Monday, December 10, 2012

The Angels' Share by Barbara Smith

The title of this collection and of one of the poems Angels' Share, refers to the quantity of alcohol lost to evaporation during distilling, as I'm sure you all know! The collection is made up of over fifty poems; eighteen, followed by the 'Mallory Sonnets' and then a further eighteen poems.

'Shackleton's Portable Homeland' sets out an interest of Barbara Smith's in explorers. Inspired by a report in The Irish Times in February 2010 it describes the living conditions of the winter hut in Antarctica- using wooden cases for furniture; " bottled-fruit cases/ or those of herring fillets, to make bunk spaces,/ pantry, bakery and a dark room...". I was struck by the plain language and real-ness of the description of a climb in 'A Rare Occurence at Glenbeigh' which just connects you to the poetry; "backgrounding our own huffing up the hill/ and a shower dampens off the moonshine,/ speckling our rain-cheaters and our spectacles."

The sad and affecting poem 'From the Land of the Living' of a teenage burial with Dublin jersey and Liverpool scarf in the coffin, plus a mobile phone, to which his brother now ten "still texts you/ the scores/ on a Saturday." At the other end of the emotional scale, they don't come much funnier than 'Pair Bond', dedicated to Dolly Parton and I'd love to hear Barbara Smith reading this one. The vast body of the poem is made up of euphemisms for breasts, "my God's  milk bottles, my Picasso cubes,/ my chesticles, my cha-chas, my coconuts,/ my dairy pillows, my devil's dumplings,", as a barmaid prepares a pint and is addressed to her chest. What fun Barbara must have had writing this, but it is one with a feminist reading too. I particularly like 'Five Gifts From a Summer Lover' with its descriptions that set off your senses; "the brackish stench of cockleshells" and "the last vinegared crispy bits/ in a grease-translucent chip bag'. Your mouth waters as you read the last line, almost smelling the seaside chips.

The 'Mallory Sonnets' has an introduction describing Mallory the Everest climber's disappearance on the mountain in 1924, after his fourth attempt, and the finding of the body along with some personal effects in 1999 by a Research Expedition. The poems are set out as 'Prologue: Summiting', 'First Expedition: Reconnaissance, 1921' (five poems), 'Second Expedition: Summit Bid, 1922' (two poems),  'Last expedition, 1924' (twelve poems) and finally 'Epilogue: Discovery 1999'. This is obviously a story that fascinated Barbara Smith and her version of the events in a sonnet series brings together the mystery and wonder, her interpretations and the rhetorical questions. The poems entitled with the effects found with the body bring forth descriptions and questions; 'Matches'- "kept deep and dry in a leather pouch", 'Glove'- "Inside your jacket I was furled...". It is an emotive set of poems, drawing the reader into the impossible challenges that these men took on. The 'Epilogue: Discovery  1999' describes the body found freeze dried seventy-five years later; "ragged layers of old natural fibres,/ a shirt scrap, at the nape, a tag for laundry,/ an embroidered name; George Leigh Mallory."

In the second set of poems, 'Hexic' is a poem that needs to be seen on the page. Spoken by the voice of the queen bee, the poem is laid out in hexagons  as a honeycomb, the life-cycle of the hive opened and closed in the poem with the same four lines:

                                                                     empty now
                                                                   once I queened
                                                               this whole byke alive
                                                              constructed some cells

The closing poem is priceless and laugh-out-loud. 'Spectacular Effect' describes that situation every woman knows in the changing room checking out the rear view of jeans between two mirrors and to "see your eyes horrified/ by an infinity/ of huge arses".

Barbara Smith writes with humour and with compassion, about grief and about joy in this collection. For the 'Mallory Sonnets' alone the collection is worth reading but it has lots more to offer besides.
Barbara Smith has read at literary festivals and the Electric Picnic as well as with the Poetry Divas and the Prufrocks. This is her second collection. She has a blog
Published by Doghouse Books.

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