When I was sixteen, I skipped after-school study with a group of friends to drive to the boy’s secondary school and throw eggs at their cars. It was part of a pranking tradition that happened towards the end of secondary school in our small town of Bandon in Ireland. When the boys retaliated the next day, we were screamed at by our vice-principal, and sent to our class head teachers for punishment. I went alone to see Mr. O’Sullivan, an ex-monk religion and history teacher, while the other girls went to see their much less earnest (and female) heads. Mr. O’Sullivan listened to me while I panic told my story, he paused after, and with his notorious intensity doled out his punishment. He asked me to go to the Famine graveyard, a ten-minute walk from our school, he told me to go, and pray for people who did not have eggs to survive, let alone throw at cars for fun. Fifteen years later, I went.
I’ve written one poem about my visit to that Famine graveyard. It took months, and endless rewrites, and it still doesn’t capture a morsel of the feelings I experienced. In Cherry Smyth’s 2019 collection Famished (Pindrop Press, UK: 2019), she manages to encapsulate the intergenerational trauma of the Famine (An Gorta Mór) in over fifty poems. Her extensive research and lyrical mastery creates a poetics that conveys the harrowing shame, and the derealisation, that occupies the historical and contemporary accounts of an event that goes partway towards explaining why I am writing this review in English.
Before the Famine four million spoke Irish. Afterwards only half that did. They found the sound shabby backward.
(THE GAELTACHT, MAYO, 67)
Throughout the collection, Smyth regularly extends the space between words, illuminating the white of the page, creating this in-between emptiness, leaving space for a lost language and people. Liminal spaces, thresholds, and states reoccur throughout many of the poems in this devastating collection. In ‘A Stethoscope, Murrisk’ (37), the lintel (which supports the space between the door and the roof) of the demolished houses frames those who died in isolation, in an exercise of self-tombing:
When some take the fever, they bar the door for good and wait: the walls are demolished around them in scores of lintel tombs.
(A STETHOSCOPE, MURRISK, 37)
In ‘An Gorta Mór, All Over Ireland’ (39), the ditch, or the space between the road and field, provides “a soft bed / made a short rest last forever.” Smyth refers to Ireland as a “morgue state”: “We rule this morgue state” (41), conceptualising the image of a country full of people in a state of waiting between death and a resting place. The sonic quality of ‘Plague-Breath, Everywhere,’ (50) keens through the pages, a hauntological sound like a Banshee, reminding us of lost futures:
There is an energy required for loss, for singing loss, for losing, that too much grief does utterly consume.
Famished has echoes of Patricia Smith’s 2008 collection Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press), based around the travesties that occurred during Hurricane Katrina. Both collections call on spatial temporality to create a typographic journey across geographic and historical boundaries. The line “To be unfamilied. / Is that the shame?” in ‘A Serving Spoon, Melbourne’ (70), reiterates the lost generation, the lost future of Ireland. I felt a contemporary connection to queer theory literature on anti-futurism, indebted to Leo Bersani’s 1987 article ‘Is This Rectum a Grave?,’ which challenges heteronormative assumptions around reproduction. As a queer writer from a Protestant upbringing in Portstewart, Northern Ireland, Smyth provides a perspective from the lesser heard fractions of Irish society, where there can often be silence and erasure around anything that is not heterosexual and/or Catholic.
For years bones turned up in the ploughed earth. For years the ruins said nothing back.
(THIS WAS BELIEVED, 81)
Smyth has developed Famished into a performance with Lauren Kinsella on vocals and score by Ed Bennett, speaking back to the oral tradition of Irish language and culture, “The highest number died / in the Gaeltacht / where the native words / were spoken / not written / not read” (67). The beauty of Famished for me lies in the diversity of voices that occupy the pages, in the exceptional scope of the collection, and how it made me feel dredged, pulsed, like I had fallen down a well inside myself, a well I wasn’t aware was there. Smyth’s collection should be required reading.
Home: the great error she must erase Home: the horror does me raze (31)
(A QUIET ROOM, ADELAIDE, 80)
Emer Lyons is a creative/critical PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ and originally from Cork. Her poetry, fiction and reviews have appeared in journals such as Poetry Ireland Review, The Tangerine, Headland, Turbine, Mimicry, takahē, Southword, The Cardiff Review, London Grip, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse.