No 8 - Autumn 2005
A Local Habitation and a Name
Review of Damian Smyth
Damian Smyth: Downpatrick Races. Belfast: Lagan Press, 2000. 62 pp. ISBN 1 873687 87 7, £6.95 pb.
Damian Smyth: The Down Recorder. Belfast: Lagan Press, 2004. 190 pp. ISBN 1 904652 10 7, £8.95 pb. (Lagan Press, Unit 11, 1a Bryson Street, Belfast, BT5 4ES)
On the evidence of these two books, Downpatrick Races (published in 2000) and The Down Recorder (published in 2004), Smyth is a poet exclusively interested in finding his material – his occasion and to a great extent his subject – in the local. Smyth was born in Downpatrick in 1962 and, as his work makes clear, his family has deep roots there. This is not to say that Smyth's interests or outlook are merely parochial in any damning sense. Smyth is no local 'naïve'; he has a good deal of intellectual sophistication to offer – as one might expect from a poet who has a doctorate in contemporary philosophy from Queen's University Belfast. And, in the sense that his Downpatrick functions like the city of Paterson in William Carlos Williams's Paterson, Smyth's interest are not merely local.
Horse-racing has proved a rewarding subject for artists of various kinds over the years. Quite beyond the realms of the (usually) relatively humble sporting print, it has occasioned great paintings like George Stubbs' late, heroic canvas 'Hambletonian, Rubbing Down' and (altogether gentler) Degas' many studies of jockeys and of racecourse scenes at Longchamps and elsewhere. (And there are striking racing images by Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, too). In other media, Kipling's short story “The Broken-link Handicap” is an intriguing and impressive piece. There are attractive, if slight, poems by W. S. Gilbert (“Emily, John, James, and I: A Derby Legend” in his Bab Ballads), F. H. Doyle (two poems on “The Doncaster St. Leger”) and the Australian Adam Lindsay Gordon (“How We Beat the Favourite”, “Hippodromania”). Subtler poems include Yeats's “At Galway Races” and Larkin's “At Grass”. These last two – along with what is perhaps the most famous of British paintings on the subject, William Frith Powell's “Derby Day” (1858) – are relatively oblique in their approach. The racing, the horses, are the occasion rather than the real subject. The social world of racing, and that world's impact on the larger world, are of greater interest than the question of which horse passes the winning post first. This is largely the case with Downpatrick Races. The second poem in the collection is in praise of a great (the greatest?) Irish steeplechaser, active in the 1960s:
The Mighty Arkle
bay gelding by Archive out of Bright Cherry
That horse bought fridges, TVs, motor cars.
It was no wonder thousands gripped the rails
when the hero hunted Mill House down again,
pulling back the earth with each great stride,
the pride of England frothing, broken, bate.
If I had a cap, I'd throw it in the air.
This was how the Irish won the war,
everything riding on every whipping boy
to face the white man down against the odds.
I have my grandda's photo of the god,
an icon, like good Pope John and JFK,
Pat Taaffe up, who, he used to say,
needed that horse 'for he couldn't sit on a stool'.
But the beefcake underneath is Cassius Clay,
the footwork perfect, the arrogance a joy,
the sucker punch a lucky horseshoe in each glove.
Arkle's successes are not 'pure', not merely displays of what an exceptional horse and rider can do. The specific victory celebrated is, significantly, over an English horse, Mill House (the horses met several times, but the speaker probably has in mind Arkle's victory at the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1964, when he came from behind to defeat his rival); Smyth's Arkle is more or less explicitly associated with the cause of Irish Nationalism, made a specifically Catholic 'icon', along side the Pope. He embodies an Irish confidence sufficient to see “the pride of England frothing, broken”. If that is his 'political' significance, his 'economic' significance is clear too – for an economically struggling community backing 'their' horse has “bought fridges, TVs, motor cars”.
“The Mighty Arkle” is the second poem in the collection. It is framed by two poems which are even more explicit in their affirmation of the political significance of the Downpatrick races. Opening the volume is “Tracks”:
The evening he was blown up by his own bomb at the racecourse
he had shaved and showered as though meeting a girlfriend,
Taurus, Brut or Hai Karate sprinkled like myrrh on his talcy body.
Thrown off the scent, neither family nor friends could track him at
But the bomb that woke the birds and set the hurdles blazing
left his bed in the morning unslept in. There was nothing in the coffin.
When the breeze brings the tannoy calling the runners and riders miles
at Binn's big house in the country, where the racecourse
runs for furlongs beside the tarmac road, all you hear is bees.
There is the synchronised swimming of starlings and many trees.
“Tracks” and “The Mighty Arkle” are followed by “Races” which records a confrontation between a black soldier in the English army and John Trainor, one of the Irish “brickies and joiners” who are stopped, and quizzed, by a patrol.
By no means all of the remaining poems in Downpatrick Races make explicit mention of the races or the racecourse. But the three interlinked poems which open the book have established both tone and central point of reference. Where there are specific allusions they are often striking. The third part of “Silk” (“Bookies”), for example, connects the races with linguistic and communal divisions, and with questions of prophecy, ending with a roll-call of famous horses:
In the Irish News, tipsters were hedging their bets,
two tribes vying for the perfect accumulator,
Red Hand and Course Wire at odds forever.
They are there yet, mantles handed down
from prophet to prophet, still getting it wrong,
the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing,
like the old communities, swapping the whip-hand,
falling at the last like the Queen Mother's horse,
babbling a language only they understand:
Brigadier Gerard, L’Escargot, The Minstrel,
Nijinsky, Red Alligator, Tied Cottage, Sir Ivor,
Churchtown Boy, King of Kings, El Gran Señor.
The book closes with its most direct evocation of the activity of racing itself, though such activity is carefully placed in a context which does much to judge its real significance. The whole poem deserves quotation (the ships named in the last stanza were, of course, those of Columbus' first expedition, here used, in part at least, as a kind of adumbration of Irish emigration to the U.S.A.):
From Binn's big house, it's miles to the grandstand
where the tannoy fizzles tinily like a bee.
That makes do as a warning
that out of clear skies thunder is coming.
Then it's like nothing is suddenly happening.
The birds stop singing. Grasshoppers cease
flogging their backs, as if watches have stopped.
For down at the turn, thoroughbreds are driving
their clamour ahead of them, flushing the hedgerows
of starlings and fieldmice, ahead of their time.
When the noise and the horses collide where you're standing,
with so much muscle at work under skins,
the eye takes them in like a frieze or mosaic.
It's ecstatic: the animals are carved out of forests,
adrift like galleons with sails of pure silk,
the jockeys scampering high in the rigging.
Out here, where now so much is at stake
it is still massive suffering and cold endurance
on the Pinta, the Niña, the Santa Maria,
that's discovered in binoculars from oceans away.
Elsewhere a violent history (as in the stories of “The man who found his father on the beach / with a tide mark round his neck where the spade dug in a collar of brown blood as thick as dulse” and, in the beams of the church roof, “the corpse / as fresh as a loaf, the flesh all buttery, / from which the slow blood dripped when prayers began”) coexists alongside affectionate memories of individuals and shared values. One long poem, “Cemetery Sunday”, contains the following lines:
To see my dead grandfather in the Down Recorder
('Write in if you know who these characters are')
not having known him, but having his bearing
on board my own body like a hat or a coat,
is shocking and strange, like seeing myself
for the first time old and stout and kind,
a kind of future on offer from features
that have waited for God on the Killough Road
for most of a century.
It is to the local newspaper, the Down Recorder, that Smyth has turned for the central structural device – and main source materials – of his second, recently published, collection. The book takes the form of a long poem in seven sections, based on incidents recorded in the Down Recorder (which has been publishing since 1836).
Downpatrick is the county town of Down, in Northern Ireland, and is located near the south-eastern end of Strangford Lough. It takes its name from St. Patrick, traditionally (though probably inaccurately) said to be buried next to Down Cathedral. That Cathedral (said to have been founded by St. Patrick c. 440) stands on the Hill of Down, one of two hill-forts which guarded the earlier pre-Christian settlement. The Mound of Down, one of the most significant of Irish earthworks was reputedly the location for a Palace of the Kings of Ulster. A market town with a population of approximately 10,000, Downpatrick's industries include (or have included) the making of linen, brewing, soap-making and tanning. Smyth's poem makes relatively little direct reference to the older history of Downpatrick (though it is, to some extent, assumed and certainly very useful to the reader), his major concern, naturally enough, being with events post 1836. Downpatrick Races had carried as one of its epigraphs some lines by John Hewitt:
Now and for ever through the change-rocked years,
I know my corner in the universe:
my corner, this small region limited
in space by sea, in time by my own dead
who are its compost, by each roving sense
henceforward mobilised in its defence.
The lines might just as readily have been placed at the beginning of The Down Recorder. What the later volume does carry by way of epigraph are quotations from (apt in more ways than one) William Carlos Williams, Michael Coady and – delightfully – from that great historian William Camden:
If any there be which are desirous to be strangers in their owne soile
and forrainers in their owne citie they may so continue and therein
flatter themselves. For such I have not written these lines and taken
Certainly Smyth has taken many pains with his “own dead”, who form a rich “compost” for this extended poem. Smyth's fascination with humanity in all its absurdity and heroism, its grandeur and its sheer daftness, is evident on almost every page. His way of working is generally unflamboyant in style – choosing to err on the side of plainness and flatness rather than that of excessive rhetoric. Here – amongst much else – are suicides and unnaturally large apples, child murderers and exceptional thunderstorms, a major rail disaster, a pioneering female preacher and a long-distance pedestrian. Smyth's most common method is to quote the passages from the newspaper in which, as his introduction puts it, “private lives [were] suddenly made public by crime, or death or accident, or some unexpected curiosity” and then follow it by the poem prompted by the passage. Sometimes quotations from the newspaper and lines of verse are intercut, so that the text alternates between the two. Many early photographs are printed alongside the text. The whole constitutes a kind of meditation on transience and continuity – though not by any means an altogether
Things endure. Bodies, like apples when they fall,
are harboured by and loved of earth itself.
Entry after entry, they file through.
Page after page, they nitpick the small print
in columns assembling, an orderly queue,
competing week by week to make their point.
Their point is death – and how it strikes them, now
the world has ended. They have passed
from what they want, to what I can allow
to each of them that their sad names might last.
Every eccentricity to the fore,
how long can one engage with the remains,
day and daily, jotting it all down
and not learn things to chill the very bones?
I said: it is incredible, but still real,
like finding archaeopteryx hid in shale,
shattered blooms pressed between the leaves.
The dead hide themselves up their own sleeves.
Inevitably much of the poem is given over to storytelling, to narratives (sometimes carried by the newspaper extracts, sometimes by Smyth's own words). Smyth tells his tales economically and pointedly, but the best passages of the poem, generally speaking, are the more lyrical or moralistic sections, where he reflects on the patterns revealed, on the moral and socio-historical significance of his materials:
A half-inch of water will drown a body
if you breathe in face down in it.
The backwash carries the tales of farming folk
back to the mainstream, the last bubbles of air
from flooded lungs surviving in the surf
at Annalong, Portavogie and Kilkeel.
Who would risk themselves for less than that?
The annals the people write are neither sad
nor heroic, just intricate and unloved.
They do not make the mistake of simplicity.
They drown. They run aground. They live.
Their bones do not go under perfectly.
That seems to me powerful and to articulate its power with an impressively lapidary quality. The downside of The Down Recorder (one assumes that the title has become a kind of nom-de-plume for the poet as well as the title of the newspaper) comes when Smyth uses verse to convey facts which, however impressive, do not in their plainness add up to anything it seems worth calling poetry, as in this passage on the steamship Great Britain:
Designed Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Built 1843
W Paterson, Wapping Wharf, Bristol.
Three hundred and twenty-two feet long ad 50
feet 6 inches wide,
displacing 3,444 tons of sea water, with space for
252 passengers and 120 crew,
carrying 1,200 tons of cargo, 1,200 tons of coal
and one-third larger
than any ship previously built. A hull constructed
of iron plates forged at Coalbrookedale
and shipped down the Severn, each plate
measuring 6 feet by 2 feet 6 inches.
Horizontally overlapping. Vertically butted
together, connected inside by iron straps.
Greater poets than Smyth – such as MacDiarmid and Pound – have come badly unstuck attempting this kind of 'poetry-as-documentation'. Smyth cannot be said to have succeeded where they failed. But, it must be stressed, by far the greater part of the volume is a good deal more successful than the passage just quoted.
Smyth's Introduction to The Down Recorder makes it clear that in writing it he was heavily indebted to one Jack McCoy, a local history librarian, who prepared an index of the first fifty years of the Down Recorder. McCoy is present as a character in Smyth's poem and, indeed, some passages “attempt to speak with something of his own voice” (to quote Smyth's Introduction). The book's text is, thus, made up by a number of voices in dialogue: the editors and journalists of the Down Recorder, the ventriloquized voice of McCoy, and the poet in propria persona (insofar as any poet ever is). Another way of putting this is to say that the text contains at least three ways of looking at events in Downpatrick for well over a century – the journalists', the historian's and the poet's. How far their requirements and expectations, satisfactions and failings, are alike, and how different, are obviously questions far too big to be tackled in a review such as this; but it is a virtue of The Down Recorder that it should forcefully raise such questions.
The Down Recorder is never – well, hardly ever – boring; for the most part its engagement with the minutiae of local history is entertaining and illuminating. There is much here that is fascinating, much that is perceptive. Though there are some dull and, occasionally, repetitive passages and a few rather 'flat' areas, the whole makes an enjoyable read, and some, at least, of the many short sections which make up this long text are fine and powerful poetry. A particular, odd pleasure of the book also comes from its delightful “Index of Names”, compiled with straight-faced humorous accuracy. An extract:
Taggart, David, a self-confessed murderer 70,71
Tate, Allen, a poet 25
The daughter of a man named Cosby 11
The Queen, God Bless Her 116, 153
Tierney, John, a questionable man 127, 128, 129, 132, 134
Toby, as above 7
Two Huns 99
Unnatural person 13
Vidich & Bensman, authors 53
Watson, Edward, a sober and industrious carman 82
Williamson, Mary, a spinner 114
Wingate, the maverick 99
Worke, Jordy, a murderer 50
Yeats, WB, a poet 41
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
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- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
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- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
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