Reviews & Publicity
Interview in Irish Times, Sat May 25 2019
By Cormac Larkin
Famished: A historical, musical and poetic account of the Irish Famine
Cherry Smyth, Ed Bennett and Lauren Kinsella come together for enlightening show
Cherry Smyth was hurrying through a London tube station in 2012 when she suddenly realised she needed to know more about the Famine. For the Antrim-born poet, who has lived and worked in London since the 1980s, it was the start of a journey that would end with Famished, her extraordinary new multi-disciplinary collaboration with composer Ed Bennett and improvising vocalist Lauren Kinsella.
‘I spotted a poster advertising an exhibition about Queen Victoria, and as I looked closer, I saw that someone had scrawled the words 'IRISH FAMINE' across her forehead.’
‘It struck me like a slap’, remembers Smyth, ‘and I experienced the shock of recognition and belonging, but I barely knew to what. That's what I needed to find out through Famished.’
Responses to the Symposium and Performance of Famished, February 7, 2019
‘Congratulations on a superb symposium!! Thought provoking and fascinating talks with great discussion from the panels. Then to finish off with your extraordinary performance of 'Famished' was very powerful. I found your piece extremely moving and it certainly filled in the family 'silence' on this painful period of Irish history. I had a bit of an epiphany as I realised that 'that silence' which had been so often used as a coping mechanism, permeated my own silence on trauma. So, thank you for an extremely insightful and memorable day.’
‘Each speaker had such differing aspects on the Famine that integrating south London, Uganda and India worked seamlessly. It was an excellent event.’
‘AMAZING!!! I absolutely loved it. The three of you, Ed Bennett and vocalist Lauren Kinsella are just such an incredibly powerful group in collaboration. I was so moved throughout and so in awe listening to the way you expressed such collective lament. Little pieces are still coming back to me: the 'the English elephant squishing the "rat" of Ireland' and 'a bird that only sings when it becomes invisible in sky'... Your audience was transfixed.’
‘The breadth of experience and viewpoints was impressive; the quality of the panel members, historians and art historians, visual artists and poets. Very sparky and illuminating. Utterly brilliant overall. As an English-educated 58 year old, this is the most information I have ever been exposed to about the Irish Famine.’
‘What an exceptional experience that was. The subject is both timely and timeless and particularly at the moment... all your speakers were amazingly good, and all so different. But the highpoint was Famished. It is so passionate, so personal, so painful. And so powerful - you held a roomful of people in absolute thrall, in silence and stillness, for over an hour. I loved the wonderful mix of myth and memory, history and imagination, nursery rhyme and statistics.’
‘It is true storytelling. And so haunting. Lauren and Ed bring so much to it... that almost -singing Lauren does, a kind of wild, sad crooning, perfect.’
Hold Still, 2013
Hold Still is available from Holland Park Press, 253pp. £12.99
‘A jewel of a book, rich and sensual, vivid with the colours of paint and flesh, scents of skin and sea, the taste of a lover. We are lured deep into the real world of the model whose face and body we already know intimately. Now we know her heart, as her extraordinary life and conflicted passions are brilliantly recreated.’
- Marcelle Bernstein
The Compulsive Reader
Nov 15, 2013
‘Cherry Smyth’s new historical novel Hold Still is the remarkable story of a real girl from humble beginnings who becomes a model, muse and artist in mid-19th century London and Paris. The title, Hold Still, is suited to a novel about a model, who must keep still while posing, and also sums up the prescribed role for women in Victorian England. Yet it gives no hint that the major characters are Johanna Hiffernan and the men who became famous by painting her the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).
Written in the third person, it reveals the heart and mind of a girl in her late teens who blossoms in the art world. Irish-born, London-based Cherry Smyth, the author, is uniquely qualified to write such a novel, being an art critic, curator, poet and creative writing professor.
In bringing to life real people from the past, Hold Still is in the tradition of Paula McLean’s The Paris Wife and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, and is as compelling and fascinating as these popular novels.’
- Ruth Latta
>> Read full review
Nov 22, 2013
‘Smyth is a meticulous writer and clearly chose each word precisely. Her debut novel is replete with colour, texture, depth, sunsets and heartbreak (professional and personal). Smyth brings Jo Hiffernan to life in a sensitive and skilful portrait.’
>> Read full review
Available from Pindrop Press, 112pp. £10.99
Poetry London Review
No.76 ISSN: 9771479259039
(…) Though nakedly personal and very focused on specific people, moments and events, Cherry Smyth’s subject is at root, nothing less than the human condition. This outstanding collection opens with its most enigmatic poem, ‘Transparency’, in which a scientist in Japan is ‘whispering to water’. Ultimately, ‘He photographs the feeling’. How crucial is it that this is a man ‘whose wife has left him’? In the interweaving of global and personal significances, it is emblematic of the whole book.
In ‘Rushes’, a short sequence of prose poems, Smyth declares, ’I couldn’t film people. The camera was a gun I couldn’t point.’ Yet she is never really shy of observing others, even inhabiting their consciousness, as well as uncovering her own with sometimes painful honesty. Much of the politics is of the kind defined by issues of gender and sexuality, featuring occasional brushes with shocking violence. A reference to ‘singed hair’ in the poem ‘Montjuic’ echoes the matter-of-fact description in ‘Patriarchy’, a disturbing account of sexually predatory bullying:
‘First it smelt of sugar
being baked, then it blackened to smoke. My hair
never grew back. I hide it. He prefers that.’
This weaving of themes from one poem into another occurs throughout the book. So the experience of being looked at, or worse, recurs. As does the idea of near-death, especially by drowning. The Japanese scientist’s examination of water is obliquely recalled in ‘Safe’, which asks, ‘Do birds still fly over Fukushima?’ Such a vital question is worth putting directly, and expands on the catastrophism already encountered in ‘Lost Bees’. Both poems raise to the macro scale the question implicitly repeated elsewhere at individual level: the decision to live or die, in situations where that decision is germane.
Though none shares his reactionary politics, all four poets considered here are, in their very different ways, aesthetic descendants of T.S. Eliot still, after all these decades, for many the touchstone of ‘difficulty’. On that subject, Eliot said, ‘People are exasperated by poetry they do not understand and contemptuous of poetry which they understand without effort.’ In those terms, while two of these poets do not so much risk exasperation as gleefully pursue it, and one friskily courts (or defies) contempt, Smyth strides the middle ground confidently from edge to edge.
‘I told you marching
changes nothing. ‘Nor does poetry,’
you said, ‘or music, yet somehow
we do it, involved in useless
making until it’s a need met.’
How I loved you for that.’
Is there a better justification for poetry? Or a sweeter love poem?
Cherry Smyth’s poetry has an extraordinary quality, expressed in the title of her first poem, Transparency. Its long, incantatory lines overflow fluidly: “In Japan, in a laboratory in the hills, a man is whispering to water (…) each isolated drop/ seems to listen”. Smyth’s listener or reader is rewarded by remarkable variety. Formally, Test, Orange ranges from haiku to prose poems. It challenges the intellect, quoting Louise Bourgeois: “ art is made of all/the things you desire that you say no to”. It is deeply reflective: “The space between a death and a name is myth”. But it also echoes a primitive rawness, including the parade-watchers’ cry: “ You homo scum!”.
Test, Orange’s rendering of its world is unflinching, admitting “the ash taste of Spain”. Futures are glimpsed grimly: “riots for food/have already begun”. But the poems are side-lit by beauty, noting, beside a sick relative, “a seam of bright moss/outlining the crazy paving”. They are courageous, as when contemplating the sea: “this grief will not take me out”. Endings are bravely colloquial: “There will be sun. It won’t frighten us”.
Smyth’s lines on Héloise are typically urgent and intense: “Love hangs in a hush around her, enclosing, chosen; (…) a trust in the best/in all that lives, that drives life’s sweetness”. She is a restless, prolific poet whose work pulses wonderfully with both sex and art: “bodies ringing like bells”. But, throughout, her meaning remains transparent.
The North Poetry Magazine, 2013
Cherry Smyth’s poems are uncompromising. They make no concession to the reader or the world as they pare their subjects to the bare bones, peeling language to a core exactness of truth or feeling, to ‘walk into the way life is’ ('These Parts'). Smyth’s work is typically tight, dense, sheared (…) When I could find a way in, I found an astonishing intensity. Some of the poems may be challenging, but they reward the effort of serious attention. They can test in various ways: in language, in subject, in syntax, in abstraction: occasionally all of these at the same time. But these are not tests set by a poet being deliberately difficult to appear erudite or sophisticated. They are the necessary compressions that come from Smyth working her way in to complex ideas and experiences. This stanza characterises the volume:
I need claws to dig up what’s buried,
tear open what’s whole and
a roar to fell trees.
(‘Written During Teaching in a University’)
I enjoyed most those poems which examine, or report, the complexities of human relationships. A little like Dalton, Smyth is interested in dislocations and disconnections, the contradictions within relationships. She may even suggest that all relationships are founded on friction and difference rather than consensus or connection. The sequence ‘Wishbone’ is, for example, a wonderfully crafted account of mother-daughter relations, enacted through the trivia of the domestic, exploring the interdependence of contradictory expectations. The central metaphor of the wishbone offers an image of two joined interests in which the wish of one can only be realised by the breaking of the other. Out of this, difficult questions of human connection emerge:
What do you do when you are the wish
the gift was given up for?
It’s not a matter of taking sides, but of understanding. Within the harshness of exposing how both mother and daughter feel about themselves and their intersection, there is some extraordinary tenderness, leading to wonderful imagery:
To furnish her like light
going back into a candle flame,
filling it with what it is full of.
(‘Wishbone: On the Last Day’)
Intellectually tough, but emotionally telling, I found this collection hard to get into, then hard to put down.
Polari Magazine, 2012
“Cherry Smyth’s third collection, Test, Orange, is proof positive of poetry’s ability to combine the toughness and beauty of language in concentrated form, to expand brief moments and explore their possibilities. Smyth’s language is sometimes fibrous and stringy, at other times silky smooth. Her work is by turns deeply personal, overtly political and socially aware, without being polemical or ‘worthy’. It is also ambitious in scope but never daunting; whether writing about the break up of a relationship, her father’s dementia and depression, the situation in the Occupied Territories, Northern Ireland, or on the streets of London, or even re-telling the story of Abelard and Heloise, Smyth never seems to forget the importance of carving out that direct path to feeling.”
>> Read More at www.polarimagazine.com/bookreviews/test-orange-cherry-smyth, Copyright © Polari Magazine
Peony Moon Contemporary Poetry Blog, 2012/2013
“Cherry Smyth’s poetry not only values the abstract but often contemplates the valuing of self. She is uncompromising in her use of her chosen subject matter, often unflinching in her language. Smyth brings her experience as art critic to her work as a poet where serious subjects are given serious attention. Throughout the book, Cherry Smyth reminds us of the ‘bright anomaly’ that is poetry. How it makes us present, informs a life. Many of these poems are rigorously disciplined, concentrated, and use description with both delight and a depth of understanding.”
“Cherry Smyth’s poems are precise, tough and full of passion. Whether writing about visual art, war, desire or aging, Smyth doesn’t shy from the world, but embraces it in all its brokenness, confused beauty and pain. Test, Orange continues the poet’s dream to convey the truth at all costs, to take risks, break rules, run red lights. Her poems leave us breathless, at times bruised, but more alive, in the centre of her, our own, lives. Smyth’s work fulfills her own credo: to have the strength to do the heart justice.”
“These distinctive poems speak with great clarity about things which are often hard to say. Compassionate, self-questioning, sometimes shocking, Cherry Smyth’s work pays the world close attention, exploring the varied connections between human beings, both those that enrich and those that damage. With their vivid locations, the poems are alive with film, food, love, politics and fable. They are never less than fully committed, unafraid of acknowledging the joy or injury involvement might bring.”
>> Read More at Peony Moon