Michael S. Begnal reviews
by Barbara Smith
In her second collection, The Angels’ Share (Doghouse, 2012), Barbara Smith’s considerable formal skills are apparent. The centerpiece of the book is a sonnet sequence on the life of George Leigh Mallory, the famous climber of Mt. Everest. More often than not, these are not rhymed or strictly metred, but do follow patterns that emphasise slant or near rhyme and assonance. “Stretch,” written “after” Theodore Roethke, is also a sonnet, rife with internal and end rhyme. A villanelle, “Six Stages of Grief,” is expertly handled. It may be mere speculation, but, tracing Smith’s bio, it is perhaps no accident that she is so interested in form here in this, the collection that follows her earning of an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Queen’s University, Belfast. The timeline certainly fits, and, for many, such a degree program is an opportunity to study in greater depth these patterns of poetry, their history, and application.
Whatever about that possibility, The Angels’ Share is an accomplished collection, often focused on life in contemporary Ireland. “Because I Heard about the Harp” is a slightly humorous, slightly wistful take on the poet’s university years drinking the titular lager: “swilled our bellies/ full in Russell’s Lounge as Echo & the Bunnymen/ belted our weekends into submission.” What’s more interesting about this poem, though, is what hangs in the background. The troubled North lies just up the road from Dundalk (where the Harp brewery is located) and is here referred to as “no-surrender-land,” while what is being rhapsodised is the faux-idyllic time before the corporate takeover of Guinness (the producer of Harp): “how daft we all were, long before Diageo.” Thus, arguably the two most important conflicts in recent Irish history — the “national question” on the one hand and the ransacking of the Irish economy by multinationals on the other — inform what initially seems to be a lighthearted reminiscence of youth. That the speaker refers to herself as being formerly “daft” implies that these details are perhaps the real point.
Irish mythology provides a framework for a couple of poems — “One of Each” and “Why Oisín Went and Came Back” — showing that Yeats’s influence is living, if filtered. These are nicely turned. Yet, Smith is just as likely to look outside of Irish culture in making her poetic arguments. Her distinctly feminist stance is encapsulated in “The Lotus Gait,” written from the perspective of a Chinese woman undergoing the process of foot-binding. The binding itself at first seems deceptively innocuous, even pleasant: “She honours my feet with warmed water,/ loosening shedding skin. . .” But with the final tercet, the underlying oppression of the practice becomes painfully clear when the speaker “cringe[s] homewards, as I totter out under/ a brittle moon; my own weight/ crushing each foot into the correct shape.” Not only is the woman victimized by this process, but Smith reveals that she is in a sense made to feel as if she herself is responsible for her victimhood (“my own weight”). Similarly to Carol Ann Duffy, perhaps, Smith here gives voice to the subjectivity of one who has historically been objectified.
While Smith is at times heavy-handed in her use of personification and metaphor (e.g. “Glove” and “The Doubt Ship”), she is also willing to try out less-common formal techniques, such as the concrete poetry of “Hexic,” where hexagonally shaped stanzas interlock and allow lines to be read in different combinations. One of my favourite poems in The Angels’ Share is “Old Head, Kinsale,” which, while metaphorical too, is also highly imagistic — the lighthouse it refers to is “fixed high on a greasy cliff” that is “speckled with hazels.” Here the metaphor works well, as “the eye gazed, as though to penetrate/ the outer atmosphere straight out into space. . .” Beyond the “eye” of the local lighthouse, this references the act of seeing itself, the work of the poet, seeing both the thing in the world and an alternate maybe deepening of the perception of the thing through language. For that matter, another of my favourites is “Modern Fantasia,” in which Smith demonstrates she is able to wring out every last lush drop of language in a burst of ecstatic stanzas, pleasingly punning. The collection’s title poem is an ode to whiskey. Pubs proliferate. Sláinte.
Michael S. Begnal’s new collection is Future Blues (Salmon Poetry, 2012).