Pitt Street Poetry 2017.
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit.
Melinda Smith’s goodbye, cruel is an accomplished collection of poems from an established voice in Australian poetry. This is the fifth collection from the former poetry editor of the Canberra Times. As the title suggests, the prevailing theme of this work is suicide: subject matter that might be mishandled by a maudlin or morbid writer of lesser skill. From Smith’s lines emerges a human pathos, tempered by a humane ethos, as the many voices she creates, mimics, translates, adapts-via-erasure, and adopts-via-cento take on a life (and death) of their own.
Literature has license to ventriloquise and Smith does so with empathy and respect for her subjects, among whom are the tenth-century female Persian poet Rabi’a Balkhi whose life, death, and writings are embellished by legend; Don Ritchie, the man who was credited with preventing dozens of suicides at the Gap in Sydney; Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane, and John Berryman, lines from whose suicide notes form part of a cento; Pete Smith, an Australian artist who took his own life rather than suffer the advanced stages of early-onset Alzheimer’s; John Keats, whose “Ode to a Nightingale” becomes a sublime erasure poem under Smith’s superb craftsmanship; and Jean Mackenzie, a young woman who survived a flood that claimed the lives of her father and her twelve-year-old sister. Smith handles these disparate voices with dexterity to craft a polyphonous work that appears at once varied and cohesive.
The collection gains some of its cohesion from the recurring motif of the sea. Symbolising departure through drowning, plunging from a cliff onto the rocky coast below, or embarking on an ocean voyage, the image of the sea repeatedly resurfaces in Smith’s sequences in a way that mimics the movements of flotsam in a veridical sea. The first appearance of the image of the sea in this collection is the final line of the cento “pine.” The last two lines of this poem read “I have to look in if I want to be found / find my way to the sea” (7) so that the desired dichotomous actions of being found and finding a path merge through juxtaposition. Since the lines are unpunctuated, they flow into each other as a river flows into the ocean and the final line, lacking a full stop, becomes an opening into the rest of the collection.
As I have observed, the poetry in this collection is multifaceted so the image of the sea takes on a variety of meanings. The sea is ravenous and consuming in “Leaves from the Lovers’ Almanac”: this poem chronicles the duration of a relationship with three to four lines devoted to each numbered day. The concluding stanza, “Day 362,” which is again unpunctuated, reads: “waiting for you / morning and night / the sea eats at me” (11). The speaker is disembodied and disempowered by the lack of a personal pronoun and a purposive verb (“I am”) at the beginning of the first of these lines. The line “waiting for you” thus becomes a “floating” or misplaced modifier that, syntactically, ought to refer to the sea but logically refers to the speaker. The sea is said to “eat at” the protagonist’s identity and, in this way, the sea symbolises the speaker’s tumultuous relationship with her lover that is eroding her ipseity.
The sea is at first a symbol of a longed-for demise and the loss of selfhood in “Those are pearls that were his eyes” as a new speaker also eschews punctuation. Smith uses spacing to convey the staggered thoughts we often experience during the liminal time before we “accept the quicksand of sleep”: “as the sun dies in the sea’s womb let me die” (14). By the end of the poem, the sea has also become symbolic of the liminal or the transitional as the speaker says: “our trust is where the sky and sea just meet / on the edge of a cliff, a fence / or a bridge between sides” (15). Between the sea and the sky there is promised an enticing oblivion but it is illusory and neither sea nor sky is benign. Thus, in “Diamond Princess,” we are told that, on each sea cruise, “the average number of newly-filled coffins is seven” (41). By contrast, in “Dirge for Pete Smith,” “The sky has no bones / and is full of blue fire” (45); it is destructive, the ultra-hot blue flame of gas, but it is also a formless reminder of the presence of the inhuman or that which cannot die to leave behind only bones.
Elsewhere in the collection, the sky in all its incomprehensible vastness is reduced to metaphor. In “A plate of biscuits,” a mother who is to kill herself later that day passes a plate of homemade biscuits to a teacher over the head of her child, who is the speaker of the poem, and the child, now grown up, reflects that “(above my head / it seemed you were passing her / a piece of sky)” (30). The innocent’s vision is not yet closed to magical phenomena: to the child, a piece of the sky may be passed around by adults over her head through some mysterious skill gained only upon maturity. This is to be her final day of infancy; no magic can reverse the work of her mother who has gassed herself. The imagery of the sky appears parenthetically in this poem as it sits uneasily amid the speaker’s starkly matter-of-fact recounting of her mother’s suicide.
The weather that the sky and sea conspire together to throw at humans is a manifestation of the pathetic fallacy in Smith’s poetry. In “Not thinking about the only thing there is to think about,” the elements either augment a man’s mood of suffering or vice versa as “it is still pouring with rain” while he discusses “the duty to live” and “the impossibility / of continuing to live” (38). Then, in “A willed departure on foot,” Smith creates a highly-evocative personification of the sun in this fragment: “Sun splitting the cloud / scraping its blade over the stones, their foreheads / flaring to yellow, to bright lichen-red” (42). Such anthropomorphisms are, of course, the images we use to comfort ourselves in the face of our mortality: the assurance that there is a higher being or beings concerned with our brief existence, there to acknowledge each life and witness each death.
Smith, as a poet, evidently feels a similar compulsion to witness: to attest to the lives and deaths of people who may otherwise have been forgotten. This vocation, collecting lost souls, is apparent in such poems as: “The life sentence of Miss Jean Mackenzie” (72), about two drownings in 1922; “Epiphanies” (78), in which the speaker’s recollections of a family camping holiday on the sixth of January, 1980, are interwoven with events happening simultaneously worldwide including a birth; “Nationality II” (94), that bears witness to the plight of the child detainees on Christmas Island; “We that were human once” (26) and “The Undiscovered Country” (27-29), both of which envisage a fate for those who have suicided as Dante described it in Inferno; “#otd” (32-33), which is composed of newspaper reports of suicides in Australia from between the years 1897-1904.
Why might a poet feel such a drive to record, reproduce, reimagine, recycle, and reinvent lost lives? Smith’s prose-poem “Slippage” (16) provides one answer:
Think of all the people you have known, who have occupied the
space in front of you. Look for evidence that they were ever there
and, mostly, there is none ….
As for those
whom you merely remember, their intersection with you may be
A poem may be scant evidence of existence, particularly the existence of others apart from the poet, but in the vein of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Smith might say of Time to her poetic subjects, “As he takes from you, I engraft you new” (XV) so that you will live “in my rhyme” (XVII).
Smith’s newest collection is in part a paean to life even as it elegises several deaths. However, her primary concern is the binary opposition of scribing and erasure. She uses erasure to great effect in poems such as “Darkling with temazepan” (44), her version of “Ode to a Nightingale” and, through her inking and inscription, Smith forges a connection with the dead whom she memorialises and the living who read her work. That connection may be tenuous, a thread as short and slender as a line of poetry, but it is a link nevertheless, and one of great importance. This book is the work of a vivid, vitalic voice in Australian poetry.