as a whole creates the sense that, metaphorically, we are all travellers who, if we are lucky, achieve some contact with others.

Several of the poems in the first section are in the third person and concen 'a boy' or 'the boy' or 'the child' or 'the teenager,' or, finally, 'a young man,' and most concern sexual awakening: boyhood sexual encounters. However, one poem, 'What Love Intended,' reveals a long-term relationship that began in youth: 'Six grades and one month-/long kiss later, we were convinced we were/what love intended, we had the front/seat, back seat and rear/of your station wagon, my mother's couch,/your mother's closet,/(two winters climbing)/through the narrow window/of the cottage where we undressed/one another of family and school/and other selves.'

But even this relationship ends, and 'Surrogate,' the first poem in the third section picks up at east the chronological sequence of the first section: 'when I grew up.' These poems deal in the small humilations in which the speaker's choice to find 'other men to comfort' him and to fulfill a sexual 'need/makes pride a thing you swallow.' They are brief tales of a broken heart, prostitution, drunken incontinence, and the deaths of family members, friends, and lovers. All are told with blunt honesty and all reflect a search for something that is almost always beyond reach, as related by the speaker in 'Nightfall': 'When did I learn/to love so much/what I can't have?' But perhaps what should be savoured are the moments when another can give something of himself, as in 'Answer the Dark': 'His bedroom door closed/when I visit, his buttons/all done up save one./I love too much/what he can't give me/and what little I can get--/what peace.'

Although the title of Smith's book emphasizes 'what you can't have,' the poems themselves have much to offer.


— Robert Attridge Event

What You Can’t Have

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 and strides on poetry's high heels, giving us his own unique take on what language transforms into an extraordinary life.


— Lorna Crozier

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