Differing Opinions

The Butcher’s Hands
by Catherine Smith
60pp, £6.95, Smith/Doorstop Books]

Recent reviews I’ve come across of The Butcher’s Hands have been far less enthusiastic about the book than The Independent reviewer quoted on the jacket with: ‘Each of these poems is startling and original. They are enigmatic, unpredictable: reach the end of the piece, and you need to re-read it immediately.’ This is a world away from ‘competent’, which seems to be the best Alan Dent can say, or William Oxley’s ‘a volume depressing in every way’ and Andrew Neilson’s conclusion that the collection ‘left me cold’.

Why such a difference? In general it may be that the national press and the poetry magazines are looking for different things. ‘Her scary, unsettling voice seems unexpected in poetry’ comments
The Times on the jacket blurb – and that’s exactly what makes good copy for non-poetry readers, yet that same material is ‘morbid and pathological’ for Oxley. The national press reviews were of a pamphlet-sized collection (which is subsumed in this book). Perhaps a small dose of work which is ‘intense and even at times grotesque’ (the jacket blurb again) is novel, whereas a whole bookful wearies?

More particularly, there is agreement about the subject matter that Smith tackles: unsettling / disturbing / weird / loveless / bloody, often violent…I’ve taken adjectives from both camps here. Smith writes in the voice of an obsessive who is fixated on the bellies of pregnant women, in the voice of an executioner, in that of a werewolf. Imaginative? Or unreal and not especially interesting since their voices are the poet’s voice, the same voice of the rest of the book, the voice going for the sinister undercurrent at every turn?

We expect to dwell on ‘the fine musculature of the throat’ with the executioner or on a neck that ‘tastes of vanilla under my tongue’ with the werewolf, but I think that we may be already saturated with the violent turn each piece is going to take by the time we come to a poem where it would otherwise be both surprising and effective. Smith writes in the mother’s voice of a game of ‘Monopoly’ her son is winning

     Almost bankrupt and recently released from jail,
     she owes her ten year-old
     four hundred quid in rent

and deftly mixes board game and capitalism. I think she just about gets away with the commentary here:

     …they could come to some arrangement
     over her arrears. She thinks how

     this is what capitalism does to children,
     – brutalises them, makes them worship
     five hundred pound notes, little red boxes,
     encourages them to sniff out the weak,
     and charge them exorbitant rent

The mother watches her son’s ‘fingers fatten on his stash’, the small domestic moment cut open to reveal a vicious undercurrent. But with so many pieces mining this seam, ‘Monopoly’ is much less striking than it would be in another context.

The same is true of ‘Breathe’. Here is a poem of experience rather than invention, one of a small number of more grounded poems which touch on childbearing/rearing. ‘You fucking breathe, smug bitch. I breathe enough to last / a lifetime, a lung-time of blue breath…’ It’s a poem of visceral power, or would be if we hadn’t already had so much viscera already. You can have too much of a good thing.

I wonder too whether a thread of similarity in the style of writing, not just the approach to the subject, isn’t what made Alan Dent say that ‘You won’t find anything here that isn’t replicated in the work of dozens of contemporary poets’. I was surprised that the writing didn’t surprise me: often I sensed the movement in the poem, particularly the line break, before I got there. There seem to be many occasions when a verb ended the line – okay, this gets you some pacey writing when you really need it, but felt formulaic in ‘Wonders’:

     twenty-seven rescued freaks. Prodded
     by ignorant children, they’ve proffered
     limbs and faces, caused women to faint.

I can flick though: there are many examples. In fact, there’s a lot of it about at the moment. Why don’t the words of a unit of sense sit on a line together more often than not? So that variations on this are all the more effective, and to a particular purpose?

What these reviews and the jacket blurb haven’t said is that so much of the violence Smith writes of is directed at women. And here’s her strength: she can face it. When her own experience is brought into play as well, she is capable of strong writing. With an increasing range of subjects, ideas and styles as her writing develops, those strong poems will stand out for what they really are.

The Butcher’s Hands is reviewed by Andrew Neilson in Magma 28, Spring 2004, by William Oxley in Orbis, 128 Spring 2004, and Alan Dent in The Penniless Press, 18 Autumn 2003.

            © Jane Routh 2004