Smyth’s sixth collection is one with its gaze focused backwards. Many of the poems are a means of preserving memories in print. While this could mean too heavy a dollop of nostalgia, Smyth avoids the saccharine through the vivacity of his images.
In the first of the four sections, memories jump into the reader’s consciousness with the vividness of old photographs thanks to the detail of phrases such as “dust of school-chalk/ lay on his shoulders” (‘Riddles and Orisons’). This section has many memories of learning – not just in the classroom, but the collection of knowledge gained on voyages across Eastern Europe, the recollections of these making up the bulk of this section. Many of the poems are addressed in memoriam to individuals, ranging from old schoolteachers to Chopin, which gives the sense that these poems are addressed to ghosts – actual or imagined. One of the most powerful poems in this section is the wonderful ‘Same Old Crowd’ where he describes his friends as “a reunion of shadows/ huddled around a table of drinks.” Death is coming and soon all will be consigned to memory – this book will preserve them for future generations.
The second section feels like an ancestral pilgrimage, opening with poems that focus on Dublin and the changes in the city. Smyth explores his father’s memories of the city, almost retracing his father’s steps in an attempt to find the city that exists only in the past in poems such as ‘Survivors’ and ‘Draper’s Window’. The inhabitants of this city are presented as “men who looked crumpled” and in ‘Survivors’ we are told “they are gone with all their secrets” – here, Smyth is trying to breathe life back into these secrets for future preservation. As this section develops, Smyth takes us further back through his family to his grandmother’s memories. In poems such as ‘Ancestral Place’ and ‘Dreamsong’, we’re taken further and placed across the Atlantic to the America of his dead uncle. There’s a sense that Smyth is trying to explore the relationship with home – for both native and immigrant.
The third section explores more immediate memories and a lover shines through in poems such as ‘Surrender’ and ‘Gifts’. However, Smyth is still weighted by memory and trying to recapture past experiences – beautifully described in the tender ‘Wicklow Gap’:
“I am looking through the years we keep
in photographs, the halcyon days
when as sweethearts lit from within
we strolled the promenade.”
The final section comes back to home. It is an odyssey of memory around Ireland, crossing from Newgrange to the West, visiting graveyards and other important and personal sites. The manifesto of the collection bubbles to the surface here in poems such as ‘Path Through Life’ when it becomes clear Smyth is trying not only to preserve memory in order that it is not lost, but also to ensure that we learn from our own and others’ past experiences:
“In the small village of waging tongues
the old ideas are still the ones
that matter and are learned by heart
so that the living can carry on
and take what comes on the path through life.”
However, as the collection closes, there is no sense of finality – by including ‘Comet’ as the final poem, we’re given a sense of hope – somewhere, life goes on “It reappears in our garden of galaxies/ A soul in flight, a soul of ice and dust.”