Category Archives: poetry as societal witnessing

The Taut Exactitudes of a Lyric Welsh Poetry–Matthew M.C. Smith’s “Origin: 21 Poems” and a Study in Poetic Opposites

Copyright Matthew M. C. Smith, 2018, 2019, Black Bough Press in association with KDP Ltd.,

Matthew M. C. Smith, the editor of Black Bough Poetry in Swansea, Wales, has reissued his 2018 book of poetry, the modestly entitled Origin:  21 Poems.  It is his first collection of poetry in a long life of working on poetry and studying poetics.  One of his first contributions to the body of work on literature is his doctorate at the University of Wales, a thesis on the poetry of Robert Graves.  Currently, Matthew divides his time amongst a career in work on anti-poverty, education and welfare work; an editorship at Black Bough Poetry/Barddoniaeth Y Gangen Ddu, and a new volume of poetry, all of which makes him truly a Renaissance man.

When I had finished reading Origin:  21 Poems, my first thought was that if I weren’t talking about poetry, I’d say that each of these poems is clinically exact, except that I am talking about poetry, and “clinically” is the wrong word; these are poems rich in feeling, fellow-feeling, and emotional wealth, and here the poetical indirections are made in short, minimalist code of metaphor and description, which perhaps has confused my own non-minimalist poetic practice.

This poetry is definitely something to learn, and to know how to do, for the beauty of the sometimes staccato revelations is extreme, the phrasing a sort of condensed shorthand on the road to perfect portraiture, to individual epiphanies, to separate visions.

The book Origin:  21 Poems is entirely situated around family situations, cultural ones, and  natural/mythological/religious ones (all those things in life that are so much bigger than we are), sketching a line from belief and belief systems through the societal structures and remnants of ritual our civilization has left us with to family and celebrations of family and faith, the most personal of all.

There are careful pairings of poems back and forth, weaving, knitting a net to catch us in, with the warp in one poem being a salute to air travel, to being a soldier, either modern or ancient, and the woof of the next poem following being a loving meditation dedicated to a child’s birth or to play with children, or, one of the most moving poems, a poem on the death of the poet’s father, containing some of the implications of his life.  There are poems on prophets and guardians and “prodigal” women, nature poems filled with the beauty of winter or the symbolic natural growths of the seasons, and the book ends in a tribute poem to another Welsh poet, Alun Lewis, who died in WW II.  There is no accident here in these weavings of opposites, because they not only thus form Smith’s dedication to being a participating witness in all the doings of life, but they also invite the reader to select favorite and most resonant phrases, to read aloud, and then willy-nilly, to be led into a different experience, just as life itself would demand.  Here are some of my favorite lines and their topical sources:

the birth of a child:  “You belong to the world/to rose-red rivers dipped by the sun/to the white path of light in darkest night/ to frosts of fire beyond our dawn”

the death of a father:  “No cry, nor whisper, a cross shape/near crested roar and the people you love/carried you from the shore”

“After Man”:  “The fern, the ivy/the circle of oaks/were fast losing names given…our time was terribly mocked”

the modern soldier;  “Men of arms…frame-ache, sting of sweat/body-rack past forest tracks/where whippet-lads lead/and bigger lads wane”

“The Moment”;  “cycles of sun and/nights of stone//Picasso/his sorrow of shadow/is cast across/a frieze of terror”

the poet’s homage to another poet:  “your words grow old/but dare not fade/I heard they took you/in feathers as light as snow/and in that whirling flight/as words exhaled/they kissed your fading glow”

Here, the taut exactitudes I have spoken of in my title are from line to line, but blossoming forth in between are the pictures, the images, bodied forth in and contained by the lines themselves.  The overall effect?  Almost a contradiction in terms, the lyricism of the burgeoning phrases, held firmly in the short precision of the actual words.  Thus, it should be no guess that the preference at Black Bough Poetry is for short, imagistic poems of 1-10 lines, and that the devotion to the human equation has produced a sense of community for poets of every stripe, who are regularly invited to participate every Tuesday online through Twitter, tweeting to Black Bough Poetry, in #Top#Tweet#Tuesday, a rollicking, fun-filled poetic experiment in exposing poets from all areas of the globe to the work of other poets of all kinds and schools.  As well, there are occasionally special seasonal contests and participations, such as the recently closed one for Hallowe’en 2021.

As a final and defining note about this poet’s, Matthew M. C. Smith’s, contribution to the world poetic community, I would like to call attention to his election this month (November 2021) to be Broken Spine’s #Writer of the Month.  Already, he has participated in more than one poetic activity in this position, all of which information is available to the interested follower on Twitter.  If you are not yet familiar with Smith, his book is available on Amazon, and for all the many poets the world over who are already friends, admirers, and poetic colleagues of him and his welcoming, modest and self-deprecating humor, let’s give him another round of applause, and keep reminding him we are eagerly and a bit impatiently waiting to read his next book.  I mean, for a man who has so little else to do!  Seriously, though, be watching for Matthew M. C. Smith’s next volume of poetry; to judge based on this one, it’ll be another wonderful poetic experience.

Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)  

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Poetry and its forms and meanings, poetry as bardic speech, poetry as societal witnessing, What is literature for?

A Quick Post to Call Your Attention to a Worthwhile Cause–The Center for New Americans in Western Massachusetts

Dear Friends of My Website,

Now is the time to stand up and be counted for all the places in the U.S. that are trying to perpetuate justice for refugees, immigrants, and new Americans. There is one such body in Western Massachusetts. My friend Jendi Reiter, whom you have encountered on this site before as the author of “An Incomplete List of My Wishes,” an excellent book of short stories which I reviewed some weeks back, is going to be composing a poem a day during the month of November to help raise money for this cause. They have also written some books of poetry, have one in the offing, and have a novel, “Two Natures, ” which is going to be reviewed on this site soon. It just goes to show that even very busy people, who are also editors and judges of contests, as Jendi is (at Winning Writers.com), can still take the time to participate in activities which are socially oriented and return a direct benefit to the community in addition to giving poetical benefits, which though profound are supposedly less tangible and direct. In this case, the gift of poetry and the gift of societal involvement are tied together, and operate together.

All that is necessary to to mention the charitable side of the enterprise, which is sponsoring Jendi for this effort. Your contrtibution, however large or small, would be of immeasurable benefit in aiding this worthwhile cause. All you need to is to make a credit card or personal check donation to the address(es) at this link: https://cnam.org/civi/pcp/info/?reset=1&id=532 . If there are any other facts you need to know, you can inquire at that site. The full title of the body in question is: The Center for New Americans: Education and Resources for Immigrants and Refugees in Western Massachusetts.

I don’t mind telling you that I have a very small income, but I have donated $10 to this cause. Even $5 would be welcome, and spreading the word whether you can contribute or not is valuable too, as others will thus be empowered to act in this manner. Thank you for your time and attention to this announcement, and your potential action on behalf of our new citizens-to-be. Jendi thanks you, and I thank you, and you can act in the assurance that the beneficiaries of this program thank you, too. All the best, Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett) P.S. Please note: This post was originally put up on 10/18/2021. Today is 10/19/2021. It was necessary to repost to correct the charity address link because the donation is supposed to go the address above, to sponsor Jendi directly. The charitable effort will still benefit The Center for New Americans in Western Massachusetts, it’s just that now the business side of things will be correctly arranged at the right link. VLB

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“What Pecan Light”–A New “Song of the South” Arises in Strict Self-Examination and the Protestant Confessional Tradition of Witnessing, Through the Medium of Poetry

Just this year, the editor/teacher/professional poet Dr. Hannah VanderHart has given us a monumental though deceptively short book of poetry on Southern life, thought, and tradition which belies the suggestion that a book need be long to achieve a worthwhile thesis and goal. The book is What Pecan Light. While the book goes from picture to picture of Southern life, and growing up in a family tradition of ownership of a chicken farm and farming in general, using images of food, daily habits, work forms, recreation times and religious traditions to which the South remains committed, the past with its Civil War history and history of slave-owning is never only a part of the background, but informs in its seriousness and rhetoric the whole.

The lovingly executed papier-mache in the photograph from the front cover with its mythically descended formation of human silhouettes-becoming-trees (by Rachel DiRenna) is a sort of key to the structure of the book as a whole: I too have had Southern relatives wondering what possible shape the South can take next, if it continues to change so much in its traditions and reverences, and being caught up in false notalgias, false because betraying of basic humanity.

Others such as Jessica O. Stark and Joy Katz on the book’s back cover have communicated at succinct and short length the cultural and societal aspects of this book. Though brevity is often said to be the soul of wit, sometimes a book merits greater length and remark where possible, and it is to this end that I devote myself today, while calling to the readers’ attention their deservedly appreciative remarks.

The book is one of tightly woven individual poems taking place in a loosely put-together structure which allows for visiting and revisiting, layering and relayering, of themes and motifs. The traditions and culture of the Southern United States in the states with which the poet is familiar are examined in an elliptical slide going from facts to Southern topoi and from Southern topoi to facts. “Topoi,” of course, in Greek, or “loci” in Latin, are rhetorical places, places where things happen and where facts may or may not reign. Here, the topoi are richly illustrated by Southern images and lifestyle portraits of the daily life of a family whose past is affected by the ancestors whom they have been taught to reverence, but whom more recent documents or examinations expose as flawed by slaving. This experience, when one thinks of it, is a universal experience in the sense that an appreciation of the facts portrayed and the reactions of the present-tense family committed to a more just existence are experienced by anyone who has imperfect human ancestors (which is all of us). That slavery is the issue here in this book makes it particularly rich for an American audience trying to heal the deep divides of our time, many of the roots of which are buried in older times.

VanderHart’s book is a deeply and seriously wrought picture of a family whose traditions are in the process of renovation despite their otherwise deep Southern ties, as the mother-figure in the poem teaches the newest members about the slave-owning past and the attitudes of prejudice, the practices of repression, that have been perennial in the world every time a subject people have sought freedom and self-determination. Thus, the poetic voice throughout, while not denying some degree of nostalgia but treating it both with reverence and due suspicion, makes from her own consciousness a critical voice arising from the midst of these traditions and cultural ties. She examines them both as they stand separate and apart from the greater life of the whole United States, and as they form the source of the root of Southern loyalty to the whole, where it exists.

For Southerners–and this was true in my childhood in the not-quite-South also, in West Virginia where people regularly divide themselves according to whether they have Southern loyalties of a traditional sort or Northern loyalties of the “West Virginia went with the North” sort–loyalty to the United States has in the past been first and foremost loyalty to a Southern-style home atmosphere, welfare, and traditions unless one is a social critic as for example VanderHart is here in her role as poet. Thus, this “monumental” work, as I called it once before, is a new sort of Southern monument, a Southern testament, a testifying of a religious sort, as poetry always has been, of a word structure rather than a stone or metal structure, but in the public forum just as a literal statue of a Confederate general or widow would be. And it is both long overdue for all of us, Northerners and Southerners alike, and most welcome in its overwhelming gift of a new language plinth to stand in our mutual public square.

This book is available from Bull City Press, at 1217 Odyssey Drive, Durham, NC 27713, http://www.BullCityPress.com . It is also available from Amazon.com.

Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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Filed under Articles/reviews, lifestyle portraits, Poetry and its forms and meanings, poetry as societal witnessing, What is literature for?