Josh Ekroy identifies commitment and precise observation as being the chief strengths of Christopher Smith’s new collection

acumen_-_late_news_from_britainLate News From Britain
Christopher J P Smith
Acumen Publications
ISBN: 978-1873161418
64 pages   £8.99

This collection, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. The “Late” of the title is late as “in the past” or “dead”. The good news is the first part – ‘Places, People’ which asks interesting questions. Its underlying dilemma: history keeps escaping our gaze and the closer we look the more it looks away (years have collapsed to nothings) is always probed with tactile, immediate images. The less urgent but still engaging news is the second part which is entitled ‘Wildlife’ and offers closely observed evocations. The final section, ‘Poems from the South West’ examines the countryside, oozing an unreadable black ink. There’s also some cider and many ‘rhynes’ (I assume this is West Country dialect for ‘streams’. It’s not in any dictionary I possess.)

The title poem is a caustic comment on a yearning for a past that never existed, as well as a futile, insular complacency:

This island bites its own tail, breathes changelessly.
Twenty centuries dining out on the world –
bringing the invader’s voice to fit those contours,
the spun globe always-already at the door,
another bloodbath on the Saxon shore?

Then the refrain:

Yet in Britain what have we to fear….?

It is untypical of the collection as a whole and, as can be seen, is perhaps overburdened with large claims (twenty centuries?) and therefore less successful than ‘The Archaeologist’ which deploys a more precise anatomising:

I spread this bead of charcoal across my palm,
and smelled the tang
of fallen beams
in Camulodunum.

It’s a personal poem which suggests that trying to grasp the past is doomed to failure.

As can be seen above, Smith is good at that moment of evocation, which is also to be found in ‘Burngreave Cemetery’

Here by the boarded up church
I struck an old memory with the tip of my boot –

which goes on to evoke his grandmother, like Tamora, Queen of the Goths.

A selection of dead poets intrudes on the natural theme – as in ‘Searching for the Tennyson Room, Usher Gallery, Lincoln’:

The Great Man’s hat and Spanish cloak –
its lining like a Tiger Moth’s underwing

It’s the under of underwing that tells you this is the voice of someone who has minutely observed the natural world. But there is an unwillingness to resist some arch quotes:

Half a league onward into a new age
they have recast that little room…

It’s in the second section, ‘Wildlife’, that acute observation reveals itself in its most concentrated and imaginative form. Here’s ‘Grasshopper Warbler’:

Ventriloquising the sun’s voice,
planetary stutterings.
Undeviating morse.

If sometimes there are unneeded adjectives, (‘A Golden Eagle’ suffers from this) you feel they are deployed with attention to essences, and if sometimes these are sketches instead of poems, then birds, which is what they are mostly about, are not to be netted by expansive explorations.

‘Poems from the South-West’ also tends to settle for the descriptive, but there is always an authorial presence guiding us through with acuteness and generosity of perception. These are lines from ‘The Cider Sheds, Curload’:

one short glassful,
brewed on its own orchard sugars,
wasp weary, windfall heavy,
holding the landscape in its ferment,
waiting to be clear and gold as the sunball.

Also in this section lurks a consciousness of history which is not explored with quite the same questing edge as ‘Places, People’. This is from ‘Kilve to Nether Stowey’:

Summer winds search out the past through carved ivy
but cars barge in everywhere.

In variously sprinkled asides, human beings get a bad press. In this case, it’s that everywhere that lets the bubble out of the cider bottle.

If I have reservations, then, they concern stylistic blips, of which there are a fair few. But the voice is committed in a way that reveals a felt link with the earth so that you may be inclined to forgive the odd stumble which a workshop might have helped to its feet. I think too the tripartite structure has its limitations. Better to have taken us through the landscape and wildlife seamlessly. There would then have been a clearer development of the emotional relation to the subject matter. History, it seems, may reside in feathers and claws if only we could discover it:

‘Greenfinches’

rehearse their nasal syllables
equivalent to the moment.
Two hundred odd years laid out:
sweet as the dead.

 

Josh Ekroy’s first collection Ways To Build A Roadblock was published by Nine Arches Press in May, 2014. He lives in London.