The Mutable Self: A Review of
Mark Smith-Soto’s Berkeley Prelude
by Mark Smith-Soto
Unicorn Press, 30 pp., $12
The first thing one notices about Mark Smith-Soto’s newest collection is the object itself. Before the reader has even opened the book and read the first line, the design and hand-crafted binding stand out as wonderfully put-together and unique. It is a limited edition book, and as the paratextual matter tells us: “The author signed 26 hardbound copies, lettered A through Z. An additional 50 hardbound copies and 225 bound in paper were produced by Unicorn Press.” I don’t want to linger on the uniqueness of the printing too long, since the poems are even more striking. I do, however, want to point out that this sort of care in design and printing has always been rare, but it is almost unheard-of in today’s world of online journals, e-books, and print-on-demand publishing. I should say that I don’t have a problem with any of those things, and I even think they have certain advantages for writers, readers, and editors, but it is worth giving Unicorn Press credit for keeping a certain quality of design and printing alive.
Let’s turn now to the poems themselves, specifically to the formal aspects of the collection. Even though the lines of these poems are largely free verse, and Smith-Soto has not doggedly chained himself to any metrical constraint, they often approximate a narrative blank verse, and many lines of outright blank verse show up. That said, the formal aspect of the poems which is more interesting and most consistent is on a global level, not on the level of the individual line. Every poem in Berkeley Prelude has a two-part structure. The first part of each poem, written in third-person, places the reader in the Berkeley of 1970-1975. The second part, written in first-person and italicized, serves as a present-day commentary on the events recounted in the first part.
In the world of creative nonfiction, we often talk of the double-I, one I which tells the story today while the other I lives the story in the past. By writing his past self in third-person, Smith-Soto has pushed this literary trope one step further and created a yet greater distance between the self that experiences the events in Berkeley decades ago and the self who is now recounting them for us. He therefore not only gets all the mileage one normally gets out the double-I in much memoir writing, he also gains an interesting philosophical point and creates a striking narrative aesthetic. Since a reader will have to read the book to enjoy the aesthetic gain this move offers, I will focus here on the philosophical gain.
By making his earlier self be a he instead of an I, Smith-Soto is simultaneously creating psychological accuracy and opening up questions about the contiguity of the self. We often say that our younger selves seem like different people altogether than who we are today. If we believe nearly all of the current cognitive psychology as well as many twentieth-century philosophers, this sensation is in fact accurate. We do not have a stable self, and the selves we remember from decades ago are in fact not us in many ways. Our past selves are, however, always with us via memories and behavioral patterns, etc. I am not sure whether Smith-Soto intended to make his memoir-in-verse an exploration into the nature of the self and the breaks and contiguities of the self, but one can certainly read it fruitfully with these notions in mind. The first-person, italicized sections are often questionings such as
—Did I get up and leave her there to die?
Was that the man I was? What almost-love
would abide a wish like hers? Where was
my heart? [...]
Here, the poet asks himself what sort of man he had been, clearly a different man than he is today. And so, Berkeley Prelude adds to the memoir genre by putting further pressure on the nature of the self, not merely on the fallibility of memory (which has been discussed ad nauseam by memoirists). Smith-Soto is therefore raising the bar a bit on the nature of creative nonfiction writing by employing such a stark fracturing of the self.
Also, to return briefly to the formal aspects of the line: notice that the first three lines of the quote above are blank verse (with one trochee in the second line and a headless foot to open the third—though Shakespeare himself made use of such tactics in his blank verse, so unless we’re being totally purist here, we can call this blank verse). Again, I don’t want to overemphasize Smith-Soto’s formalism on the level of the line, since he does not commit himself dogmatically to this. I do, however, tentatively want to place these poems in the long tradition of narrative blank verse poetry, since they bear such a strong family resemblance to other works in that tradition ranging from Alexander Pope to Andrew Hudgins.
I have talked about the creative nonfiction genre, and I have pointed out the poetic-formal aspects of the poems. I have not yet discussed the genre blending Smith-Soto engages in by writing a memoir in verse. One of my complaints about the contemporary literary world is that we always ask whether a piece of prose is fiction or nonfiction, and some people get up-in-arms about the distinction, but turn to the contents page of any literary journal, and you will see no such distinction for poetry. The reader is left to assume the speaker is the poet, or left to assume the speaker is not the poet. There are some poems, such as one claiming to be from the POV of Genghis Khan or a Martian, which immediately announce themselves as fictional, but the majority of poems could be either fiction or nonfiction, and the reader often has no way of discerning which a poem might be. Smith-Soto does not leave his reader in such uncertainty in Berkeley Prelude. He openly names the book as a memoir and even gives us the exact years the memoir will cover. We rarely think of memoirs as being in verse (though it might be worth noting that no less a figure than Thomas Hobbes wrote his autobiography in verse in 1672). I would therefore add the blending of genres and the bending of genre expectations to the list of Smith-Soto’s achievements.
In the final analysis, for the beauty of the book’s production, for the genre innovations, for philosophical inquiry of Smith-Soto’s project, and, most of all, for the aesthetic joy in reading the individual poems, I recommend the book very highly to academic libraries and to lovers of beauty everywhere.