A review of Goodbye, Cruel by Melinda Smith

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Goodbye, Cruel
By Melinda Smith
Pitt Sreet Poetry
Paperback, ISBN 978-1-922080-76-9, 110 pages, $28.00

Melinda Smith is a poet of exceptional range. Her work is impossible to categorise as it moves across the poetic spectrum, using a wide range of techniques.  It’s sometimes wildly experimental – playing with syntax, space and structure, and sometimes traditional. As the title makes clear, the poems in Goodbye, Cruel encourage the reader to finish the sentence, complete the thought, and participate in the process of the poetic remaking. Like all of Pitt Street Poetry’s books, the text itself is simple and elegant, with a rich quality – thick paper and clean presentation – it feels good in the hand. The book has five sections, each quite distinct in focus. The structure works together beautifully, leading the reader in a particularly way from light to heavy, birth to death and back again.

The first section, “Tiny Carnivals,” is very visual, flashing in neon, in chalked graffiti, ekphrastic, presenting artefacts of love, mini leaves from momentary love affairs, using Cento forms and aleatory (chance) operations including a poem generated through a phone’s predictive text. These poems are fun to read and provide a soft opening to a book that often deals with heavy subject matter. These opening poems also alert the reader that this is poetry that requires collaborative involvement:

i

the trouble starts
with a pale page
and a tilted inkwell

ii

tomorrow
may be a trap (“Days of Hanrahan”)

Several of the poems tell us one thing and take us elsewhere, as in “Splinter”, a poem that describes its own extended metaphor even as it negates it:

And this is nothing to do with the discharge
oozng from the tiny hole, or with the miraculous
formation of a tiny cylindrical
subcutaneous scab
around the ragged empty flesh-burrow.

The second part is the title sequence, “Goodbye, Cruel”, and it is the most intense.  This sequence explores suicide and death from a number of angles using a multitude of voices, often personified from the inanimate or the literary. There is the voice of the damned via Dante’s Inferno, a child whose mother has committed suicide (which made me think of Plath’s daughter Freya Hughes), a Cento of obituaries, the voice of someone whose suicide attempt failed, a how-to manual, a suicide hotline attendant’s perspective, and a homage from the perspective of Don Ritchie, a man who lived near the notorious Gap, a cliff in Sydney notorious for suicide attempts.  Ritchie talked  at least 160 people out of their death dives, possibly many more (his family have claimed the number is closer to 400):

Every story stumbles
in its own way. All so far
from here and from each other.
The funnel has a wide mouth. (“Contemplating the Gap”)

Many of the poems in this section are concrete, using visual structure on the page to convey meaning. There are poems that disintegrate, like the erasure poem “Darkling with temazepam” taken from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Though this poem is effectively a found poem, the restructuring immediately conveys the faltering of thought as the poem progresses into entropy.  There are poems that stutter forward like “Ghost Walzing”, and poems that are jagged and rounded, moving in and out like breath:

There will be peace
and infinite understanding, buzzing
on the wrong side of the pane
but then there will be
no more
time (“There will be”)

Throughout this section, Smith studiously avoids sentimentality, relying instead on a kind of immersive empathy. However dark the poems get, they remain both dispassionate and warm, bringing the reader into the very heart of that moment where the decision becomes irrevocable. Each of these poems contains a point when pain slides into transition. This is where description, desire, and words become inept: “There are no words, there will never be words,” (“Incomplete), and Smith handles this point beautifully, pulling back from explication and judgement, and opening out into transcendence:

there is the wind, no longer thin,
still singing
rocks, ice, moss, grass (“A willed departure on foot”)

The third section, “Safina”, picks up on both the playfulness of the first section and the intensity of the second by referring to two stories of ill-fated love, both linked through the Persian poet Rabi’a Balkhi, who wrote in Persian and Arabic in the 10th century. In this sequence, Smith writes of Balkhi and the Biblical character Zuleika. The Balkhi pieces call to mind the suicides of the previous section while Zuleika reminds us of the references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy and her role as one of the shades in the eight circle of Hell. In both sequences, Smith captures the timeless quality of a Persian Ghazal while still creating poetry that has a modern sensibility:

I bucked like an unbroken mare; I did not know:
the harder you pull, the tighter the rope. (“Hammam”)

As the section title indicates, the third section, “Riverine”, is riparian, situating these poems at the interface between land and water. The poems continue to use a multitude of disparate voices: bacteria evolving, a woman whose husband and daughter have drowned, or the daughter of an Indigenous Australian World War I Veteran. These poems are pastoral, ekphrastic, and anthropomorphic. They pick up on some of the playfulness of the first chapter, while working across time, space and a variety of mostly bucolic settings. The final poem in this set, the John Ashbery titled “Some Trees”, gives a spotted gum tree with human characteristics as it struggles against the weight of a “listing turpentine”:

he’ll take you both down
and if the weather holds
those bastards can live

five hundred years
drop him
like a rotten branch

This kind of humour is in play throughout the collection, even in the darkest poems.  It’s more wry than funny but ensures that the reader remains smiling, even as the poems explore the most desperate aspects of human nature.

The final section, aptly named “Endtime”, moves the lens outward into silence and open air –  a collision of sensation into apocalypse. These poems are written with equal measures of humour and vulnerability, such as “DKA-TID-BGL-HBAIC” which makes an acrostic out of the acronyms of juvenile diabetes: “Do not ask me to do it dry-eyed.” There is an undercurrent of terror throughout the section, with its intimations of the impending end for all of us, however this is undercut by an absurdity which is uplifting: the consolations of laughter:

and my mobile phone will start barking at me in German, and at that
moment I will understand, no I really will finally
understand, so I will step through the garden gate into a forest
on Kepler 186f, which is a planet identical to this one, except
there are no dachshunds (“Sausage Dog Apocalypse”)

There’s a powerful circularity with the way in which these poems hark back to those of the first section, using play and referentiality though ekphrasis, Tanka, anthropomorphism and personification. Signs speak, horror rises through the floorboards, Hedge-Triffids surround the houses, and children poke sticks at dead possums. There is everywhere a clash between life and death; decay and renewal. Though Goodbye, Cruel explores painful places in a way that cuts deeply, ultimately the work is affirmative, moving back and forth into the particular and outwards into the universal. Smith does an exceptional job of bridging the gap between the absurd, the tragic and the domestic, turning it all into something tender and sublime.

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