Cherry Smyth is an Irish writer, living in London. Her debut poetry collection, When the Lights Go Up, was published by Lagan Press in 2001. A second collection, One Wanted Thing (Lagan Press), appeared in 2006. The Irish Times wrote of this collection: “Here is clarity and realism, couched in language that is accessible and inventive. The title poem, nominated for the Forward Best Poem of the Year 2004, carries all Smyth’s hallmarks: precision, linguistic inventiveness and joy”.
Cherry’s work was selected for Best of Irish Poetry, 2008, (Southword Editions) and The Watchful Heart: A New Generation of Irish Poets (Salmon Press, 2009).
Her third collection, Test, Orange, 2012, is published by Pindrop Press.
She also writes for visual art magazines: Modern Painters, Art Monthly, Art Review and Circa. She is the former Poetry Editor of Brand Literary Magazine and current Guest Editor of Magma.
“Cherry Smyth’s third collection of poetry confirms her as one of Ireland’s new generation of poets. The poems in Test, Orange are intelligent, passionate and lyrical. They move with ease from the tarantella dance of southern Italy to the bombing of Gaza in 2008 to an exploration of the mother/daughter bond in the prize-winning sequence ‘Wishbone’. The poet’s relationship with the female body – how it desires, how it changes – is also examined in the exceptional sequences ‘Six Given Fields’ and ‘Now You’re a Woman’. This exhilarating collection is a tour de force.”
“Cherry Smyth’s poems are precise, tough and full of passion. Whether writing about visual art, war, desire or aging, Smyth doesn’t shy from the world, but embraces it in all its brokenness, confused beauty and pain. Test, Orange continues the poet’s dream to convey the truth at all costs, to take risks, break rules, run red lights. Her poems leave us breathless, at times bruised, but more alive, in the centre of her, our own, lives. Smyth’s work fulfills her own credo: to have the strength to do the heart justice.”
– Ellen Hinsey
“These distinctive poems speak with great clarity about things which are often hard to say. Compassionate, self-questioning, sometimes shocking, Cherry Smyth’s work pays the world close attention, exploring the varied connections between human beings, both those that enrich and those that damage. With their vivid locations, the poems are alive with film, food, love, politics and fable. They are never less than fully committed, unafraid of acknowledging the joy or injury involvement might bring.”
– Judy Brown
“Cherry Smyth’s poetry not only values the abstract but often contemplates the valuing of self. She is uncompromising in her use of her chosen subject matter, often unflinching in her language. Smyth brings her experience as art critic to her work as a poet where serious subjects are given serious attention. Throughout the book, Cherry Smyth reminds us of the ‘bright anomaly’ that is poetry. How it makes us present, informs a life. Many of these poems are rigorously disciplined, concentrated, and use description with both delight and a depth of understanding.”
– Angela Gardner
Reading the Cup
In the cup of fresh verbena leaves
Michal says she can see the sea at Cuas Pier,
the floating, sun-filtered green we dived into.
To me it’s the Chivers jelly shade the green blinds
cast in summer afternoons in Portstewart Primary,
swimming the room in broken rivulets of light,
anointing us with sleepy calm, as if this degree
of blurred daylight was hallowed and our behaviour
had to correspond, like visitors to the continent
who mightn’t be allowed back if we didn’t show respect.
I remember glancing up from my jotter, the trail of wet
ink, like a seal above the sealed swell, to breathe from
the focused hush, before being drawn back down into
its one complete body, and the open-necked indulgence
of Mr Morrison, who would rather have been up the strand
on such a glorious day, getting his lamb-head tanned.
The rare heat, the gentle knock of the blinds against
the windowsill, subdued us in a soft erotic stupor,
like being here, dazzled by the sea, glittering in inlets,
warming on the rocks, hazy with clean air, tongues of sea mist,
the absence of man-made sound. So I stay at my desk,
hot sun sprinkling through a cotton gauze, thinking
of what Louise Bourgeois said – art is made of all
the things you desire that you say no to.
According to Patti Smith
I tugged at a dead rose branch.
It snagged and snapped a healthy one.
I left them to their mess of thorns,
the spread of wither, a dried winter’s red.
A friend carried in a crown of violet,
performed with scissors and vases about the room.
I breathed the squeeze of women’s kisses,
the expensive mist of a small woven lung.
‘When my husband left,’ she began,
‘he shook me free of explanation.
I fell from summit’s air. Then where he saw
merely hurt, I saw his beauty. Everywhere.’
I’d never seen the faces of this coin,
but I could see she kept it in her eyes.
The shine of knowing from unknowing,
the freak ransom in what had come to war.
When Patti Smith lost her husband,
then her dearest brother, pain’s crack
almost broke her until she sensed
their best selves recur through her.
She said that on seeing Guernica, Jackson
Pollock took the drips, just the drips
from the horse’s mouth, flung them out – the blood,
the tears – stood rampant in the joyful scatter.
(for Jacqui Duckworth)
That you could handle film was like touching God. That you could lift a spool in your white cotton fingers from its can, from the tower of cans, and thread it onto the Steenbeck, was like showing how God moves. I watched you in the dark make thousands of tiny decisions of light.
From spool to empty spool, the images clattered, a baggy ribbon of blurred flickers that you paused, lifting the hood and lining the strip with china marker. You pulled the film out of the gate towards you like two elastic arms and settled it on the metal cutting block. You spliced and taped and fed the scene back, a minute shorter. You numbered the end, fastened it to a bull-clip and hung it on a hook on the wall, or slid it into a suspended cloth bag for trims. Then you clicked down the hood and made the movie move again.
We’d flirted at a feminist film group. I’d noticed your walk – a loping swagger on long legs in tight jeans. The static between us made me giggle so much I had to leave the room. You didn’t want a relationship. I made you have one.
You’d sit at the edge of your seat. You couldn’t hear anything else when you were editing. The images were sound that needed an exact rhythm, a melody only you could detect. You knew to cut just before it seemed to need it, your attention surgical. Thelma Schoonmaker sat at your right shoulder. When we watched La Regle du Jeu, I didn’t flinch as the dozen rabbits and birds were shot. You’d taught me to go inside the cuts – 102 in 4 minutes – counting Renoir’s rhythm, defined by Marguerite Houlet, his editor and lover at the time.
We met in unadorned rooms in Soho, in basements, or at the end of a grey corridor where daylight never arrived. The sun burnt a bar of gold on the ceiling or the wall where the blackout curtain didn’t quite close. In these dark and smoky places, you showed me what made you, making sense of every film I’d ever liked, teaching me why, giving my passion a possible world. We never had sex there. You were paying by the hour.
Film buffs were men. With beards and BO. We were cinema fiends. There were no videos or DVDs. There was the ceremony of cinema. A von Trotta Double Bill at the Academy; a Bergman Triple at the Electric; midnight cults at the Scala; Monday nights at the Everyman. We travelled, stayed awake, skived off work because there were films to be seen. I’d smuggle in a bowl of finely chopped, dressed salad, fresh bagels and two forks, and we’d sit silently nourishing ourselves for hours. You never stood up until the last credit, as if by reading each name, honouring each member of the crew, you could absorb their skill, their magic.
You were in love with many women. You appreciated them like a connoisseur of fine liquors with a longing roll of the eyes and a small gasp: Gina Rowlands in Woman Under the Influence, Bernadette Lafont in La Fiancé du Pirate, Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria, Sophia Loren and Catherine Deneuve in anything. You were a big flirt and a big fan and I didn’t realise then how much humility and forgiveness that required.
You forgave Deneuve her bad plots and her love affairs with ugly, much older men; you forgave me my younger women. You were capable of devotion. You new the difference a 25th of a second could make to a glance across a crowded bar.
You were a celluloid master. I bowed at your feet. Once you rescued a bored porn star from another bad movie, devising a way she could cut herself free from the film strip and escape on the back of your motorbike. No one believed it would work. Or the 16mm feature you made of the threesome you were living in, in a flat in Warren Street in the early 80s. You ate only toast and tepid tea. But women always fed you more.
You gave me a Super 8 to take to Russia, showed me how to use it. I carried it like a baby. I shot blossoms falling in a Moscow park, a gigantic mural on the dull outskirts, a sudden heap of tomatoes for sale on the roadside. I couldn’t film people. The camera was a gun I couldn’t point. I couldn’t see a whole from parts, came home with short unfinished poems. I don’t know where that footage is. In a grey can somewhere, held closed with white tape with my name on it, on a dusty shelf in some cutting room.
Six Given Fields
What will you do when it’s your turn in the field with the god?
– Louise Glück
When he rushed me off the road to the field,
I forgot clothes, food, all kindness, lies
grew out of me, cover-ups, alibis.
We tore through the crops, insensate to harm,
terrorised by scent, flat-out in mudsheets;
limbs of leaves, glazed, we bent down the cob
to enter us better. We furrowed each other
with the vision of Futurists, desecrated
chapels, blown-off family; taut with return
to our random start, where cells clarify,
float in a cry and the soft-boned body splits
into memory, giving birth to first form,
all the white walls of time collapsing,
left interspatial on a serac of this.
‘Forget the field’, he said. ‘Empty your pockets,
throw away everything with your name on it.’
My heart ran faster after colour and taste.
‘See that wall,’ he said. I did. It was beautiful.
A painting on water, it moved and stayed still.
It reflected me as I’d never appeared.
He taught me to worship it, then he said,
‘Go up and stand with your face against it.’
I did. The nearer I got, the longer I stood,
the duller it grew. I flamed and dropped.
Dust, peeling skin, stains of human and dog.
I wept for our wall – that’s what he was after –
said, in tears, we are strongest, purest matter.
I licked my cheeks, purchased binoculars.
He whistled Telemann below my veranda,
waved a flag of hay to spend in the wind,
drew how rain fell among camels of straw,
dreamt a caravanserai to vanquish my airspace.
Crouching like nudes in a closet-free circus,
we wrestled the light into bone and sepulchre,
made Vorticist love in trains across country,
singing Brecht from windows of Yves Klein blue.
He slowed down the speed and thickness of sight
till holes in the head were slashes in canvas
and the glad of the glade rivered thirty-nine greens.
I was arable in his white, framing hand.
Those scorched by too much of the real would pass
their burning air by the field to be cooled.
He holds my elbow still, trying to usher me
up the aisles of his fields. He grips my wrist
when I speak with too much vigour at dinner.
He thinks I’ve done nothing, been no-one.
He’s surrounded by statues, can’t be budged.
If only I’d take his name, keep to home
and heels. He has names for women like me,
uses them in the bar then in my face.
He paid me to take care of his children
so he could fuck me at the end of his garden.
I followed the red of his cigarette,
wore his wife’s dress. First it smelt of sugar
being baked, then it blackened to smoke. My hair
never grew back. I hide it. He prefers that.
In that field I rarely had to turn up.
I was video-phoned in my court-shoe neckline,
my quirkless beads, as I unfolded my desk,
lit up my terminal and my fingers bled
so I could be human, life expectancy
whizzed in a file to the Head of Risk,
who used two replies – OK or stop!
I ate my lips in alien buffets, fell
under his table of mortality, slipped in
trips to Hong Kong in over-chaired meetings.
He rode his limo, I took the dawn train
among a world of fish I’d never known.
I emerged with a wallet full of new teeth,
powder traces of avarice under my nails.
When he called from the field I pretended I couldn’t hear,
straightened up, widened my eyes,
ignored his Prosecco, his dark walnut liqueur.
He read me Jack Gilbert, Wislawa Szymborska,
said why not go down to the Rhône, swim in its water,
so milk green you’d think it was ice-melted glass.
He led me into the purple vibration
cicadas make in the dark, said hear as one
the rush of the river, the rustle of leaves,
lie down in the stubble and be entered by sky.
He sat still with me till I knew that this body
is it – is not it – is all – is nothing,
that the field will change its colour and texture
and we’ll see clear to Mont Blanc once the leaves fall.
from Test, Orange (Pindrop Press, 2012).
Order Test, Orange.
Test, Orange reviewed at Polari Magazine.
Visit Cherry’s website.