Dana Littlepage Smith  The Skin of Mercy, 64pp, £7.99
Cinnamon Press, Meirion House, Glan yr afon, Tanygrisiau, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, LL41 3SU

The opening poem sets the scene for the first of three parts in The Skin of Mercy.  'To a Tiger Moth Turned to Face Me', places Smith within a tradition spanning from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Mary Oliver, in its focus on the natural world and the speaker’s awe in the face of it: “For the first time I see how a wing can be furred, / how the tapestry end of threads, orange like a lily / can be combed by a wind … I can barely take it in”. 

The reader is made to look hard, and if the clarity of image occasionally tips into fussiness, it’s no more than the poet’s macro lens demands.  For example, in 'What is So Special About Two-thirds of 5,294, 117, 647, 058, 823?' thoughts are “like the heartbeat / of an insect smaller than a moth but larger than a mosquito”, which at first, seems to linger a beat too long; doesn’t “smaller than a moth” make the point?  But this works well with the punctiliousness of the title’s question, and the dedication to precision and order expressed elsewhere in the poem, such as “the note on Martin Landy who lovingly catalogued / all he owned before he destroyed it”.

Smith is mapping human experience onto the natural world, so the speaker is not apart from her environment, but interconnected with it: in 'Faith', where the speaker finds it “oceaned in a grotto”, fathoms beg “not a toe dip but my total wit- / less abandon, utter wetness given unto wetness, / that leap without which life is lifeless.”

These poems are rich with image and sound, layering similes, and working hard to control what could become excessive.  Yet here and there, they lose their nerve with an explicit line of narrative.  In 'The Drowned', lines such as, “his heart banged / like a bell tolling in the unquiet dark”, and “He hung / in an amber tunnel”, are flattened by prosy explanation: “Most days, I seem able enough / to forget him, he who might have been a little brother”.

The second section of the book shifts emphasis, presenting a grittier vision of the world.  In 'A Dream of Damson', a WWII soldier’s buried body feeds the plum tree that shades his grave.  These plums then become the speaker’s gin, an explicit rendering of that interconnectedness between man and the environment.  This recycling of nature’s resources is a familiar concept, and although the poem is nicely handled for the most part, it doesn’t bring much new to the theme.  In addition, towards the end of the poem, the reference to Basra feels awkward.  It’s an overstretched and unsustained note, undermining the power of the poem.

Conflict in all its forms – war, prejudice, poverty – are represented in this section, and at their best, the poems retain the close observation of nature found in the opening section, but use it to expose incongruity, building and complicating the poet’s world.  There’s also a dialogue about religion.  The first section seemed to put its faith entirely in the material world, in poems such as 'Faith' and 'The Birds at my Birth', where “there were no angels at my birth / just one slight bird …”.  The second section’s more problematic relationships are reflected in its attitude to God: “Ask Christ’s disciples / who shunned the greasy / woman ...” ('They Call This Friday Good'), and “So how can I / correct him when he corrects me.  Jesus likes good / and evil …” ('Street Child Theology'). 

The final section is a synthesis of earlier themes, where the ambivalence towards religion resolves into a sort of equipoise in 'Thoughts Without Order Concerning the Love of God', where a kitchen can be a “kingdom” to the snail, who “measures a universe”, with its meanderings, and “Of Christ and necessity … says / nothing”.  At the end of this collection, the reader has been on an investigation of the world, wondered at the peculiarities of the everyday across societies and landscapes, led by a voice that is both curious and compelling. 


Angelina Ayers


long stairs