The Sundays of Eternity, by Gerard Smyth, Dedalus Press, 81pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251713
It is a measure of the skilfully subtle sleight of hand at play in Gerard Smyth’s tenth collection, The Sundays of Eternity, that a letter more often associated these days with the ending of a text message, should feature, in triplicate, as its opening salvo. Here, both poem title and conclusion: “its last line ending xxx,” serve to turn memory and the reader around until what is lost becomes found again.
This opening section moves through Smyth’s native city of Dublin, a place then as now in flux, where “with each new alliance the line continued” (“The Sepia Years”), where a future can be irrevocably decided by the nuance of simple good “ortune. A perfectly chosen image illuminates the vagaries of fate that take place among “dancehall thrills and places where money / spilled into tills that were like tongues / held out for the Eucharist.”
“Cello Girl”, a delicate homage to cellist Jacqueline du Pré, acts as a thematic palate cleanser. Rather in the way the poem’s protagonist wielded “the bow that gave the kiss of life”, this beautiful poem begins a shift in mood out into the wider world explored in the collection’s central section, a world however, in which Dublin maintains and asserts its position as heart anchor.
This section is all movement: in poems like “Museum of Laughter”, where “The name of the country hardly matters but it had / a living language and the language had its orators,” through the ducking and diving protagonists of “Heroes and Villains”, who “combed their quiffs / in the style they saw at the matinee”, or the “The Starlings of Paris”, with “revellers going wild / because they’re on the victory side”, past and present are given enough space to mingle and co-exist. Here too however are the quieter travellers: the actress in “Playhouse”, for instance, who after stepping out of a role which comes with “fake wounds”, calmly “fixes her hair, glosses her lips /” before she “checks her loose change for the bus”. In “Waterloo Sunrise” the chimes of the parliament clock are heard “by the poet who sits in a workman’s café / reading the poems of Rosemary Tonks.” This quality of quiet, necessary separateness reaches its apogee in “Aphrodite”, the effectiveness of this poem being arrived at by what is not said. Two painterly dabs of colour, “that grey November on Dealey Plaza” and “the red stain / on her hem,” highlighted against the “widow’s veil” out of which she has stepped, are enough to fix the protagonist into her now almost mythical position on history’s canvas.
It is a mark of this collection’s assuredness that the sequence immediately following (“Weather”) both moves away from and mirrors what has gone before: the “black crows” and “black hood” of the opening stanza setting up a conclusion where “It was time to write a new description of the world.”
That old and new are kith and kin, and memory rarely set aside as an irrelevance, are central to this collection’s premise however, where the poet is “always returning, travelling the straight and crooked roads, crossing the same river twice” (“Grandmother and the Wren Boys”). That this flow can be heard so clearly in either “the museum of Fado music” (“The Sound of Portuguese”) or “in a field where there is no difference / between kingdom and parish” (“Carnaross, a May Evening”) is the mark of Smyth’s assured and measured grasp of his material.
Towards the close of this quietly impressive collection, a sequence of elegies acts as both an act of creative solidarity and a defiant rebuttal of creativity’s all-too-inevitable cessation. One poet is glimpsed, still “in the frame, like Solomon grinning” (“A Last Visit to Arran Street”).
The poems of “The Sundays of Eternity”, rather like memory itself, call out to and answer each other. These are poems that only a Dubliner could have made. This particular Dubliner was caught at xxx.
Enda Coyle-Greene was born in Dublin and lives in Skerries. Her debut collection, Snow (2007), won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2006 and was followed in 2013 by Map of the Last, both from Dedalus Press. Her third collection, Indigo, Electric, Baby, was published by Dedalus in February 2020.