SAM SMITH: PROBLEMS & POLEMICS
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SAM SMITH: DARK TALES
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SAM SMITH: ESCAPE FROM ILFRACOMBE AVOIDING DEVON
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This page last updated: 1st September 2009.
|SAM SMITH: PROBLEMS & POLEMICS|
This is the stuff of nightmares, only it's real: it's the real world of the mental health system. Of all the groups excluded from the post-modern hedonism of affluent consumerism, none is excluded with such thoroughness as the mentally ill — from: IS THIS THE WAY?:
In foyer and smoking room sat on low green chairs are people who have disappeared so deep inside themselves that now their external presence is also not seen.We don't understand mental illness, nor do we know what to do about it, so mental health policy and practice is an infinite maze of absurdity and contradiction. You'd think people are in hospital because they're ill, but as Sam Smith so carefully and so painfully shows us, all too often it's the other way round: people are in hospital so they must be ill. And so their illness becomes the excuse for the invasion of their bodies and their minds by drugs, electric shocks and other devastating "treatments" actually more suited to a torture chamber than a supposed place of healing.
But of course it isn't all the fault of the system. Maybe some mental patients are just different and should be tolerated by the rest of society, but as Smith eloquently demonstrates, difference breeds fear, and anyway being different shades into being dangerous — to themselves and to others. Many of the "Case Studies" which appear throughout this book are horrifying, and are told in such plain, straightforward language that the horror is intensified.
The mentally ill are invisible and ignored, yet the irony is that they are not left alone. And of course their suffering is real, and equally real are feeling of sympathy and compassion that something ought to be done. But what ought to be done? Maybe we all inhabit our own private world but most of us manage to compromise and reconcile our world with the worlds of most other people, through language, interaction, love, empathy or just necessity. Smith is particularly illuminating in showing how some people find this compromise impossible, and once they are diagnosed as mentally ill, society takes its revenge on them in the form of unspeakable "treatment."
Because the system is contradictory, care decays into cruelty, compassion into corruption. The situation is explained in WE ALL SWIM IN THE ONE SEA, although this one poem necessarily oversimplifies the subtle and complex picture painted by the whole book:
Psychiatry cannot be isolated from the society it serves: mental illness is a disease primarily of the powerless, even suicides seen as symptomatic of sociological states, despair as a statistic. Because someone may be in hospital doesn't mean that they are ill: often they are assumed to be unwell solely because they are in hospital. So do doctors and nurses become accomplices to insanity, reliant for a living upon their own diagnoses.Smith describes all this in poetry that is shockingly analytical but always compassionate, even with touches of fully-justified dark humour. Sometimes it is lyrical, with images so arresting that they constantly force the reading eye/I to stop and think. Above all the book is powerfully sceptical, and is a work of great political subversiveness. I'd put it at the top of the reading list for all ministers and civil servants at the Department of Health.
|reviewer: Andrew Belsey|
|SAM SMITH: DARK TALES|
In his Introduction to DARK TALES, Sam Smith tells us,
These pieces were written to be performed specifically at the Nunney Jazz Café on All Souls Night 2005.The beautiful cover image, and other images throughout the chapbook are by Shelley C Smith.
DARK TALES is a themed collection; the poems form a sketched narrative chain, or at least, take several framed shots of a similar subject matter from a number of angles. It's an interesting rediscovery of delight in the process of story. The themed collection fits the dual impulse for the fragment and the whole: one idea multiplied and pursued; the poet slowly building or discovering the whole out of pieces.
Smith has divided his collection into four sets. The volume opens with set 1, in which he establishes the ideas of the book: truth and illusion, fidelity and deception. Smith examines the monsters that arise in sleep and he begins set 1 with a refrain that is repeated (with variations) throughout the sets.
Within each mind is a well of darkness. Sleep goes there. And, on occasion, when thought strays from the ordinary monsters come scrabbling up out of this well of darkness.Indeed, he declares that these monsters are always there, but invisible,
Mostly those monsters stop just out of sight.In these poems Smith proves himself to be a poet with a penchant for strong images. He is at his best when describing the nightmarish evils that beset our dreams: a mythical creature, a snake, the goatman Pan, the deep-bellied pig.
The second set turns to a moment of reptilian horror when
A forked tongue is tasting the air above the lip of the well.As love sours, jealousy or disappointment tarnish our needs and expectations. The snake comes out of the well and won't let you move. Here Smith depicts a beast such as no-one has ever seen. It is a strange animal from a fervid imagination; although it has been prefigured in mythological tales
It has long curved horns, stamps massive hooves as it blunders, smacking its lion's tail on the walls of this one room you are in.In the third set, Smith turns towards fear and shame. Identifying with these feelings, he says,
Here it is the fear, the shame that you daren't, awake, admit to.The figure described is that of Pan (the goatman) with his coat of fur and "ancient loins". The poet says,
Because you are you are Pan, indiscriminate.In the fourth set, it is "a pig's flat snout" and "small glittering eyes" that are part of the nightmare. The animal's horrid attributes are centred upon a small child as it knocks it to the ground and begins
Snuffling and grunting the pig rips open the chest and starts to grub out your child's heart.It is a picture of extreme horror.
Smith moves, in the final pages, from the monsters of nightmares to those of politics. In set 4 we are slowly introduced to the Bush/Blair creature that comes into the poem slowly and beautifully, image by image, until we discover, at the end, that it is
seeking to make every one of us meat — just meat — meat marching meat shambling off to war. And we don't scream And we don't scream And we don't screaman ending that stops the collection short, falling like a punch line on to the page.
Throughout DARK TIMES we are warned to maintain our distance, to not become involved with these monsters who know our hidden histories, and yet it is difficult to stay away, for we are beguiled by Smith's imagination, his bizarre forays into exotic and erotic places. The poems are willing to admit ambiguity and contradiction, fear and bravado, confidence and doubt. Smith enacts for us all the difficulties of humanity. And when he asserts at the end, "And we don't scream", we realise that in the political situation, few of us protest or do anything, but meekly accept what our politicians decree is best. At last we understand the force that is behind the book: our acceptance of all those monsters that haunt our nightmares, but not those monsters that dominate our lives.
These poems constitute a major achievement. The razoring pain of their writing screams at the reader through the marks on the page. Smith does it tough, makes no concessions, builds himself no emotional hidey-holes, and faces his monsters all the way. The writing in the poems blows our minds. It took enough for me just to read them. They are too harrowing; taking me to where poetry has no right to go. But when I finished and closed the book, I knew that this, of course, is precisely where poetry must take its readers — to the brink. Such poems, read with the backing of the Nunney Jazz Café band would certainly induce laughter, but there would be an uncertainty, an ambiguity in the laughter.
|reviewer: Patricia Prime|
|SAM SMITH: ESCAPE FROM ILFRACOMBE AVOIDING DEVON|
Although many of the poems here have an undoubted worthiness, there is, it must be said, a strange and rather off-putting preface to this collection of eighty-odd poems. Explaining the title of the collection, Sam Smith villifies Ilfracombe and Devon as being peopled by
landowners, forelock tuggers and petty criminals.This may well be true, but he goes on to write that
Concerned only with the shortsighted satisfaction of their own selfish needs and desires, with everyone (with the exception of those few I call my friends) primarily out for their own ends, protecting their own interests, everything in Devon is exploitable.Such myopic arrogance and belief in the saving purity of his mates (and, by implication, his good self) amidst the flotsam of the rest of Devon's human race would almost make one feel (if one wanted to be mischievous) that to Devon's mass of unpleasant men and women could well be added Sam Smith's self-fawning little coterie. There is nothing wrong with slagging off everybody, no doubt the human beast is an off-putting toe-rag at times, but to exclude from that general condemnation your mates and yourself seems both childish and a little unpleasant. To be honest, such a morally stunted and egocentric outlook on life on his part has probably to some extent unfavourably coloured the way I have read the succeeding poems, imputing to them an ill-formed and cocky triteness of tone that they are perhaps not so guilty of. Many of the pieces deal with alienation and the obliteration of any means of identification or association within life, as in the prose poem EVERY POSITIVE ACTION REQUIRES A VICTIM:
A people sidelined by linear history they live lives important only to themselves, while of their own life's value they're not too sure; moving on, never to belong anywhere, except in their own childhood, with maybe its attic scent of crisp newspaper and softly ripening applesThe frailty, and yet allied durability of life, are the themes that hold Smith, often linked to fairly traditionally-drawn observational images; in TO HERE the consequence of observing sea-spray over rocks, apart from an allusive stop-over amidst the associated image of semen, is the following:
Whole lives are divided by a sleep: behold now the astonishing delicacy, not only of our own lived lives, but of all that inter-acts; and how we endureFurther poems make reference, contextual or passing, to magpies, blackbirds, ravens, cormorants, jackdaws, sea-shore scenes, traditional nature-scenes, and so on.
The ebb and flow of life, its temporality and impermanence, are the slight, yet sole limits of what defines existence, as expressed in PULSE-TAKER OUT OF TOUCH:
To movement we assume life, to life reason of a kind, at least a rationale. The push of waves to shore, though, is patently mindless. Yet each breaking wave does ask a question of the shore.The very indefiniteness and insubstantiality of such a truth does not necessarily mean that such approximations of point and viability are not worth embracing, as illustrated in I DON'T WAKE IN THE NIGHT AND WRITE POEMS ABOUT BEING AWAKE IN THE NIGHT:
In storm's dawn, within the shelter of this wall of houses, a blackbird flutes his affirmation: we are both still here, temporary in a temporary place, we are both still here.Here is another example of the poet's concerns, from the poem AS HERE:
Contemptuous of all engineered excitements my life experience is no stream of consciousness, more an enclosing mist. But how to convey that state of partial awareness, voices off not quite heard?Sam Smith takes a human being's indecision, confusion and misty appreciation of the flow of life, filtered through his own poetical awareness, as the parameters within which he must seek truth or lament its elusiveness or unapproachability; I am sure he is equally aware of the danger of ending up in the cul-de-sac of blinkered selfishness and self-obsession we are all prone to, whether poetically or generally, as he himself refers to in his preface.
Other poems indulge in fairly blatant, bald bouts of philosophizing without bothering to paint a pretty poetical context, as in A IS FOR ABSCISSION:
note how humanity's capacity for creation is matched only by its propensity for destruction.One good point about his work is that the pieces are accessible and straightforward, even if a little prose-like and pompous in style and at times strident in tone. His social concerns and critiques are quite standard and commonplace, as evidenced in a prose poem, SEPARATE, where he comes across some flats which are being constructed:
People will eventually live each in their square — eat, clean, think their thoughts — each within their room's subdivision.His concerns are not particularly original, indeed quite the traditional stuff of angst-ridden poetry, as in KARMA:
Finite in an infinite universe, how can we belong?As in AGAINST CONSTANCY, he sets himself up rather simplistically as a rebel
Out in the lanes, en route to a gigagainst the mass of poor indoctrinated sods hoodwinked into leading trite bourgeois existences:
a life within one of those squared buildings, 4 or 5 storeys high, centre of any European city and whose facade bespeaks bourgeois solidityI am only too willing to believe that in these sort of poems the poet, lost within a world of
wind-tumbled leaves, fantasy's creaturesis aware that he is creating a self-congratulatory, self-satisfied cocoon to hide within as delusive as any bourgeois edifice. Loneliness, the accompaniment to the poet's edginess and social defensiveness, is a constant refrain of this collection, as in OF THE MANY LIVES OF A SINGLE MAN:
Do I exist? Alone in the house I listen to the rooms talking to themselves.There are also a number of sexually-based, rather sad poems, with painful references to a time of betrayal and cuckoldom. Sam Smith is capable of creating some fine images, as in ZIP:
Over the damp precinct, across the blue sky, a vapour trail is disintegrating into a zip. Those eyes, that have looked up, wait for the sky to peel apart and reveal the blackness beyond.The following tightness of language and imagery, in FORETELLING, is equally impressive:
One future could be foretold in this butchery of trees, in the amputated limbs and truncated trunks leaking beaded circles and treacle globes of sap.All in all, this is not great poetry, indeed far from it, but there are nonetheless some fine attempts here to get to grips with the meaning and taste of life.
|reviewer: Alan Hardy|