Aug 13 2022
Poetry review – PERFORMANCE RITES: James Roderick Burns admires Barry Smith’s exploration of the overlap between art and nature
Barry Smith’s Performance Rites is a substantial collection which covers a lot of ground – nature, relationships, current affairs, history – but nonetheless circles back obsessively (and delightfully) to a single theme: art.
Take an excellent, evocative nature poem like ‘The Rose Garden’ or equally, ‘The High Beeches’. Both have human touches (“the outflung arm/of the path”; “the stone flagged/terrace … where once cigar smoke curled with bright laughter”) but are fundamentally rooted in the overflowing, almost overpowering, beauty of the natural world. Yet their key images introduce the notion of artistic sensibility, inverting the usual trope of architecture imitating nature. Here it is quite the reverse:
Follow the winding path to the northern transept of this cathedral of flowers (‘The Rose Garden’) And then a glimpse through lines of laurel-hedged walks of unanchored flying buttresses, pointed gable roofs open to the skies (‘The High Beeches’)
Smith doesn’t seem to have a manifesto – the inescapability of art, say, as Larkin sought to strip away layers of delusion and self-deception to reveal things as they really were – but rather an irrepressible delight in artistic things which bubbles up through everything he writes. It is everywhere. ‘Noli Me Tangere’, for instance – a solemn poem arising from the intersection of covid and religious imagery – passes briefly through another lively garden, itself an addition to the main thrust of the work, but dominant nonetheless:
The bluebells in long-leaved sprawls of green are calmer now after the night’s smothering wash of sickly-sweet perfume and the tiny birdseye blue flowered alkanets are bullying their way to prominence at every corner of the pathways.
Equally, it is not the case that Smith is somehow bullied by art – overmastered, or wilfully obsessive; rather that a life lived in the great valleys and tiny crevices of the stuff, writing it, directing it, facilitating it, essentially living it, has rubbed off in surprising and revealing ways. ‘Sloe Fair Incident’, a prose poem about a fatal showground accident in the days before health and safety legislation, could not be more visceral, dark or bitter, and yet concludes:
A fatal fascination holds him there, long after his money has gone, in showman’s role, king for the night, helping others to board and alight, a final grin and quick, casual wave, banana-skin slip, sudden shudder and jerk, head trapped in mechanical wrestler’s bone-crushing grip beneath the wheeled-cage’s floor: rich fruit, poised between finger and thumb, a judder, a squeeze, juice-spurt – and gone.
It is a bravura performance, the language muscular yet delicate, and calls back both to the poem’s title and to the notion of forbidden fruit itself, a single page pressing out a human life, wringing it for all the juice it contains. That Smith accomplishes so much, and so artfully, is one reason the reader can stomach this grisly subject matter.
Another reason is consistency. Rarely has a collection been so continuously threaded – both consciously and unconsciously – with so clear, and meaningful, a theme. It is not uniformly positive; far from it. A poem such as ‘Broken Glass’, about Kristallnacht, concludes with a chilling portrait of completely cultured disdain for human suffering:
Perhaps they do not smile, these passers-by on their morning stroll down Friedrichstrasse, the executive in snap-brimmed homburg, knotted-tweed overcoat and gleaming brogues, looking straight ahead, bisecting the crowd of cloth-capped workmen, pebbles on the shore, briefcase swinging, a pendulum at his side, indifferent to the crunching glass underfoot.
Similarly, the potentially self-congratulation of the jazz afficionado on the night bus is undercut by a brutal ticket-inspector (‘Here We Are Again’); the art-protest of Pussy Riot set against the reality of state repression (“steel batons and sub-machine guns”, ‘Show Time’); and beneath the elegance of ‘Bath Comforts’ resides “the bloated/monstrosity of gouty, bandaged foot”. Smith is no idealist. His observations are keen, subtle and never gratuitous, always working to enhance the impact of the poem, even at the poet’s own expense. It is an all-encompassing feeling within the volume, a performance of itself – of literary art – that cannot help but be aware of the ever-present web of connections between this art form and all others, between art and life.
We are invited, ultimately, to live life as though everything was part and parcel of artistic expression:
now turn the picture over, canvas, wood and nails, sticky brown parcel tape splashed with orange and green, this frame is part of the painting, colour unconstrained, you see with different eyes (‘Framed’)
Taking apart the collection itself, we find it shines in many ways, and over an impressive range of subjects. The poems dissect the human impulse to create, to find in nature and culture correspondences to feeling and thought, even to proof and judgement – “What drives us time and time again/to place ourselves onstage in the line of fire/in front of the adjudicating panel?” (‘The Roles We Play’).
For Barry Smith, inevitably, it is art – and we’re all the richer for it.