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Selected Poems: 1989-2012 by Simon Smith (Shearsman Books) Part Two

On the reverse side of this selection David Herd is quoted from The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry where he comments upon Simon Smith’s sequence of poems from 2010, London Bridge:

“Simon Smith’s writing forges English language poetry out of the translated utterance, his most recent volume, London Bridge, fixing itself not to place but to the questions of crossing.”

In an article by John Wilkinson titled ‘Stone thresholds’, published in this year’s Textual Practice there is a fine reading of Andrew Crozier’s late poem ‘Blank Misgivings’, “built on the rubble of a postwar cityscape and of postwar political hopes”. Wilkinson notes that the poem’s title is borrowed from Arthur Hugh Clough:

“The ruined landscape fills with sounds and obstructions as well as ‘unbuilt monuments’; like the ‘extinct hiss’ which is still incendiary and the ‘static roar’ from space, it is haunted by futurity as well as the past. Neglected past participles throng in this poem, still hissing and burning. What is performed here and enjoined on a reader is a hermeneutic work of remembrance, reconnection and shaping.”

Reading through the selection of twenty-five sonnets from ‘Unfelt, A Poem in Forty-Four Parts’, which occupies a prominent section towards the end of this new Selected Poems I am drawn back to looking at Clough again. The awareness of ghosts haunting the ‘you’ and the ‘I’ in Smith’s sequence reminds me of the tone of ‘Amours de Voyage’. In section VIII of that fine poem from 1862 Claude writes to Eustace:

“After all, do I know that I really cared so about her?
Do whatever I will, I cannot call up her image;
For when I close my eyes, I see, very likely, St. Peter’s,
Or the Pantheon façade, or Michael Angelo’s figures,
Or, at a wish, when I please, the Alban hills and the Forum –
But that face, those eyes – ah no, never anything like them;
Only, try as I will, a sort of featureless outline,
And a pale blank orb, which no recollection will add to.
After all perhaps there was something factitious about it:
I have had pain, it is true; I have wept; and so have the actors.”

The shadows which haunt Simon Smith’s sonnet sequence offer glimpses of world lost in which “I cannot distinguish between your acts now” (2) and that world of ‘crossing’ which is perhaps pointed to in that quotation from David Herd may be seen most clearly in sonnet 41:

“The literal truth of history I feel you in the air
& the sun but not in detail everything is at once
Too near & too far enough to make me tremble
Quietly as we are, you at New Cross, & I here”

Simon Smith’s poems have often been located in a recognizable topography and the power of this sonnet sequence is located in the way the poet moves from this ‘here-and-now’ to an awareness of how we stand upon the flagstones of our pasts. This is a poet who has read his Olson as well as his O’Hara:

“we compare notes
we meet, shall I come
to you or will you come to me
unhappy as Mercury in our shape-shifting
as we row backwards always backwards rolling
towards beginning with all the inevitable permanence
of the concrete breeze blocks, their presence, their weight
their grey bulk

floats off
above
city
air
to be with”
(‘Ode to David Herd’)

Simon Smith is a major poet of the present and his voice is distinctive as the world of America and England meet in a manner that the shade of Clough may well smile at; after all, ‘Amours de Voyage’ was first published in the Boston Atlantic Monthly.

Ian Brinton, 25th April 2017

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