Thursday, August 27, 2009

Writing the bare bones



Collected Poems, by Michael Smith, Shearsman Books, 242pp, £12.95

MICHAEL SMITH has a well-deserved reputation as a prolific and engaging translator of poetry, with versions of Vallejo, Hernandez, Claudio Rodriguez, Lorca and many others to his name.

He is also well known for his work as a publisher with the influential New Writers’ Press and as an advocate of the Irish modernist tradition.

Prolific translators can often find their own work overshadowed by the work they negotiate across the linguistic borders, so it’s good to be reminded of what Smith has achieved in his own right. The poems gathered here cover all the work Smith wants to preserve from seven previous collections, but what’s striking is how much of a piece they are. The essential elements of both style and subject matter were set in place at an early stage and he has stuck pretty consistently to them.

The poetry is spare, avoiding any kind of formal or rhetorical flourish; it’s a bare-bones aesthetic and it suits the cool regard of these poems.

Observation is one of their key drivers, and very often they focus on the city of Dublin; characteristically he’s prowling the “Old rotten heart of the city” and “pondering time’s evil” where “In the shadow of the cathedral” “the dogs of want scavenge/amid excrement and the wormy legs of children”.

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