Ian Brinton reviews
by Simon Smith
Simon Smith’s remarkable sequence of poems written whilst travelling by train between Charing Cross and Chatham opens with a desire for permanence within a shifting landscape, a narrative that contains ‘whatever occurred at that particular moment at the carriage window, or on the train.’
I want my life to be a story once
Upon a time a four-legged now a three-legged rose
Wood table smashed along the railway cutting,
It central leaf missing
As my eight-year-old collects climate-change transfers
Hungry for permanent structure,
A Boost bar and We Love You magazine.
The child’s hunger for permanence and for some sense of stability in a fast-moving world (a ‘collection’ is dear to any child’s heart as providing a cumulative sense of security) is undermined by the subject material of potential catastrophe. This hunger is juxtaposed with his father’s accumulation of literary and musical references, another form of ‘collection’. Within these poems we will run up against Conrad and Dickens, Walter Benjamin and Paul Weller (Jam to Style Council), Juvenal, Claudius, Caesar, Vespasian, Neil Young and Browning, Spenser and Catullus. With a sly reference to the 2008 Tate exhibition, ‘Cycles and Seasons’, even Cy Twombly will make a ghost appearance. This enormous frame of reference which offers a living background to the ‘now’ should come as no surprise when one recalls Simon Smith’s 2005 review of Bloodaxe’s new translation of Catullus by Josephine Balmer (Poetry Review, Vol. 95, No. 1). In a scathing reference to the former Education Minister Charles Clarke’s pronouncement that educational subjects worthy of study ‘need a relationship with the workplace’ Simon Smith points out that if you want to become a politician perhaps you should read Cicero, Plato or Aristotle before going on to pose the question ‘where else is the foundation of Western democracy other than in the Ancient worlds of Greece and Rome?’
Contrasting with this sense of continuity, however, one pervasive tone which threads it way through these poems in Gravesend is that of impermanence and perhaps another shadow behind the scenes is Paul Auster whose opening to In the Country of Last Things (1987) drowns us in instability:
These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back…A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today…When you live in a city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone.
A child’s recognition of vertigo and terror finds one its most moving manifestations in the opening pages of Dickens’s Great Expectations where the young Pip is surrounded by the graves of his family as he stands on the marshland of North Kent one Christmas-eve. The presence of this little seed in the opening poem of Smith’s journey sets the scene for the injustice of life and the oppressive political insensitivity of the adult world masquerading as the language of ‘Progressive education’ and ‘liberal democracy’
Where ‘life’ became a history to cry out
About grey and brown flatlands tilted
Over the edge dangling Pip.
As we approach Bluewater shopping-city, itself an Auster or Ballard world, ‘Assessment elides policing’ and the prevailing sense of educational policy which would have doubtless found favour with that now historical Minister Clarke prompts the poet to mis-read a sign on a grey bin labelled ‘not working’ as ‘networking’! In this world of captions and key-words which present themselves as a mirror of everyday narrowness Smith gives us ‘Deposits’:
Refrigeration and containment
Not that far to the jail at Sheppey
Nationalise the debt for helicopter money
No time to think—extruded plexi-glass,
Or a few details from my own personal experience
Is History in real time not sampled
The exchange of containers from ro-ros to lorries,
The male located in the female.
The reference here to acrylic glass is both precise and illuminating since laser cut panels have been used over the last ten years to redirect sunlight into a light pipe or tubular skylight in order to spread it into a room. In the sequence of poems details of personal human experience shed light upon the poet’s perception of History and, as if in memory of the time when he threw a large clock through the window of Barnwood House in order to do a runner from the lunatic asylum in Gloucester, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney now ‘plots his great escape from Dartford Asylum’.
Gravesend is not a disconnected set of fragments shored against this poet’s ruin but is a collage where ‘Opposite Burger King’ there will be ‘the outline of a Roman temple’ and where ‘Ghost landscapes slip the train window.’ As the reader arrives finally at Chatham, the ‘End of the line’:
The message is the text—Image, Music
Text. Built like a Mig-21.
‘Security personnel patrol this station
24 hours a day,’ the sign for Chatham
Sways in the breeze to the tune of ‘Tin
Soldier,’ and our deepest non-narrative selves.
And yet the journey has been a narrative in the sense used by Ortega y Gasset in Historical Reason, published in 1984, the same year as the miners’ strike and Big Brother:
So if we resort to the image, universal and ancient as you will see, that portrays life as a road to be travelled and travelled again—hence the expression “the course of life, curriculum vitae, decide on a career”—we could say that in walking along the road of life we keep it with us, know it; that is the road already travelled curls up behind us, rolls up like a film. So that when he comes to an end, man discovers that he carries, stuck there on his back, the entire roll of the life he led.
Or as this sardonic, shrewd and humane poet ends:
Me in pin-sharp form,
The ring-pull moment of chance,
Reality a line right through.
Ian Brinton reviews regularly for Eyewear. He is now Reviews Editor for Tears in the Fence. His Andrew Crozier Reader is to appear from Carcanet in March 2012.