Performance Rites Barry Smith Waterloo Press 2021
A wordsmith has crafted the poems in this collection. Many are notable for their strong opening lines. Bruckner’s Eyeglass, for example, begins ‘At the exhumation of Beethoven’ while Framed announces ‘I feel a painting coming on’. Verbs are equally powerful. I particularly like the description, in Rivers of tractors ‘slurping’ over the land and the account in Between a Rock and a Hard Place of Doctor Johnson ‘jauncing’ the table as he ‘juggled a blear lexicon of unease.’ The poet is also the master of the unexpected. River, the first poem in the book, lulls us into a sense of security with its descriptions of a kingfisher and a ‘warm blue blackbird’s egg’ but then there is the shocking jolt of white-water splattering ‘against the sluice where your cousin drowned.’
Performance Rites is multi-faceted and perfectly crafted with many subtle poetic techniques but I was especially struck by Barry Smith’s use of anaphora, a device which can slide into the tedium of over-repetition, or, as here, enhance and illuminate a whole poem. Here is the ending of a theatrical performance after the audience has been immersed in darkness, tension and catharsis:
and when we have been brought face to face
with truth etched in blood
and all those who were fated to die have died
and everything that had to be said is said
and we have stared together into the dark
just for a moment we let out a breath
Even more striking is I will not be silenced, a poem dedicated to the eco-activist Greta Thunberg. Here the reader is presented with a series of timeless, stateless shocking events that create a ‘template of darkness’. The list, encompassing Antigone, Binsey poplars, social media, oil wells, zones of conflict, flash-floods and bushfires, is dispiriting but insight brings a resolution that has a note of defiance and triumph:
if I do not take up the burden
if I do not hold high the torch
I will not be silent
while the earth burns.
Several poems in Performance Rites include mythical and historical referencesthat have their counterpart in present times. In Towards Church Norton traces of the past have mostly disappeared and all that remains is the causeway and the burial ground which is ‘the province of the wind’. The proud days of steam and, further back in time, ‘the linden shields of longships are ‘a long century ago’ but memories persist in the soil, in stone, and in the spray of the sea. The ‘pattern-weave/ the threads of myth and time’ are strong and exist everywhere. (Antigone).
Barry Smith is a poet of the South Downs so this pattern is of particular significance to him. Bosham Harbour is ‘the very epitome of/marine picturesque’ but it also contains echoes of Canute and Harold Godwinson. The ancient city of Chichester remembers John Keats who, with ‘only a few more years to live’ trod its streets ‘encountering these ruins, playing cards, surveying these stones.’ (Sloe Fair Incident).
There are other rich layers in Performance Rites – associations triggered by literature, art, the theatre, science and music ‘that insinuates the pulse’. (Inflatable Floors). One of my favourite poems is On Air, dedicated to the memory of Ted Hughes who was both ‘a bloody crow embodying myth and mystery’ and also a ‘craggy, leather jacketed, dark shepherd of song.’
Other poems appeal to me: The Blue Rider inspired by a Paul Klee painting which becomes ‘a tale of transmutation/ of chlorine, ammonia and mustard gas …of enemy aliens and internment camps’. Then there is the beautiful poem The Thin Places where the repeated line ‘Each Day Writes Itself’ culminates in a self-immersion in this thinness ‘where air and water blend.’
The title poem in this collection, Performance Rites, is both powerful and poignant. In structure and development, it is a masterpiece. It begins in a theatrical setting with a clear statement: ‘The choreography of death is a fine art’. The reader is given directions on how to fall safely, how to unsheathe a knife, is taken offstage to the battle front at Dunsinane, to the monument where Cleopatra laments the ‘darkling shadows’.
Then there is a sudden shift from the theatrical to a game of billiards in a bar room, from the universal to the personal, from rehearsal to reality where the death of an individual cannot be shaped and styled but happens when there is no ‘Grecian tomb or Scottish heathland’ but only a ‘scuffed, burn-marked, indifferent floor.’
‘What vision remains in this temporal age’ is the question posed by the narrator in Pilgrims of Night’. This collection has been published ‘in the lost year of lockdown’ in an age undefined ‘by its faith’. Many are involved in a ‘search for solace’ (From my Window), for
vistas beyond google
and microsoft and mac
and iphones and tablets
and all the smart stuff
which hasn’t been invented yet
but soon will be
There are no clear answers in Performance Rites, only hints and suggestions, the possibility of attaining the ‘unresolved sublime’ which is masked by the mist of half-knowledge and the incomplete. Unfinished, the final poem, leaves us with the ‘adagio’s dissonant chord’, the ‘faltering heart’ but also with a voice where silence in its full perfection may be heard.
Mandy Pannett. January 2022.