Writing the bare bones


POETRY: Collected Poems, by Michael Smith, Shearsman Books, 242pp, £12.95

MICHAEL SMITH has a well-deserved reputation as a prolific and engaging translator of poetry, with versions of Vallejo, Hernandez, Claudio Rodriguez, Lorca and many others to his name.

He is also well known for his work as a publisher with the influential New Writers’ Press and as an advocate of the Irish modernist tradition.

Prolific translators can often find their own work overshadowed by the work they negotiate across the linguistic borders, so it’s good to be reminded of what Smith has achieved in his own right. The poems gathered here cover all the work Smith wants to preserve from seven previous collections, but what’s striking is how much of a piece they are. The essential elements of both style and subject matter were set in place at an early stage and he has stuck pretty consistently to them.

The poetry is spare, avoiding any kind of formal or rhetorical flourish; it’s a bare-bones aesthetic and it suits the cool regard of these poems.

Observation is one of their key drivers, and very often they focus on the city of Dublin; characteristically he’s prowling the “Old rotten heart of the city” and “pondering time’s evil” where “In the shadow of the cathedral” “the dogs of want scavenge/amid excrement and the wormy legs of children”.

These poems count the cost of poverty, failure, oppression, registering the human imprint on the city, and are full of sympathy and a kind of buried anger at the treatment meted out to the slum children, beggars, messenger boys or street singers his eyes fall on – “Susie in her laundry convent tortured with salvation” – or the ghosts that stalk the old streets: “The past comes with a thousand voices/ and the bricks and walls hold spectral faces”. His observation is rooted in empathy for the lost, forgotten or defeated.

In a note the poet tells us “The Dublin that is the locus of many of these poems has largely disappeared”. He also informs us they have no aspiration to be “topographical or strictly descriptive”. Not that he needs to — for any poet, the city is part of the very personal furniture of the imagination and Smith’s “ancient city by the river” offers up images of unremitting spiritual dereliction, a sense of the same few notes condemned to be rehearsed time and again, sometimes brightened by unexpected joy, as when “By chance a fragrance wafts from a bakery door/and a lost world is instantly restored.”

It’s a vision given force by an unyielding honesty, and the same qualities are seen in the poems set in Spain – they have the stoic, clipped force of a Machado. The effort they make is like that described in Climbing A Staircase: “I urge myself to climb,/ supported by such props,/ ignoring the jeering/cackle from below.// There is a window/ that I know is there, struck by sunlight without apology,/ cleaving shreds of curtain/ hanging god-knows- why . . .”.

THERE’S A KINDof deepening as the collection continues, in sharp, moving poems like Brightnessor the ambitious sequence Texts for Irene, a powerful poem of family memory and survival. The world Smith evokes is often one of shrunken horizons, of constrained lives trying to release themselves, like Mr Sunshine in the excellent poem of that title, baring his chest “after his long white winter in overcoats”, standing like a statue at the park wall, “taking the sunshine as monumental god,/or, less godlike and more human,/waiting anxiously on the movement of a cloud”. His voice is pitched low – a solitary nocturnal voice which, when it tires of itself, can always “talk to the dead/ who have no choice/ but to listen to me . . .”. The past, and the dead “howling for life”, are always present, as is a constant undercurrent of pain that directs the poems into their tight channels and gives them their controlled pressure. Tense, unillusioned, forceful, this is a voice that holds our attention.

Peter Sirrs latest collection of poems, The Thing Is,will be published this autumn by Gallery Press