A brief relief from hunger by Spenser Smith

May 13, 2024

In his debut collection, A brief relief from hunger, Spenser Smith explores the edges of longing, revealing the immense human capacity for cruelty and care. On his journey toward acceptance and fulfillment, Smith’s speaker injects drugs, binges fast food, goes through rehab, and finds God in a park near Pizza Hut.

Smith spends much of the collection wrestling with the dehumanizing vernacular that people employ to make sense of the stories and images of drug use they encounter on their screens and through their car windows. This rhetoric is the final form of the ‘play stupid games, win stupid prizes’ ethos of broken masculinity, in whichsoftness is weakness, listening is naivety, and mocking condemnation is the default response to whatever one does not immediately understand. In this worldview, people who overdose should not only be refused life-saving care, but they should also be used as dart boards and euthanized like stray dogs. Their deaths ought to be celebrated because they are no longer an economic drain on society.

Smith is not engaging with obtuse strawmen of his own devising here, but with the actual comments that actual people wrote beneath news stories on CBC and CTV Vancouver’s Facebook pages (this book was written before Meta banned news from its platform). Smith includes these comments in the collection verbatim, either at the opening or closing of poems that evocatively recount the speaker’s experiences with drug use in Vancouver. Smith’s poems offer a grammar of tenderness and care that is far more compelling than the absurd cruelty with which they are contrasted. For example, this image of grandmotherly understanding:

In the kitchen, we sit in the silence of my scrolling. I know you are high, Grandma says without words, but you must eat. I accept her offer of cheddar perogies. The recipe survived diphtheria and droughts. Who am I to say no? (19).

And this response to the idea that ‘junkies’ ought to be left to die:

Is it possible to love junkies? Bruises, inflamed livers, knees

first scraped on playgrounds.

It will take a new vocabulary to love junkies. One without the word


Love takes work. Step one: do not kill the spider dangling

from the shower curtain. Instead, cradle its body with tissue. (20)

Smith’s handling of the online nature of existence—an ongoing challenge within contemporary poetry—is impressive. So much of the collection explores what occurs “in the silence of my scrolling” (19). By inviting us into the speaker’s inner world as he experiences the cruelty of the comment section, Smith makes the digital corporal, the commenters’ hatred not disappearing into some blank void once posted, but felt intensely, first by the speaker, and then by the reader.

This engagement with online discourse also includes found poems made of phrases gathered from news articles that mention ‘fentanyl addiction,’ and in erasure poems of compiled Facebook comments. This kind of play with form and process is a key feature of A brief relief from hunger in which Smith also plays with visual poetry and writes poems as Yelp reviews of rehab facilities attended by the speaker.

The most effective experiment with form is Smith’s amazing analysis of masculinity in a small-town Saskatchewan roofing company that is written in the form of a scholarly article, including an abstract, a list of participants, field notes, an interview, questions for further research, and a conclusion. In “Hundreds of Men: A Case Study,” Smith’s command of sound, rhythm, and humour are especially evident. Take this example, from the section listing the roofing company’s employees:

“…first-rate men, second chance men, men who take meds, men who refuse meds, NFL men, VLT men, menstruating men, men who love CNN, cement men, men with dads, men without dads, men who are dads now and again…” (11).

This sense of humour and play provides some beautiful moments of levity in a book that wrestles with dark and weighty subject matter.

Smith engages with masculinity thoughtfully throughout the collection. In the opening poem, the speaker comes to grips with being unable to integrate his father’s blue-collar masculinity in which “survival / is like a hammered nail—it absorbs // blow after blow and makes a home / out of pressure” (3). Despite his denial of his father’s grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it form of masculinity, the speaker credits his ultimate survival to the deep currents of stability and care provided by his father:

I survived seven day binges,

overdoses, and scoops of peanut butter

for dinner because I picked up just enough

of your lessons. Not the practical tips

and tricks (I’m thirty and can’t change

a tire), but the care. You, a teenager

who lost his father in a fire. I survived

because you remained

a sturdy structure. (3)

Near the end of the collection, the speaker commits himself to a tender masculinity that is expressed through acts of gentle consideration: “Let me be a man / who cools that which is too hot to slurp, // a dishrag hung on my shoulder” (55).

The thematic core of A brief relief from hunger is the redemptive power of the imperfect love of those in your corner. This love is expressed throughout the collection —often with overwhelming beauty—through small gestures of care, for example, cooking perogies, cooling soup with ice cubes, scratching backs, remembering what brand of floss your partner needs so he doesn’t have to.

One of the true gifts of experiencing love and care is being able to give love and care in return. With the collection’s final poem, Smith trumps the glib cruelty of the comment section, responding not with vitriol, but with an image of the speaker, carrying the full weight of his experience, caring for his grandmother, knowing that her voice is the one he ought to listen to:

They want me dead. Not the way my mom thought I was dead

but prayed for resurrection over cabernet, takeout, and CTV news.

They want me dead, dead. Dead like dinosaurs. Semen in the sewer dead.

But I am here, frying perogies for Grandma because she says I fry them best (59)

This final image serves as a metaphor for the book itself. With the writing of A brief relief from hunger, Smith has risen above the world’s stupid cruelty with an act of great tenderness and care that readers will surely find nourishing.

A brief relief from hunger
By Spenser Smith
Gordon Hill Press, Sept. 2023, 100 p.p., $20 CAD (Paperback)
ISBN: 9781774220986

Noah Cain is a multimodal artist and teacher in Winnipeg. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Yolk Literary Journal, Contemporary Verse 2, EVENT, and elsewhere.

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