New Native Bones: Irish Street reviewed by Scott McKendry
I first encountered Damian Smyth in Market Street (2010) a dozen years ago. Utterly new to poetry, I resented being up language creek without a paddle. I’d no canoe either. I blamed my secondary-school education, though I’d swum okay in the grammar stream. I blamed my short (drink-sopped) attention span. I blamed difficulty itself. Reading Smyth, I learned there’s no time to feel afraid or daft when the other option is drowning. Texan poet Michael Gilmore says that Smyth’s work ‘possesses an extra lens that enables it to focus at great distance with sharp clarity’. ‘With the amount of pruck it drags in’, I says, ‘it would need till’. Irish Street, Smyth’s latest instalment, records and ruptures things disturbed.
In Market Street the ‘sea’ has risen ‘bubbling from the drains’ to flood Downpatrick town. ‘A Brick on Irish Street’ collates deluge myth, astrophysics and the looting of a United States war freighter that sank near Killard Point in 1946. ‘There are other depths’, this poem claims, after proving so, along so many axes. The poetic at play here is hyperzonal – everything in it sprung, spatially and epistemologically, from the Lecale Peninsula – so that findings overwhelm their region, a tide refacing Kavanagh’s maxim: ‘Parochialism is universal’.
It was trying to read Smyth that I acquired a snorkel, a wetsuit, two flippers and a dive mask. If the term ‘a dozen years’ seems odd to you, concentrate on its oddness for a day or so and then you’ll feel what I felt reading the final line of the first poem in Market Street: ‘It is as if being lived, surely; native and absolutely come upon as is.’ Poetry is being made here, somehow, with functors – with fixings rather than fixtures. These days, I can deduce with some degree of precision what this line means. Can you? You couldn’t begin to unless you read Smyth with the same urgency Sinéad Morrissey has, Market Street being her recommendation that dozen years ago.
‘It is as if being lived, surely; native and absolutely come upon as is.’ In this intensity of syntax, the semantics all but buckles to the line’s rhythm. Experience and craft have developed in congress. The foibles of English are being put to best use. The poet has stopped writing and begun wrighting a boat with no straightforward sailing function. Nor is it merely ornamental. The only word worth stealing which might befit this phenomenon of verse is ‘syntaxy’. Coined by geologist M. I. Goldman in 1952, syntaxy refers to the ‘[o]vergrowth or intergrowth of crystalline substances in which new material has the same orientation as older material, although it may differ chemically.’ In the analogy, the ‘older material’ of poetry is verbiage we employ to track down the fugitive notion, to lock it up; ‘new material’ is not the Word in captivity, although it may be mistaken for it. Like Goldman’s crystals, these two modes of language have developed symmetrically. Poetic syntaxy is language when it’s not quite lectical (abstraction governed by ideology), lingual (text and talking tongue itself) or lyrical. Take the syntaxy of the first and final lines of the sonnet ‘Buried Treasure’ from Irish Street:
It seems to be surprising that we bury ourselves still among ourselves […]
In the care homes, filling up with the sober and lonely, them as die are the lucky ones.
Leaving Cultural fictions such as feet – iambs, amphibrachs – back on the harbour wall like folded clothes, poetic syntaxy, put simply, is where a line of verse finds equipoise between the lectical, the lingual and the lyrical.
I see the influence of Smyth’s syntaxy on Morrissey’s work. That’s no anomaly. I see Smyth in Gail McConnell’s work. They say all poetry’s docupoetry, and it must be, but The Down Recorder (2004) was out decades before anyone in Ireland (Trevor Joyce and disciples aside) had heard tell of the like of it. It wasn’t until McConnell’s The Sun is Open (2021) that another major Northern manifestation in this mode reached us. Indeed, influence knows neither up nor down. I see oils from Padraig Regan’s palette employed in Irish Street: ‘God’s brain, meaty, tart’ (‘Covenant’). Yet, I may be proverbially goggled, high as a kite on my own regionality, drawing all kinds of constellations.
What is clear, however, as I wade into Smyth’s Irish Street, is that our experience of those self-satisfied lyrical thingamajigs we love and hate (and through which we learn to read verse) are of no help now. Irish Street is not the words of the dopey poser or sofabound muser. Smyth’s poetry, sternly out-and-about, is fit for the Hegel buff, the Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl junkie or the autodidact who’s happy most lost.
The first thing to chew on is the recurrent street-in-Downpatrick conceit. Smyth’s last book, English Street (2018), comprised seventy macro-sonnets, chiefly set in a syntaxy you could grate cheese on – delving into Troubles atrocities and the foibles of social disintegration – a poetic treatise on what happens to English shoved through the mincer of place. The locale is Lecale. The product ‘isn’t the English language and is hiding inside it’ – namely, poetry itself, under duress (does any other kind exist?). Irish Street, inverting this process, reverses the ‘minibus from Ireland’ back over the body politic:
The fact is we are already there,
On what for you is the farther shore.
It’s you, for whom we are the other,
Who aren’t reachable from here.
Titled ‘Here’, this brief item militates against the very ethos of ethnic difference. It toys with deixis (that device named by the Greeks for point of reference between times, places, people and things) so that I don’t have a baldy who I am or who you are or where either of us stand and neither do you. Flicking to Smyth’s Notes, we learn that this enigma is a reworking of an excerpt from The Cure at Troy (1991) – Heaney’s reworking of a Sophocles tragedy – with reference to the Irish Rebellion of 1798 via the work of Israeli memories studies virtuoso Guy Biener. Thus ‘Here’ is a meditation on the local rows of Lecale–Ulster– Ireland. It’s hard to ignore that this particular morsel of Heaney – ‘hope and history rhyme’ – is a favourite of the political speechwriter. When Western leaders borrow poetry, however, they don’t give it back. Staring at ‘Here’, we see its slight squint, that one eye is on Ancient Athens whilst the other is fixed on a closer, uglier, hegemon.
And this brings us (too soon) to the other side, not of the Atlantic or the River Quoile, but of Irish Street’s title, and the notion of a discrete and stable national character. What does it mean, this thing, to be Irish? Tis for sure no mean thing to many. To some less sure, it’s a sorely felt and freighted thing which is reduced (Paddywhackery) or quantified (Paddier-than-thou) with disturbing results. The title poem from Irish Street knows what I’m on about:
The pattern of a hillside shows through the kerbs and brick; it’s native,
Neither generous nor malicious; but disturbed. They are on their way.
All the child has still to do is die, which she will do without aplomb.
Or rather, place is nothing without the lives of people, the people in their living-rooms dying in middle of their dinner; people drowning in their own lives; people damaged forever by other people, a pack of bastards. If Irish Street is correct in its estimations, place meant nothing before Ptolemy placed the Δαρινοι on his map at what’s now called Lecale or Leath Cathail after the pre-Norman fella who owned it as half of something else. Place and proprietorship were hardly high on the agenda the day Paddy ‘The Bump’ McVeigh placed his first bet in Breen’s Bookmakers. Paddy’s your man if this collection needs a hero – the town’s soul, spokesperson for the dispossessed and spectrally-possessed, those belonging to that ‘strange nation we call “soft” or “drunk” | Or “half-carried” or “off with the fairies”’. That’s Paddy on the front of the book. And if there’s a villain in Irish Street there are many and it’s us ourselves seeking national grace, ‘arcane avatars’ all ‘unfinished, native to our earth.’
This collection defies the sort of tasty phrasemaking through which books are often too hastily prescribed, which is why I’ve given you more than you need. If there’s a defining motif (throughout Smyth’s oeuvre, I mean, not just this instalment) it’s work, the work of reading widely while submerged, of thinking-in-tune as a human being, trying, might. It deciphers and ciphers. It walks and chews gum at the same time [!]. It winnows like a big Massey Ferguson combine harvester operated by a townie with the Racing Post sprawled over the steering wheel. And, in its polyaxis, Paddy shows us how the parish is itself a university.
Scott McKendry won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2019. His pamphlet Curfuffle was the Poetry Book Society's pamphlet choice for Autumn 2019 and his debut collection GUB appeared from Corsair/Little Brown in 2024. This review first appeared in Fortnight 492