Jack Ross, ed.: brief 26 (February 2003)
Kendrick Smithyman, Imperial Vistas Family Fictions. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002. ISBN 1 86940 274 X. ix + 161 pp. [RRP $24.95].
Poetry is one of our foundation stones, but we cannot talk about it.
– Georges Bataille, L’Erotisme (1957)
We do nothing but talk about it. That’s how it seems sometimes, at any rate: what it is, what it isn’t, how to write it, how not to write it. Now there’s a new (posthumous) book by Kendrick Smithyman to enlarge the discussion. In one of the poems, “Cutty Sark,” he describes poetry (“the impossible / part of it which achieves insubstantial / fact, as little material as Sybil Sanderson’s / G in alt or Fonteyn’s unpredicted change”) as something:
not to be described;
when seen, if seen, in kind a dumbshow
to strike dumbstruck any who looked out
hearing something beyond likely hearing,
seeing something not likely seen, gone
without leaving words for. (29)
On the surface, this is a book of resolute particulars: every family story, every hoary anecdote dredged up from the deep – shipwrecks, mésalliances, war stories. All, however, depends on this sense of something behind the words, something which requires a lifetime of preparation (and more than a hundred pages of buildup) before it can be understood, something which could so easily miss its target:
One night Father was at Lodge.
Before she gave in and went to bed Mum tuned
to Brisbane and picked up a programme
which hadn’t been advertised, Melba’s
last farewell. “When he came home I was
still standing at the set. I hadn’t thought
to sit down …”
Addio she sang over
skinny pine plantations, across gum fields
into a shining night which might have been
false dawn above the raupo, through the river
presence, Addio. (117)
“Hiding the lunch,” C. K. Stead calls it, in the essay on Smithyman included in his latest collection Kin of Place (2002):
[by] analogy with the Auckland zookeepers who discovered that when their chimpanzees’ lunches were hidden and had to be hunted for, the animals were happier and healthier than when the food was simply given to them … Smithyman always hid the lunch. (230)
Is that all it is, then? A kind of game with the reader? Who, today, knows Nellie Melba? Who gets, “They called her Mimi”? Why not more footnotes, biographical notes? Hiding the lunch.
I’d prefer to see it as getting what we’re going to get, I guess. What matches our own life experience, family background, emotional pressure points. I didn’t really understand the point of the poem “Publishing” towards the end of the book (“Father … didn’t know / he was overheard. ‘In our family / we have had sailors, soldiers, lawyers and parsons. / We have never had a goddam poet’”) until Margaret Edgcumbe explained it to me:
He didn’t guess he might be wrong,
on Grandmother’s side a long time back,
could have been singing Hast thou seen
but a bright lily grow Before rude hands
have touch’d it? Have you marked the fall
of the snow (158)
A glance at the family tree on page 9 reveals the name Hope-Johnstone, reputedly connected (way way back) with the differently-spelt Ben Jonson, whose poem “Her Triumph” – slightly misquoted – one at last recognises. Smithyman concludes: “or have / I got it wrong”. Maybe it is about lineage after all.
This is, finally, a book full of love: Smithyman’s love for that extraordinary character his father, above all – but also his love for the picturesque, the evocative, the simply distant. It ends not with that image of Kendrick “stoutly bringing up the rear,” last of the tribe of Ben, but with the gold leaf he found in a copy of Cotton’s poems (“at the end of our war”):
My Old Man glancing
looked closer, took the leaf, turned it
“That’s from the silver tree. They grow all over
Table Mountain,” and sat himself into
his fireside chair …
twisting the leaf against a distant light,
smiling, not saying anything more. (160)
Margaret took down the book, opened it, and showed me the golden leaf. It’s still there, marking the place. If that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is.