Fiona Sampson, review of Maldon and Other Poems and The Purpose of the Gift by Michael Smith,
in The Irish Times (10 Aug. 2005), Weekend Review

Details: Fiona Sampson, ‘The gift of understanding’, review of Maldon and Other Poems and The Purpose of the Gift, in The Irish Times (10 Aug. 2005), Weekend Review.

Taken together, these two books are both summation and celebration of their author’s work to date. If the Selected Poems maps Michael Smith’s individual development as a poet, the simultaneously published new volume of translations reminds us how this development has always been in a context of collective practice.

In particular, Smith has published several volumes of translations from the Spanish of, inter alia, Lorca, Machado and Neruda; and in 1967 he founded the New Writers’ Press, specialising in the work of neglected Irish poets.

This context of literary generosity, underlined by a striking number of dedications among the original poems, is significant because of the straight line it draws between these two volumes. “When History Lesson” (The Purpose of the Gift) opens - “With what does the cry of men form itself in the air? With lung, with heart, with head?” - it is recognisably in the diction of Smith’s Maldon: “The brave made defence, broke the shield’s rim. The coat-of-mail sang a terrible song.”

And, beyond the characteristic Anglo-Saxon kennings, this is clean-cut, contemporary verse. Smith solves the several problems of Maldon with grace: the compression of the half-line alliterative form and the “clotting” of kennings are mediated by his staggered lineation; hyphenated compounds (“heart-wounded”, “shield-hedge”) re-naturalise what could seem mannered or opaque. The cover blurb speaks of “a ghost of the alliterative pattern” of the original; Smith’s avoidance of the Latinate allows English to do the work by “ghosting” its own antecedents.

Maldon and Other Translations is a substantial triptych (its other parts are Eileen O’Connell’s 18th-century Lament for Art O’Leary and a selection of flamenco lyrics from the 19th-century collection made by Machado’s father, Antonio Machado y Álvarez) in which Smith enlarges not only his own range but, importantly, that of material available in English. His introduction to these Cantes Flamencos reminds us how in thrall we are to Lorca’s definitions of Cante Jondo and flamenco, and suggests that poet may not be the most reliable of ethnomusicologists.

Certainly, the 250 songs translated here (though I had some reservations about the number which seem to have been tidied up into the form of a single quatrain) are beautiful and sharply idiomatic, if more proverbial than we’ve come to expect of “deep song”: “I thought I was the only one who watered your garden, but I have seen there are many who go and draw water.”

Does such Spanish duende enter Michael Smith’s own verse? Plainly it does. The Purpose of the Gift is full of arresting images - “The linnet on the orchard tree was green So the day became an emerald, the branched moon a pearl” (Dedications) - which could be versions of Lorca, yet are worked into something distinctly and discursively northern: “the birds have flown. / Now a circle of men/ toss for lost plumage. / Coins fly in the air: / heads and tails / on a dandruffed comb.” (The Bird Market). Smith’s project is more complex than mere homage. Repeatedly, especially in the sequence of “street-life” poems, he brings this cosmopolitan repertoire to bear on a specifically Irish experience.

Conversely, later in the book - which, frustratingly for this reader, gives no clue as to whether poems are arranged chronologically, thematically or volume by volume - a characteristically Celtic existential longing, what we call hiraeth in Welsh, moves outwards in turn to colour poems which are often set in Spain: “To be dead still, is that what we long for as time grow shorter?” (Old-fashioned Elegy).

Several of the grief poems which freight the second half of The Purpose of the Gift are dated and located in southern Spain in 1995. Among these is one of two remarkable contemplations of St John of the Cross, Brightness. In the other, On Reading San Juan de la Cruz, “Darkness is necessary ... / The ray of darkness / precedes the bright light ... / The empty white page/ without perplexity/ absent of desire/ Perfection”. But Smith’s poems, too, are achieved resolutions. If this is, after all, “the purpose of the gift”, these two books fulfil it with clarity, immaculate technical control - and great beauty.


[ Fiona Sampson is the editor of Poetry Review. Her verse-novel, The Distance Between Us, was published by Seren in June. Maldon and Other Translations by Michael Smith, Shearsman/New Writers’ Press, 156pp. €12.30. The Purpose of the Gift: Selected Poems by Michael Smith, Shearsman/New Writers’ Press, 164pp. €12.30. ]