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Alan Morrison on

Barry Smith

Reeling and Writhing

Vole Books/ Dempsey & Windle

102pp, 2023


Dreams of Mock Turtles


The title Reeling and Writhing, taken from Lewis Caroll’s malapropism spoken by the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland, serves as an umbrella-metaphor for the running themes of much of the collection: the author’s formative autodidactic apprenticeship towards higher education and his subsequent life and career spent in educational, theatrical and literary settings (a more thorough contextualisation is provided in the book’s detailed Introduction and Acknowledgements).


The book is divided up into three thematic sections. The first, ‘Waiting in the Wings’, comprises a mixture of autobiographical poems (or poem-memoirs), and literary character studies. The first poem, ‘Radioactive’, is a lively and nicely descriptive vignette depicting the author as a former ambitious amateur theatre director who overworked himself into an ulcer:


That guy will burn himself out before he’s thirty,

observed Professor Burkhardt, the bow-tied

consultant psychiatrist, in his best

clinical manner to his wife Brenda,

the strict English mistress who rarely gave

a student a grade higher than a C,


Smith describes his hospital treatment in a particularly imaginative way:


turned upside down for screening

with radioisotopes of barium meal

highlighting the stations of the tube-map,


‘Up the Ladder’ is a rather amusing anecdote about a young Smith’s time as a painter and decorator, ‘tarting up the paintwork on village/ council estates in Bedfordshire’. I'd interpreted ‘Warrior’ as being about First World War poet-soldier turned anti-war activist Siegfried Sassoon, but his horse was called 'Cockbird', and this poem is actually about General Jack Seely whose eponymous horse 'Warrior' was the inspiration for Michael Morpurgo's novel War Horse (and its subsequent rather inauthentic and treacly film adaptation). This poem has some very fine descriptive language, evocative of time and place:


but when the autumn storms drive the brigantine

onto the splintering rocks at Brook Chine


and Henri et Leontine lies broken-backed,

rudder gone with all spars cast overboard

and when the lifeboat crew are driven back

by the lambasting waves and all looks lost,


Jack Seely grabs a last-ditch line of hope,

dives into the buckling, salt-sucking waves

and shepherds the battered men ashore

to shelter in the great barn at Mottistone;


now the symbiotic figurehead

of Henri et Leontine in close embrace

graces the charity bookshop wall in the manor

where you can browse and read of Jack’s heroics


There’s some deft alliteration in lines such as ‘defying the strafing machine gun fire’. The trope ‘leading the charge at Moreuil Wood/ demands a grudging kind of homage/ for a will that will not bend to circumstance’ is a well-judged one (and alludes to probably the most memorable and better-researched depictions in the aforementioned film).


‘Silencing’ is a fascinating lyrical piece set in the village of Eyam which between September 1665-December 1666 quarantined itself after being unwittingly infected with the bubonic plague via a piece of infected cloth brought by one of its residents from London. There is an equally fascinating play about this by Don Taylor, The Roses of Eyam (1970), which was adapted for television and broadcast on BBC2 on 12 June 1973 as a brilliantly scripted and haunting studio-bound chamber piece that focuses much on the thorny cooperation during the outbreak between Puritan Divine, Rev. Stanley, and his more cosmopolitan replacement, the High Anglican rector, Mompesson. Smith gives forensic descriptive detail to evoke the time through sense-impression:


where coins were placed

in vinegar to pay

for food and essentials

from the outside world

when the village turned

its back in self-isolation,


Smith writes hauntedly of his visit to the village: ‘it was the absences/ I found remarkable/ the absolute quiet/ the total stillness’. Smith cleverly uses the Eyam story as a ghostly backcloth for the self-isolations and lockdowns of the Covid pandemic during which he composed the poem:


I had taught the story

A Parcel of Patterns

to rapt students learning

how the latest London fashions,

the twirl or drape or bow,

had brought death to Eyam –

I had not expected to live it,

to find myself transported,

to walk the streets with masks,


(A Parcel of Patterns is a 1983 novel about the Eyam incident by Jill Paton Walsh). Towards the close of the poem Smith recounts a later historical mishap when the village’s church spire collapsed:


I think of the old press reports

of startled observers

leaning from leather-strapped

windows of nineteenth

century railway carriages

as the lofty spire gave way,


‘Spillage’ is another descriptive poem, this time commemorating the consumptive history of a long-dismantled National Chest Hospital that haunts the contrasting modern day Ventnor Botanic Gardens that has replaced it—Smith deftly juxtaposes botanical descriptions of the present with the ghoulish tubercular images of the past:


Around me rare specimens

are photographed and catalogued,

trophies for dusty albums,

as wisteria Alba tendrils drift

embracing a shady shelter.


…botanic beauties

abound, but the graces of the garden

are compromised by the past:

here is the site of surrender

where dark red globules splattered

pressed white napkins and sheets,

consuming all who wasted and watched

the frothy fountains running dry.


‘Willows’ is a sing-song arboreal reverie:



you can hear the voices in the woods

sighing by a sycamore tree

singing of a green willow

the gate between shadowed waters


the patterned willow boughs

gently curling grey-green leaves

flowing from olive-brown arcing stems


you can see the music in the woods


‘Brook Churchyard’ continues the bucolic mood and there are echoes of Hardy, the Romantics (particularly Wordsworth), and the Graveyard School (particularly Thomas Gray). It begins with a strong descriptive line: ‘Scoured stone, moss-steeped cross and darkling yew’. It is often in his nature poems that Smith’s poetic craftsmanship is at its most heightened and striking, as in this beautifully wrought passage:


steadying hands shift the fretful weight,

with shuffling progress impel brass and oak

through whorling wind, sharp sun, slow-seeping rain

or indifferent cloud, grey piled upon ashen grey;


The ‘covert’ pastoral phrasings continue into ‘Time and Tide’ with the Keats-esque phrase ‘deep-green embrace’; then there comes more of a Shelleyan flourish: ‘lacing incalculable aery patterns/ amongst the drowsy, curtaining creepers’. It’s here that Smith is at his most specifically descriptive and painterly:


awash with purple waves of wiry heather,

threaded with carmine pink spikes, bright rosebay

willowherb and scented, scrambling yellow-white

honeysuckle tendrils intermingling


There’s also the imaginative phrase ‘abrasive sea’. ‘Supplicant’ is a touching and deeply empathetic portrait of a homeless man in picturesque Chichester. Here Smith works with contrasts and juxtapositions: ‘The crouching man kneels in convocation,/ vision fully engaged with grey pavement’, and:


sole immobility in this crush of busy shoppers

hustling beneath civic Roman colonnade


rising in fluted stonework above.


The poem closes poignantly:


no hasty handful of change clinks by his side,

only the pool of liquid spreads


slowly suppurating the patch

between recusant dog and man.


The choice of the term ‘recusant’ is interesting: it originally denoted Roman Catholics who refused to attend Protestant church services during the 16th and 17th centuries and practised their periodically proscribed faith secretly and sometimes at risk to their lives (Catholic priests often had to hide in priest holes within houses); but the term also means anyone who refuses to conform to an established authority.


‘Ducking and Diving’ resumes Smith’s poem-memoirs and is about his formative self-education through extensive reading:


They said work hard, keep your head down and you’ll get on,

so he did, kept his head down and his working neat,

always finishing first, turning with a sense of unrestraint

to the book, King Solomon’s Mines or Prester John, in his desk.


At the little school he was subdued, lost in lines of chairs,

but after he failed the eleven plus, they gave the remnants

a stiff Darwinian test, which he passed and rose

step by step each year to the top of the top class.


From what my father has often relayed to me, who also failed the eleven plus, it sounds as if it was a grossly unfair and ineffective measure of children’s intelligence. There’s almost something of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-babies about the final verse as it takes a plunge from youthful adversity into sudden underwater imagery:


keeping their heads down to work hard, be neat, get on,

ducking and diving round the snares strewn in their path,

like mallards upending to reconnoitre what lies beneath,

or frogmen negotiating jagged splines of rusty wrecks.


‘Theresa’s Tears’ is a more political piece:


no tears for those removed

discreetly from benefits

to helpfully die on the job


and no tears for those who

fled the Grenfell Tower inferno


‘Decline and Fall’ is Smith in more experimental mode with a scattered typographical layout, and some striking images: ‘broken stairways/ griffons/ and the/ tangled remains/ of sculpted/ marble monuments/ litter the ground/ in every direction/ with looping briar undergrowth’.


‘Figures in a Sussex Landscape’ or ‘Figs from Thistles’ – Alfred, Lord Tennyson’ is dextrously composed (in tercets) depiction of the ageing lugubrious late Victorian poet laureate, and contains some striking descriptions: ‘on a damp and dirty November morning/ with the trees still dripping spools of moisture’, ‘the shoulder cape of his dark Inverness coat/ flapping in the coiling gusts and eddies’. Smith renders the picture of Tennyson pushing his ancient mother in her ‘Bath chair’ which keeps ‘sticking in the mud’ particularly vividly:


She tugs at the ties of the neat white bonnet,

contrasting with the crammed opulence

of his wide-awake, broad brimmed hat cresting


dark locks…


The ancestral home Tennyson glares back at is itself a ‘louring house’; it is atmospherically akin to Poe’s crumbling and near-derelict House of Usher: ‘with the bedroom wall blown down, revealing/ the legacy of an old Roman Catholic chapel’. By complete contrast, ‘Barflies’ is a lively and ebullient depiction of a bustling pub of bygone days since it’s filled with ‘swirling blue smoke’:


Like insects each with distinctive carapace

flashing green, black and blue iridescence,

the barflies hover, darting gnomic glances

from gleaming brass hand pumps to diamond glasses.


Beetle-black with elbows angularly

possessing the time-smoothed bar, the old lag rests,

solemnly supping his elixir, Flowers best,

frothing in engraved cut-glass familiar mug,


while with seething energy, the wise acre

from Wichita, exotic migrant species,


The language is tangible, buoyed on alliteration and spilling over with sense-impression, all to great effect.


Turning to the second section, ‘A Looking Glass World’, this is comprised of what are essentially song lyrics composed by Smith for his Wonderland-based musical Alice, and other theatrical-musical works based on The Country of the Blind (H.G. Wells) and The Mysteries (Tony Harrison).


Obvious oddities associated with Wonderland aside, it’s incredibly difficult for any writer to get close to that inimitable strangeness and edginess of Lewis Carroll, that almost uniquely eccentric (even hallucinogenic) late Victorian imagination so exquisitely and disturbingly illustrated by Tenniel. There is the odd quirky line that stands out, as in ‘The Cheshire Cat’s Mad Song’: ‘It’s when I’m angry that I wag my tail’. But these songs no doubt serve their function for stage performance when augmented by musical accompaniment.


‘Songs from The Country of the Blind’ is a gathering of narrative lyrics based around H.G. Wells’ disturbing and philosophical short story. There’s an affecting nursery rhyme quality to ‘The Spinning Song’: ‘In the dreaming house a young girl’s spinning/ Softest linen for her trothing day’.


The lyrics to The Mysteries are I think the most successful of the three song cycles, though there are only three of them here—‘Everything’ has a Blakean quality a la Songs of Innocence & Experience (particularly ‘London’):


Running down the palace walls,

Fields of mud and tainted gutters.


Hammer and nail,

Blood and white bone,

Someone’s lost child

Slowly dying.


While ‘The Wheel is Turning’ has an almost-religious allegorical feel to it:


And the heart of man

Feeds on gold and blood,

For the wheel is turning

And the days are burning

As the ways of man

Pierce the heart of God.


The third and final section ‘Ghost in the Machine’ returns to Smith’s more familiar themes of memoir and literary portrait. ‘Route Sixty-Six Revisited’ depicts his ascent to higher education with a consciously self-mythologizing grandiosity:


When I came down to Etruria

back in nineteen hundred and sixty-six

on my journey to university at Keele,

I did not find classical civilization,

just the smoking bottle kilns of the Potteries,

the sheds and stacks of Wedgewood and Spode


After the more prosaic songs, it’s good to get back to more tangible and heightened descriptive language again—and there’s also some further botanical flourishes, Smith being a keen observer of various plants and flowers, Lepidoptera and other wildlife: ‘the floating pennywort, nettles and parsleys regrafted/ and the roach and carp, the voles and damselflies’. ‘Arlecchino in Aleppo: Down that Dusty Road’ has its moments:


the hollow streets stretch


every gesture forensically examined

and only the fool laughs,

swings his body

chanting an old pilgrim lay.


‘Between Dream and Sweetheart’ is a poignant poem on some of the more lingering images to come out from war-torn Ukraine:


but I will not forget

the sand-bagged

statue of the poet

and the image of


the child in a grey anorak

and yellow bobble hat

staring wide-eyed

with his palm pressed


against the cold glass

of the carriage window


‘The Boatman’s Reel’, subtitled ‘After John Armstrong, Crossing the Styx’, is a beautifully phrased eulogy, one of the most accomplished poems in this collection:


Time stretches, the relentless Appian Way,

backcloth of dust, slate to write figures on;

agglomerate of atoms, speck of consciousness,

flickers and gasps, expostulates and is gone.


Sour seaway, path the prophet traverses,

links patriarch Paul blinded in Damascus

and exiled Dante brooding in Sienna;

the gentleman’s coat of arms, newly bought,

floats as driftwood on the storm-beaten shore,

while the wild air keens an ancient elegy

in the desert, precincts of Elsinore.


Hoisting the blades from the water, I incant

hollow dustwords to comfort and succour you,

for the stream that swells the ocean augurs a sea-change:

let the unfinished requiem begin

and the lacrimosa drift across the swirling waves.


‘Pins and Needles’ is another of Smith’s succinct and empathetic pieces about those on the margins of society:


but the addict counts the pricks

and points the finger straight at you

pricks and points and pins and angels

many sharp-pronged wounds incise

wield the scalpel doctor oh my brother

carve the flesh for the world to view

see the precise needle cicatrise


The consonantal chiming of ‘incise’, ‘precise’ and ‘cicatrise’ is particularly effective in pricking the conscience of the reader.


‘The Ghost in the Machine’ is a candid sixteen-line portrait of French philosopher René Descartes—it starts off fairly prosaically in tone (not to say a bit judgementally: late risers aren’t necessarily ‘lethargic’, they might be night birds who go to bed much later than most and hence rise later—I know, I’m one of them myself!), but after that it gets more interesting:


Descartes was, one might say, somewhat eccentric,

lethargic too – he never rose before noon

except to perform for an exacting queen

who desired an elucidation of the cosmos.

Needless to say, he left the court in haste,

muttering oaths about the land of Gustavus,

retiring to the comfort of an old Dutch stove.

Very soon, he died; pleurisy and cold killed him.


A little later, the revolution was over,

his proof of God dismissed or ignored,

others came who pronounced the death of the spirit:

clocks in their hands and utopia in their hearts,

they chanted wild slogans of man supreme.

Later still a new barrenness settled on the land,

some began to murmur that it was all a mistake,

but the co-ordinates of the soul had long gone missing.


There seems in the second and concluding verse to be a veiled broadside against atheism, Communism, Nietzscheanism, and fascism, so essentially against all materialist and secular ideologies. It’s a thought-provoking poem.


‘The Examination’ subtitled ‘After Kafka’, is a two-page dialogic poem depicting some kind of interrogation—Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the anti-Nazi German resistance is cited at one point: ‘You are breathing over the inspection glass/ and Bonhoeffer died many years ago’. This is a figurative poem navigable through symbolisms and imagery:

it is the hour glass of Holbein,

the cold touch of the unknown hand

when you are alone at midnight,

it is the pulse of the womb-tissue


The poem demonstrates Smith’s background in theatre:


now I ask you –

(and he peremptorily stretched

a metaphorical finger)

what do you mean by your question?


This is a mysterious poem which no doubt illuminates on further readings:


mine is the sawdust from the desecration of the tree,

is the individual stamen of the apple blossom

the pain is mine alone.


‘Conditional Tense’ isn’t necessarily the longest poem in the book but it covers the most pages (four) due to its scattered concrete layout—a philosophical poem, it contains some arresting phrases and tropes throughout: ‘catching teardrops/ and mandrakes’, ‘when/ the blacksmith or the courtier cavorted/ phantasmagorically’, ‘& commiserate/ with the cosmic flashes of the schizophrenic’, ‘stewed/ in the heat of epistemological beds/ with homilies and imprecations hurled from the highest spire’.


‘The Beggar and the Bowl’ is a lament to advancing years:


The dead leaves sprawl in the gutter,

my seventieth summer has come

and it is autumn,

the tapping stick of the blind man

and the begging bowl of age and winter

await me.


The imagery is interesting: is the ageing figure a beggar because he begs for more time from an emptying bowl? The closing lines are particularly well-sculpted:


With age I see the contradictions

as the dry sticks beat

the wooden alms bowl

in a harsh tattoo

through these long-shadowed streets.


The similarly threnodic ‘Requiem’ begins with references to the poet’s theatrical past:


Go away, go away Satyr, Sylph, Dryad,

Cyclops; go Ariel, Minotaur, Orion, Caliban,

Back to the world you should never have left.


There’s something of Edgar Allen Poe in the grim imageries:

The wind scatters the dust and a yellow bone

Whiteness lies on greyness, crawls under the silkworm;

Nettles grow in vineyards

And a strange black shadow

Hangs black in the sky


Ancient historical and mythological figures are then banished back whence they came:


Go now, Hera, Nefertiti, Beatrice,

Aphrodite, Freya, Cleopatra, Helen –

Your visions are too bright,

They do not belong to this world,

Which is sunken deeper than material mire.


Something of the Greek chorus in these cadent incantations:


It dissolves you like acid – you cannot

Intervene, or even watch, bear witness.

See, even the spectre of Tiresias fades.


Poe spiced with some T.S. Eliot (Tiresias noted) in the following lines:


Concrete crumbles to sand, cement blows

On the desert wind, roads run nowhere

And the signposts shimmer with a turquoise hue;

Jewels that glowed in the statue’s eye

Burn brown with rust on the lake bed.

Tumultuous spirit-river,

Emblem of growth and of man,

The end and the beginning,

The beginning and the end

Are upon you, and you are gone.


There’s hints as to some of Smith’s artistic heroes in the following lines:


Music your own calls you and you must leave,

Cezanne, Sophocles, Dante and Keats,

Masaccio, Mahler, Blake and Messiaen.


This poem also contains my favourite of Smith’s phrases, ‘marble sublimity’—his choice of the slightly archaic version of the more common noun ‘sublimeness’ is significant as it rings more of Romantic diction and immediately reminded me of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s phrase 'Phantoms of Sublimity' in his ‘Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Defence of his own life)’:


The poet in his lone yet genial hour

Gives to his eyes a magnifying power:

Or rather he emancipates his eyes

From the black shapeless accidents of size—

In unctuous cones of kindling coal,

Or smoke upwreathing from the pipe’s trim bole,

His gifted ken can see

Phantoms of sublimity.


The final and longest poem in this volume is the satirical ‘The Masks of Anarchy’ subtitled ‘(With apologies to P.B. Shelley)’ and was, as its punning title suggests, composed during and about the pandemic. This sing-song poem isn’t, as I’d expected, a pastiche of Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy; for one, it uses a different and more irregular rhyme scheme, and there’s no attempt to in any way replicate the aforementioned poem’s emblematic rabble-rousing and revolutionary rallying cry. The ‘Row, boys, row!’ refrain deployed at the close of each of its 24 stanzas, indeed, is more sea shanty than rebel song, reminding me of Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitai Lampada ("They Pass On The Torch of Life")’ with its famous 'Play up! play up! and play the game!' refrain (in that case, meant as a patriotic call-to-arms). It would seem, then, that the punning title is just that, a pun. Here is an excerpt to give a flavour of the verses:


So why is the death-count climbing

And numbers going out the roof?

We’re out in the streets hand-clapping,

What more can doctors and nurses ask?

Row, boys, row!


Now little Nattie climbs the podium

And explains our masks won’t fit,

We ordered the wrong specifications

The PPE is rubbish but it’s all we’ve got

So put it on and row, boys, row!


For me this sequence doesn’t quite work, in part because of the irregularity of the rhymes: the rhythm and structure demands fairly strict adherence to end-rhymes and for some reason Smith doesn’t always follow through with these, which is rather puzzling.


Typograhically-speaking, the absence of any italics for lines of speech and titles of books within some of the poems is slightly strange, but these are minor gripes.


In the main, it is clear from the accomplishment of so many of the poems that this handsomely produced sophomore volume—as with its well-received predecessor Performance Rites (Waterloo, 2021)—draws on material that has had considerable time to ferment, in some cases, over many decades. And, certainly in the examples I have highlighted in this review, particularly the first and third/final sections of the book, the fermenting has been well worth the wait. It will be interesting to see where Barry Smith takes his poetry next—wherever that is, it is sure to be as enthusiastic and enchanted as this rich and colourful collection.


Alan Morrison © 2024

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