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Blog Review 17: Claire Trévien Reviews Barbara Smith’s ‘The Angel’s Share’

The Angel’s Share is, as a note accompanying the title poem helpfully tells us, “a distiller’s term for the evaporation from casks as whiskey ages”. The collection is divided into three parts: the central one, called the Mallory sonnets, is the only clearly themed one, packed with a sequence of bleak sonnets on the disappearance of George Leigh Mallory during his attempted climb of Mount Everest in 1924. These sonnets unfortunately have too little pluck in them to go beyond predictable descriptions:

After snow and rock
to see things grow again
as they like growing:
enjoying sun and rain – that is a real joy.

Elsewhere, when Smith attempts to distance herself from unsurprising portrayals, it can be with a certain amount of trepidation. Take the poem ‘Cavatina’, for instance, which refuses to survive without the subtitle ‘a recurring dream’ as an explanation for its strangeness, yet would make just as much sense without this crutch:

This is where I always turn away from
what cannot be avoided – yours or mine –
the losing of our shadows, the loss of song,
the long leaving up Jacob’s ladder to home

On the other hand, Smith also goes to the other extreme with ‘Modern Fantasia’, a poem that seems written in a private language with references incomprehensible to an outsider:

‘Erica writes the sixtieth fable of rain.
Her token is bent clean, amazed by quota of haw.
With guile her sins stirs the gloom. Nun puns
on spires, ova or ale are wed to the writer.’

If these three statements, that Smith’s poetry is by turn too straightforward, not brave enough, and too alienating, seem contradictory, that is because the collection itself is contradictory. What is most frustrating about The Angel’s Share is its lack of cohesive identity, as the above examples illustrate, and then there are the poems which appear to belong to a different collection altogether, such as ‘Pair Bond’ and ‘Hexic’. ‘Pair Bond’, which recently appeared in Poems for Pussy Riot, is a playful tribute to Dolly Parton. Seen from the viewpoint of a barmaid, Smith lists an increasingly inventive list of synonyms for breasts as observed by an over-invasive customer:

he addresses
my full frontals, my baby buggy bumpers,
my Brad Pitts, my boulders, my billabongs.

While ‘Pair Bond’ reads like a poem that would benefit from being performed, ‘Hexic’ on the other hand is clearly bound to the page by virtue of its visual shape. Consisting of seven ‘stanzas’ in octagon shapes to mimic the shape of a beeswax sheet, as well as the video game Hexic, the poem rewards reading in different patterns and unlike much of the collection, it manages to be both inviting and intriguing.

At her best, Barbara Smith captures beautifully the exploration of evaporation evoked in the collection’s title, with poems such as ‘On Not Seeing Inside the Sistine Chapel’ and ‘The Doubt Ship’. The former begins thus:

You were a sky gazer, a cloud watcher,
seeing within those steamed puff-pillows
the forms of fabulous beings.

Just now I saw a fisherman, his white head
turned away, his finger flung
behind him, pointing at infinity.

It is a beautifully measured poem, engaging in a one-way dialogue with Michelangelo, that artist who ‘fixed a borderless sky inside // a broad high vault’. The title makes the poem, a reminder that sometimes not seeing a piece of art can be more interesting than the act of viewing it, a study of what cracks an earthquake can create far away from its epicentre.

Similarly, ‘The Doubt Ship’ also plays with this notion of unphysical physicality by attempting to put words to the incomprehensible with the image of a shipwreck buried in the narrator’s field, ‘waiting for a light’. Smith demonstrates her ability for juxtaposing smelly, noisy images firmly rooted in our world, with more existential questioning: ‘these were not as meaningful // as the broad masts, leaking resin, blank of sails.’ Should the collection have consisted solely of poems of this ilk, it would have been stronger and more cohesive.

Claire Trévien
Claire Trévien’s first pamphlet of poetry, Low-Tide Lottery, was published by Salt in 2011. Her first collection will be published by Penned in the Margins in 2013. She is the editor of Sabotage Reviews and the co-organizer of Penning Perfumes.

The Angel’s Share by Barbara Smith is published by Doghouse Press, 2012, €12.

(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)

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