112 pages • Pindrop Press • May 20, 2012 [PB]
People don’t read enough poetry. Or maybe I should say, not enough people read poetry. It’s seen by many as the strange, esoteric, second cousin of prose fiction, but it need not, and ought not, be a fringe activity to read a poem. One a day, I find, is perfect. Like apples. Poetry’s difficulty – and it can be difficult – is no reason to avoid it, and not in some dutiful, taking-your-medicine kind of way, but because, like a lot of difficulties overcome, it can make your life better.
In her recent brilliant memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson writes about the importance of poetry to her (and to everyone):
…when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It’s a finding place.
It’s surely no coincidence that, at times of heightened feeling – funerals, weddings, christenings – many people who would never consider reading poetry turn to it for comfort or celebration, and as a way to articulate complex emotions. Some even write poetry – perhaps for the first and only time in their lives – and it may not be ‘good’ poetry, but it’s poetry nevertheless. The distillation that the form offers creates a shortcut to the heart, and what you can find in poetry are your own thoughts and feelings expressed for you before you even know what they are.
Cherry Smyth’s third collection, Test, Orange, is proof positive of poetry’s ability to combine the toughness and beauty of language in concentrated form, to expand brief moments and explore their possibilities. Smyth’s language is sometimes fibrous and stringy, at other times silky smooth. Her work is by turns deeply personal, overtly political and socially aware, without being polemical or ‘worthy’. It is also ambitious in scope but never daunting; whether writing about the break up of a relationship, her father’s dementia and depression, the situation in the Occupied Territories, Northern Ireland, or on the streets of London, or even re-telling the story of Abelard and Heloise, Smyth never seems to forget the importance of carving out that direct path to feeling.
Sometimes that pathway is not carved out at all, but surprises and assaults the poet, as it does us all, and insists we take notice. In ‘Jumpcut,’ Smyth expresses the shock and dismay that memory and sensation can give rise to – being tuned in and forced to listen to those instances of pleasure and happiness that, in turn, make you sad. She remembers ‘lolling about’ in the sun with a partner; an ordinary, unasked-for, happy memory of the kind that ambushes you when you aren’t looking:
and why, if it’s so ordinary, so happy,
so tidy, am I crying, tears running
from under my sunglasses, some
caught on the rim, as they jump.
There’s also a quiet bitterness, coupled with restrained violence, that is the fallout from the end of a relationship, mirrored in, and prompted by, the natural world, as in ‘The Back of My Hand’:
The rain this summer rains so hard, it falls up.
Plosives of rain. Tiny detonations of smack.
Your face if I saw it. The other end of a kiss.
If love is a kind of rising up, how much slower
this falling down. I dismantle the warmth with
hands of ice, parceling it up for different keeps.
And in that process of dismantling comes the knowledge that the other is known and is lacking, and the mild, abstract consolation that the pain will end as the rain will end:
But I know where your desire has been,
you felt-lined thunderhead, you weather exile!
No mirrored windows are repeated twice.
New conclusions wait in sock-soled series
to lick the back of my hand. They will not answer
to error. There will be sun. It won’t frighten us.
Smyth has a multi-layered and complex relationship with the natural world. Nature is consoling and confrontational, unsettling and comforting. Her poems are gently elemental, not like powerful volcanic eruptions but with a slow, unrelenting, glacial force. They offer occasions of engagement with rural or urban landscapes, and landscapes interacting with us, so that change can occur.
There are moments of tender conflict, of gentle distress splashed with anger, whether between partners or political opponents. At times, even when expressing anger and incomprehension at what happens to us in the world, forgiveness and healing are possible; there is solace in water, in plants, in hills or a stone.
In water especially, Smyth finds many expressions of emotional states and thoughtful processes of engaging with the world, whether in a rain-soaked landscape, or the sea, or in a swimming pool. In ‘To Dursey,’ one of my favourite poems in the collection, two people cross over water “in Ireland’s only cable car,” their knees locked with tension and fear as the island reels them in like a catch. One signals to the other “to look down at the pale sea/ where the moving shadow of ourselves seemed to attract spokes/ of sunlight to its square hub” and a moment of transcendence occurs in lines that rock back and forth like the cable car itself:
… It wasn’t the headlands,
the ruined church,
the long unsown furrows, or the waveburst on the rocks below
we’d come to see,
but this green star, its vehicle flimsy, worn, but its energy enough
to wring the ocean’s clarity into a show of underwater, thistled light,
as if the water reflected what air cannot:
the pull of perception itself, making us sense that we could cast
into the essence of anything and shine through in another world.
It’s at moments like these that you sense Smyth’s poetry is involved in the search for something bigger in life and in ourselves, for a greater understanding of what it means to be a human being alive in the world, even if any discovery happens when you aren’t looking for it; you merely have to open yourself up so that what is hidden can be found. As Smyth herself has written:
I shuffle words, weigh them up, search for a particular musicality which aligns the world for a brief moment with my experience of it. In the act of writing, there is no physical body, no time, no exterior world, no appetite, no idle thought. It’s a sensation of being carried by and existing inside language, a kind of urgent streaming that is the greatest feeling of being free that I know.
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