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Bloodaxe Books
NE48 1RP
ISBN 1 85224 571 9

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Ken Smith's memorable poems are well crafted, lyrical, experimental, and always a real pleasure to read. SHED, a collection of poems published in various volumes between 1980 and 2001 (including work from the varied and innovative volumes TERRA, TENDER TO THE QUEEN OF SPAIN, and WILD ROOT) marks his achievement as a poet whose work is consistently challenging, both on a technical level and concerning content.

I like so many of Smith's poems that it is difficult to single out a mere handful. Likewise, I have enjoyed all of the individual volumes that I have read. Smith handles a variety of voices and personas with aplomb. The long poem, HAWKWOOD (concerning the life of Sir John Hawkwood (1320-1394) a soldier who died citizen and freeman of Florence), explores the life of a man who, like the Elizabethan poet, Chidiock Tichbourne, was in constant acknowledgment of the brevity of existence. At one point in the poem, the narrative voice says

	Your moment in the sunlight will be over
recalling Renaissance works where the poetic narrative is interlaced with images and recollections of mortality. Comparing a piece like HAWKWOOD with a poem such as NO ONE, one realises that Smith excels in both the complex narrative, and the haunting narrative persona.

NO ONE (which was commissioned by the South Bank on the theme of ghosts, and broadcast on B.B.C. Radio 4) is one of my favourite Smith poems. Beginning with a quotation from THE ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE of 1127 which describes a ghostly and dark hunt that haunted Peterborough and the surrounding countryside, the poem goes on to interlace various types of ghost story. Technically, the poem is superb. The four line stanzas composed of long and short lines often recall ballad stanzas but, as the poem is chiefly unrhymed, Smith's is not a conventional ballad. Of course, the supernatural subject matter also recalls traditional ballads such as THE UNQUIET GRAVE, yet Smith's personal 'ghosts' haunt the poem, making it, at times reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's poems concerning the death of his first wife, Emma. Just as Emma haunts Hardy's imagination so, in Smith's case, the poet's Grandfather, and his Mother both haunt the poem, and phrases such as his Grandfather's

	I hope you've had your tea, we've just had ours
give the piece its authenticity.

I think that of all the volumes included in Smith's selection, WILD ROOT is probably the most striking. As with the mercenary Hawkwood (who is 'a blank slate' on which his story is imposed), Suleyman the Magnificent in THE SHADOW OF GOD from WILD ROOT represents a warrior voice. Smith is good at looking at the dispossessed, those crossing real or imaginary borders, and voices lost to time. He is also equally impressive when handling those who feel themselves to be invincible. In THE SHADOW OF GOD Suleyman's actions lead to war ravaged lands, barked over by packs of haunting, scavenging dogs. The masks that remain a legacy of history conclude the poem, as do languages lost to time. Indeed, being a remembrancer, replicating what is lost, or beyond conventional record, seems to be part of Smith's aesthetic. In LETTERS FROM A LOST UNCLE from the earlier volume, TERRA, Smith speculates on family history, asking questions that cannot be answered. This interrogation of posterity seems to be a key feature of Smith's best poetry.

Both technically, and in terms of content, Smith is a superb poet. Seeing how his themes have expanded and developed over several volumes is fascinating. Through characters such as the lost Uncle in the poem. Smith also speculates over lives that have been obscured by time. As a poetry lover, I cannot recommend SHED highly enough.

reviewer: Deborah Tyler-Bennett.