'Shaping the Water Path' by Morelle Smith (published by diehard)
Readers of a recent edition of the Scottish Review
will have been impressed my Morelle Smith's
extract from her book, The Buoyancy of the Craft
, a penetrating, sympathetic study of the complex Swiss-born writer and traveller, Annemarie Schwarzenbach.
Of even greater interest might be Smith's recent collection of poems, Shaping the Water Path
, especially Part 1, Poems of Scotland
, which offers a uniquely distinctive vision of our country. What makes this poet's vision unique is not only her wide range and precision of perception − of the varied terrain of the land, of skies' ever-changing qualities of light, cloud colours and configurations, bird calls and birds' fight paths. In apprehending these elusive, often vestigial things, Smith proves herself to be a faithful observer of the natural word. And, like the most acute celebrants of nature – painters and photographers as well as poets – she sees into the life of things which then, through the powers of her creative imagination, metaphorically take root and blossom into intensely visual poems.
Most of her poems also have a dynamic quality, which is achieved through her use of kinetic imagery: the wind in the trees in The Carrying Winds
; geese seen against the blue sky in Flight Paths
are 'a liquid line of writing'; there are 'hysterical, joy-riding birds' in Rainy May Day
and in Chester Morning Orchestra
she writes, 'Jackdaws shuffle their feet/shake the night from their wings'.
Smith even captures a sense of the stirring of the human spirit in The Carrying Winds
I imagine souls about to leave the body
leaping upwards with a great shout,
a weight removed,
a breathing of pure air.
Smith creates a sense of movement not only through imagery but also through her control of rhythm, polyrhythm and lightly syncopated lines, as shown in the five-line quotation above.
Her sensibility encompasses even more: she apprehends the spirits of the place she haunts and by which she is haunted. A poet can sense the spirits of places only if she has the spiritual capacity to apprehend these presences. In Storm Gods of the North
, for example, the poet feels close to 'the sky-domain/where there are gods we have forgotten/maybe, but they've not forgotten us'. And in On the Kennett and Avon Canal
, she writes of 'divinities of bank and swamp' of 'goddesses of weeds and marshlands', beyond which are 'gods of valleys, clefts between hills'. The sky gods and water goddesses are clearly pagan spirits. Smith acknowledges their presence not as false gods but as the expression of an innate sense of reverence and wonder at superhuman but entirely natural phenomena. This sense is part of our mind's design.
Following Smith's journeying through Scotland, Wales and Europe, I felt I was walking in the footsteps, not of a mere traveller but of a pilgrim. The poem, The Traveller
, is written in the third person masculine, 'he', but in the closing lines, as the archetypal traveller reads poetry, the voice is clearly Smith's:
the book breathes for him
the lines become the breath.
Her pilgrimage reminds me of tales of the peregrination of Celtic saints in search of the place of their resurrection, that is, a realisation of spiritual fulfilment as well as arrival to a physical place that completes the pilgrimage. Morelle Smith finds her own place of spiritual fulfilment, and, vicariously, the reader's place, in her transcendental visionary poem, The Constellation Line
: 'I am the night train, escorted by the angels/ illuminated by the stars'. And in Becoming Blue
, she speaks of an ultimate, serene and perpetual purity of blue sky and sea. Shaping the Water Path
is a daring and deeply satisfying collection.
James Aitchison is a writer and poet