- A Song of Elsewhere by Gerard Smyth
In “Burnt Norton,” T. S. Eliot famously evoked the paradox of finding and inhabiting the “still point of the turning world,” where “the dance is.” A similarly illuminating paradox of mobility animating meditation serves to organize Gerard Smyth’s A Song of Elsewhere. The Dublin-born author of seven poetry volumes (his The Fullness of Time: New and Selected Poems appeared in 2010)—an achievement all the more remarkable for having been written in the years in which he rose to be a managing editor of the Irish Times—Smyth is also the co-editor of If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song, which was selected for Dublin’s city-wide “One City, One Book” project in 2014.
Following Eliot, Smyth’s poems of travel and motion lead to the stillness of intricate, yet energetic, refection. Smyth’s collection presents a detached, careful, meticulous, and plain-spoken viewpoint of a postmodern global Irish poetic identity. The foreign today is pigmented with an Irish familiarity whether the poem is located in Paris where he is watching his friend, Seamus Heaney, read, or the list of places that feature in the title poem, “A Song of Elsewhere”: “How close they are in the age of Google map: / the places where we land/ and disembark: the cities of nomads, / Babylonian crowds—.” This nonchalant Irish global confidence is recorded most notably in “Meeting Robert Bly.” The conversation between the two is facilitated by the influence of W. B. Yeats on the Midwest’s elder statesman of poetry as a bridge of words links the Midwest to Sligo and the Lake Isle of Innisfree: “and knows there to find the stolen child / in the hiding places of the Lake Isle and Madison.”
The poet’s journeys to Paris, Lisbon, Moscow, Manhattan, Rome, Berlin, and the United States lead to glimmers of wisdom throughout the collection. [End Page 157] Phantoms inhere in placenames, and the places themselves are ghosted with such personalities as Samuel Beckett, John Berryman, James Wright, and Dennis O’Driscoll. What holds the collection’s threads of meditation together are these “elsewheres,” which are songs compounded of both memory and absence, of silence and music. This collection is like an enormous canvas of places and personalities folded and pleated into a little more than sixty poems that reminds the reader in scale of Daniel Maclise’s nineteenth-century painting, The Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow at Dublin’s National Gallery—though it reverses the theme of that painting in which the foreign represented by the Norman lord, Strong-bow, appears to be tragically overwhelming the native. Smyth inverts Maclise’s dire canvas of the colonization of a native people by absorbing a postcolonial map of Dublin inked with poetry, personalities, and cultural history into his poetic consciousness. As he ambles about the city’s cathedrals and bridges, and observes the stonebreaker’s yard in Kilmainham Jail where James Connolly received “the red rose of blood on Connolly’s shirt” and considers the greatcoat of Michael Collins “with pockets that once held / the wiles of war and peace, the gun in politics” his mind’s eye is ready to create equally layered and subtle maps of the world’s elsewheres with a welcome lack of bitterness or belligerence. This world citizenship is unfussy, as when the poet states in “On the Cavan Bus” that he is always “like Odysseus coming home.”
Smyth begins by locating himself in a rooted Dublin identity from the opening poem, “The Memory Stick,” which depicts the swift metamorphoses of time and social history on his native city as the Catholic church has diminished in importance in Irish society from his childhood in the 1950s. He recalls, “Those were days we wore dark colours / but still believed in the Light of the World.” The crucial poem in this opening suite is “Myth of Who I Am,” which unfolds the poet’s sense of self: “I was the river-man / who knew the river...