James Sutherland-Smith was born in 1948 in Aberdeen, United Kingdom. He is a poet, reviewer and translator from Slovak with his wife, Viera, and with others from Serb, and scrapes a living teaching and examining in Slovakia. His latest collection, Popeye in Belgrade, was published by Carcanet in 2008. He has been working on a second selection of poems by Mila Haugova (Slovak) and a first by Ivana Milankova (Serb) and has just finished a long sequence of poems called ‘Mouth’.
Greenness has come thickly to the eye;
The apple blossom’s pink and white
Almost completely blown away,
Magnolia having shed what could be
Rich purple shells of lizard eggs.
Lime pollen scratches at my throat.
Black junipers creep up the hills
Like conspirators in cloaks.
Just to feel what it was I hoped
Once more sensation by sensation!
It won’t happen. No girl will emerge
From underneath the chestnut tree,
The light turning raindrops to pearls
On a face upturned and demure
Yet saying “Risk everything!”
Clouds disperse, mountains briefly show
Lion shapes as the dark replaces green.
I’ll renew as best as I know how
Watching while stars rise then slip down,
My hand splayed, two leaves lacking green.
Having the Boys Over
Who will tumble from the sky
And be arrested in my garden
Disentangling themselves from a parachute?
Who will thrust up through the soil
And brush crumbs from their heads and shoulders
Staring goggle-eyed waist deep in our cabbage patch?
And who will flit like a bat
Intent on catching moths and midges
Claiming they are between heaven and the earth?
None of my friends, I suspect,
Though some I chose who are outrageous;
Some still love their wives, some still believe in God.
We look up at shooting stars.
The ground beneath our feet is unmoved.
Something dark in the air shies by very fast.
Before dawn so many different pitches
whose rhythms are about the same, but not quite
on repetition; wheezes, rapid trills, catches
rippling over grass curved by the weight of dew
with its silver half-sheen in the half-light.
At midday above the crag a honey buzzard
mews to another as it circles
with hardly a movement of its wings.
Not a leaf stirs or tussock trembles
under its long breve, its fading call.
By evening emptied of all sound
a trick of shadow has made the valley a mouth,
a tongue of fire at the far end.
An almost pure flame, startling as a shout,
trails an incoherence of smoke from its forked tip.
A toad sings in the garden
with a trill like a mobile phone
while the night begins to harden
as a mouth once sweet becomes
a zero someone turned to stone.
No change in the song of the toad,
which is simply calling for a mate,
no change in the eyes that glowed
except when a name is spoken
and a blank look comes alive with hate.
The toad’s mouth doesn’t open.
Its throat pulses each side of its head.
It has revived after rain has fallen.
In the hot summer under a rock
or rotting log it played dead.
So here you have it from the horse’s mouth,
direct, not by word of mouth.
Was he down in the mouth, shooting his mouth off!
Not to mention almost foaming at the mouth;
I almost had my heart in my mouth!
Mind you, he was all mouth and trousers,
never one to put his head in the lion’s mouth
or his money where his mouth was,
always taking the good words out of her mouth
and putting them in some little tart’s mouth.
You should have heard him mouthing off,
that she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth,
that butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
Left a nasty taste in my mouth, I can tell you.
Fed up she said “Shut your mouth, arsehole!”
Visit James’s website.
Order At the Skin Resort (Arc Publications, 1999).
Order In the Country of Birds (Carcanet, 2003).
Order Popeye in Belgrade (Carcanet, 2008).
Order Mila Haugová’s Scent of the Unseen (Arc Publications, 2003),
translated by James and Viera Sutherland-Smith.