Thursday 22 February 2018

Review: Market Street by Damian Smyth

(Lagan Press £12.99 )

Jack Smyth, with whom I grew up in Downpatrick, had a fine bass-baritone voice. He also had an engaging habit in his later years of attending funerals at which, where he thought the deceased had contributed to the community by decency or good fellowship, or simply by being a good citizen, he would, unprompted, provide a bell canto requiem from the body of the church or at the graveside. I always wondered at the acuteness of perception and judgment of individuals which made them worthy, in Milton's phrase, of "the meed of some melodious tear". I lived in the hope that he would think me worth a song when the time came, but, sadly he has gone first.

Now his son Damian, a poet, carries on the custom of elegiac celebration of a town and its inhabitants in Market Street, a wonderfully evocative collection which embodies the same values of decency, tolerance and respect for others, tradition, identity and a sense of place. In this the characters who have never, in spirit, left the scene populate the street with their modern successors in title. In a wonderful collage of shop-signs and prescriptions, grocers' ads and haberdashers' invoices, Hincks the Egyptologist rubs shoulders with a veteran of the Boer War and Frances Hutchinson, the moral compass of the American Constitution.

I too have bought my fish in Hanlons', my shoes in McCartans', and my cutting tools in Hugh Kelly's; have done the rounds at Struell Wells, emerged into the light of day from the other world of the Grand Cinema matinee, and had my hair cut by Tommy Miley (a procedure in which the customer had absolutely no control of the outcome), seen here unveiling the wounds suffered by a naval hero at the battle of Taranto. I knew the boys lost in the trawler off Ardglass, and the policeman who lost a foot in a booby-trapped car -- all these and more "remembered by the place itself, so bothered/so trafficked in, so busy, it might be the mind of God".

This should be a cult book in Downpatrick, but it is more than a nostalgic sauna. From the microcosm that is the street, Damien Smyth surveys the world and universalises the particular and the parochial. There are universal truths here that reflect the profundities of birth and death, a picture of a society coming out of conflict, but racked with doubts as it comes to terms with memory and the horrors it has endured, the frightening intimacies of inter-communal violence, and the compromises that have to be made for peace as terrorists and demagogues transmute into statesmen.

"It's not that we don't know what he did/ But we don't want it shoved in our faces/ That we doubt our decision to forgive him."

A wonderful short sequence on the Cooneyites, arising from the Coolcrease murders, prompt a reflection on discrimination, on the fear of the exotic, on the contribution of minorities in society, and the right to be different. Above all it endorses, as does the whole volume, the value of diversity and the contribution people can make simply by being themselves.

The poems come with a battery of end-notes -- some longer than the poems themselves. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that a poem should stand on its own as an encounter by the reader with the words, but that said, the notes are a treasure-trove of eccentric information, and often poetic in themselves.

But it is the poems that count, for precision of language and range of allusion, for the characters who populate the street, and never leave, and most of all for the wonderful lists and catalogues -- culminating in The Inventory of Mrs EJ Coulter, Pawnbroker -- "the ordinary made memorable by art".

Irish Independent

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