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Held By The Roots

Brendan Lowe

A Song of Elsewhere, by Gerard Smyth, Dedalus Press, 84 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-1910251072

As has long been noted and as the back cover of this new work has it, “Gerard Smyth is a poet strongly associated with his native Dublin.” Smyth himself offers confirmation in “Poem to a Granddaughter”: “I am held by the roots to this ground I walk on, / these places I know by name”. But in this new collection there are elsewheres to Smyth’s home town aplenty, from rural Ireland, where

in the here-and-there of the countryside
there are glimpses of electric light (“Summer Nocturne”)

to Moscow, where

From a window near the sky
I survey a city so vast
it confounds the eye
and the heart (“Red Star, Black Gates”)

In phrases like these the visual experience of a landscape is encapsulated with a couple of essentials picked out, allowing topography to take on symbolic resonance – the Dublin cityscape included: “the way / the river makes the city two separate places’ (“Poem to a Granddaughter”); “our Sunday morning stroll […] as far as the bridge you never crossed” (“Fathers and Sons”). It is as if in bringing his poetic eye to rural Ireland and places further afield – always the curious visitor looking through a window or consulting a map – he confirms the rootedness of his bonds with Dublin, especially the parts of the city where he spent his childhood. His travels let him think afresh of his non-elsewhere.

In César Vallejo’s Paris the same topographical eye seeks “the grave that is now his mask” (“Looking for Vallejo”). Several poems, like this one about the great Peruvian exile, end with a quotation – the last lines of the book (Whitman’s) included. In this way, like the musicians who the poems sometimes pay tribute to, these endings seem to zoom off into someone else’s swing – Take it away, Walt! – an unflashy invitation for the reader to share in the poet’s enjoyment of that other work, just as other poems operate in relation to the world with the “deliberate unshowiness” that Dermot Bolger remarks on the back cover of the book. Bolger writes of Smyth’s as “a language stripped and primed against any false note” and because of that minimal quality, when compressed language does appear it packs more of a punch for its unexpected arrival. In the same way, coming among the evenly structured but free verse, the odd rhyme or slant rhyme is given added power, as is the ballad-like recurring line in a poem like “Lament at the End of a Century” or the collection’s title piece.

Two poems, “Little Mysteries” and “When All the Birds Were Called Away”, make unexpected swoops into Irish history in their closing lines, motions that coincide with a densening of the language:

that bit of a tune left in the air
when bow and fiddle are laid to rest
and the singer sits down,
his mouth dried up
like the red rose of blood on Connolly’s shirt. (“Little Mysteries”)

Smyth, as a child of the sixties, is happily enmeshed in the culture of international music which perhaps now even includes that of Clare. But deep local memory such as Connolly’s blood-stained shirt will obtrude; such powerful formative symbols are never far away in Smyth’s vision. But there are other aspects of the local which also resurface and from which the poet maintains a subtle distance:

where once historical drama was played
by poets, pedagogues, fanatical hearts.

For Smyth, the possibilities of 1916 and independence are unfulfilled:

the State
pays homage with drums, salutes and rhetoric
less honest than the men it praises –
Tone and Davis and whoever else
is still remembered when they lay a wreath
for all the dead beside the monument,
under the epitaph for those
who if they reappeared to form a circle
would see a time of yearning,
the consequence of sorry days:
our Augean stables
but no Hercules to clean them. (“Disillusionment”)

With other poems’ endings, hints of indignation at contemporary wrongs make an appearance: at “the Dark Ages returning” (“Lament at the End of a Century”), or at the fact that despite “How close they are in the age of Google map”, “district lines and exhausted rivers” still “divide the destinations of the poor and rich” (“A Song of Elsewhere”).

Smyth is generally, but by no means always, accepting of change. Here are the striking closing lines of “On the Cavan Bus”:

these lanes that were leafy once until the trees
were butchered, the ditches stripped of lushness
by someone who thought this place should be
like someplace else.

From poem to poem there are graceful segues of theme – “as if”, as “Soul Kitchen” says, “each time one story ends another begins”. So we’re taken from a Moscow scene to the figure of the speaker’s father, via “The Russian Delicatessen”:

When the Russian delicatessen opened
opposite the Chinese takeaway,
I thought of my father and what he might say
to see this strange cuisine displayed
on one of his Dublin streets

And from the poem “The Collins Coat”, about the greatcoat Michael Collins was wearing on the day he was shot, to the “the itch of a Tommy’s uniform” (“Islandbridge”), via “Neutral Ireland” where “men in the family joined / the armies of church and state”. The figure of the Tommy appears again as “a vigil-keeper holding his breath // in rain that comes one step after another” in “War” – a phenomenon defined nicely as “what William Orpen saw, / sometimes through a soft blur”.

Smyth’s plain and melancholy Dublin of the 1950s and 1960s, his abiding home, is never very far away in A Song of Elsewhere. And one kind of sad presence in that past is of the Great War veterans,

the men who wore grey beards when I was young,
stoic and silent when their wars were over,

their medals lost among the knick-knacks
of cottages on long lane
or sold to the moneylender who knew they’d never

be reclaimed or worn on Poppy Day.

Sometimes that Dublin is viewed from the altered now and the experience is of loss:

In the locked-up church the bread
of life is going stale, the liturgies
are only words, dead on a page that’s never turned.

And sometimes in remembered experience, as in the wonderful lines:

Baking apples bought for Sunday
were carried home as if they were
the sorrows of the world (“1957”)

“Bounty”, in memory of the journalist Caroline Walsh, opens with the phrase “Here’s a memory”. An impulse to record, with piety and fidelity, seems strong in the collection. Often the poems’ sustained tone is elegiac, yet they are open to the new and exotic. Travel, of course, is a recurring theme – to Russia, Portugal, Paris, Cambodia, and in the closing sequence the American Midwest. And in apprehension of the vast “elsewhere” the home ground can be conceived of in terms of a different future, of that “elsewhere” arriving, in terms of new languages on the streets of Dublin and of the immigrant who

will play his part
in the comedies and tragedies
of my old neighbourhood (“New Languages”)

Change can make our attempts at fixing in time and space seem futile:

places whose story is rewritten many times
until no story exists.

While there is acknowledgement and even acceptance of change, in “The Russian Delicatessen” we see the response, something like an enigmatic shrug, of a father figure who

watch[ed] the passing of an age,
stood still to catch his breath at twelve
and six o’clock when the new electric bells
broke into song, an annunciation that made him pause,
straighten his shoulders and then walk on.

1/1/2016

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