Grasping and Dissolving

‘attentive, summoning forgiveness’book cover

Poetry review - Angela Gardner

One Wanted Thing

Cherry Smyth
Belfast: Lagan Press, 2007.
Paperback, 80 pages,
isbn1904652379    (isbn13: 9781904652373)

Early on in One Wanted Thing, Cherry Smyth’s second collection, there is a poem called ‘Lacan’s Idea of Love’ that starts as a landscape poem but that you know from the title will become much more than description. The poem does this so well that the true subjects of the poem: how the concrete can evoke sensation and the value of the abstract, slot together with the glimpsed pastoral to deliver its message precisely. Although the French psychoanalytical theorist Lacan is invoked, the feeling of the poem is of Eastern Philosophy, Taoist in its exact description of the ten thousand things of creation somehow simultaneously showing the ungraspable mysterious embedded within the one. We learn from the poem not only that those things of value the poet has found through observation are abstract, but that they cannot be bestowed and instead require the person addressed in the poem to find those experiences for themselves.

                                                            I would bestow
            what I don’t have: a journey, a view, an even keel,
            the belonging a bird has with a tree.
                                                            ‘Lacan’s Idea of Love’ 

Cherry Smyth’s poetry not only values the abstract but often contemplates the valuing of self. In ‘Painted Horses’, written in the first person, she allows us to see a vulnerability that goes right down to the bone.

            ‘as if I was a ticket machine
and you’d paid your entry,’
                                                            ‘Painted Horses’  [p15]

She is uncompromising in her use of her chosen subject matter, often unflinching in her language but because of her respect for the truth we see the turning point in the poem and know, as the reader, that the self will reassert and find new strength.

Smyth brings her experience as art critic and curator to her work as a poet.  Three poems in particular within the book, ‘Shine on Sarah Lucas’, ‘Human Image’ , ‘Presence of Mind’  engage, across disciplines and  beyond an easy ekphrasis, at a serious and informed level with issues in contemporary visual art. This is no chocolate box, block-buster choice, Sarah Lucas is a highly provocative artist who uses furniture as a site for discussion of the human body and its association or dissociation with sex, death and gender. Each of these areas of interest for Sarah Lucas are also all keen areas of interest for Smyth who writes regularly as a critic for Art Monthly, Modern Painters, Circa and Art Review. Her response to Lucas’s visual humour and sight gags are perfectly tuned, pithy and strong:

            ‘Your tight little legs hang
            like a fag from a dry mouth,
            no toes, no head – who hurt you, Bunny?’           
                                                            ‘Shine on Sarah Lucas’  [p21]

‘Presence of Mind after Carol Rhodes’ painting ‘Carpark Canal’, 1994’ examines the work of a demanding Scottish painter who renders detailed, almost forensic, depictions of terrain altered by human activity to look, not only at human impact on the environment but, at the role of memory and how all our creations may hang ‘between experience and recalling’.

As someone who practices as a visual artist I can attest to the concentration, attention to detail and stillness that is developed through drawing and brought to bear upon the act of looking. In ‘Human Image’ the poet gives her attention to a painting by Louis le Brocquy; showing us how we may need to look and look until we see: ‘The hole fastens into a mouth, / taut as a navel, screaming.’ To be able to see is to be engaged; it opens the window and lets a world of looking into contact with our self. The poem moves from a specific painting, through the act of looking, to television news reporting with a link stanza that appears to reference a specific act of watching what seems to be the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11. These are images that the writer hopes will ‘resolve into fiction’. As if by seeing something on the television it is mediated by the screen and therefore fictive and so its truth can be avoided. Smyth’s politically engaged intelligence searches back for reference points that will aid her comprehension of the incomprehensible, the destruction of the twin towers, and finds ways she needed to employ living in the North (of Ireland) to cope with risk:

            ‘not without regard, but unguarded, attentive,
            summoning forgiveness from a gap of light,’
                                                            ‘Human Image’  [p24]

For someone born in Ireland, based in London and internationally well-travelled it is hardly surprising that she often writes about other places and places of otherness.  Ireland itself provides that otherness as in the ironic ‘A Hundred Thousand Welcomes' or ‘Ulster Flutes’ but often her best work comes from dangerous places where lives are on the line: the aftermath of her parents serious road accident or waiting at the Nablus checkpoint between Palestine and Israel on Machsom Watch.  Serious subjects that are given serious attention. In ‘Invitation to Nuha Al-Radi’, the Iraqi author of Baghdad Diaries, Smyth uses the giving of an invitation to construct an imaginary but creative dialogue to contrast the monologue of destruction wrought by bombing, but by echoing themes of A.E. Houseman shows the real price of the ‘Kings shilling’.  A reference to Houseman’s ‘The Grenadier XXXVI Easter Hymn‘, reiterates how a state of unthinking in the young is callously taken advantage of by the State. Smyth’s poem closes with an offer of the high art of concerto played in the idyllic setting of in an English country house. She offers this as her personal exchange leaving the reader with the unspoken but lingering memory after the last line that only ‘fair exchange is no robbery’ and that the ‘gifts’ brought by the war in Iraq were not always welcome.

Throughout the book Cherry Smyth reminds us of the ‘bright anomaly’ that is poetry. How it makes us present, informs a life. I particularly enjoyed the technical assurance of the interleaving lines of ‘The Trance of Small Flies’ [p62] and the slight but satisfying ‘Tulip’ with its memorable final lines

                   ...exhausted, in pieces,
            on the table come morning,
strung out, little yellow boats
            sailing to Indonesia.’
                                                            ‘Tulips’  [p63]

Both ‘Pause’ and the final poem ‘The Funnel’ are, for me, perfect: rigorously disciplined, concentrated, and using description with both delight and from a depth of understanding. There are many other wonderful and thought provoking poems in this book: ‘Mother in Hospital’, ‘Chore’, ‘Each Tidy Reverse’, ‘In My Future’, ‘Fair and Lovely’...too many to mention.  It is unsurprising to learn that Cherry Smyth, poet, critic and curator, has had her poems ‘One Wanted thing’ nominated for the Forward Best Poem of the Year (2004) and 'Transparency' for the National Poetry Prize in the UK .