Mesopotamia, Damian Smyth’s most recent poetry collection, is one which perceptively explores and interrogates the notion of war. Inspired by both his own upbringing in Northern Ireland, and by the recent conflicts with the near East, the poet provides poignant and introspective insights into the lives of forgotten casualties. “Mesopotamia” is, of course, the name for the ancient “land of rivers”; Smyth’s poetry is an unconventional collaboration of antiquity and contemporaneity as it moves between childhood and adulthood, and from archaeology to modern history.
Despite the various poetic forms utilised by Smyth – from an initial favouring of elegiac stanza to the use of longer lines of free verse as his collection progresses – the strength of his poetic voice is nevertheless apparent throughout. Elegy, lyric, and narrative poetry all feature in Mesopotamia, but each style is nuanced by the poet’s perceptive and emotive syntax, imbuing the collection with a sense of centripetal energy. Smyth’s use of elegiac quatrains throughout the initial “Prehistories” section introduces cadences and rhythms of natural speech into the poems, while the use of rhyme, half-rhyme, and iambic pentameter impresses a musicality. Alongside references to ancient and modern geography, these techniques give his opening poems a sense of fable and myth, before the allusions are swiftly broken by their oftentimes biographical and fundamentally plaintive natures, such as in “Drowning”:
Some boy got snagged on the lines and was pulled
in. He had been weeks revolving out there,
the sea going over every inch of his build,
emptying his pockets, ruffling his hair.
Smyth writes of real events, both personal and public, and Mesopotamia provides an extensive and explorative insight into a reality from which it is otherwise all too easy to become disassociated. The collection features fleeting introspective glimpses into the poet’s own childhood, as well as immersive portrayals of wider cultural events. Regardless of poetic form, I found there to be several dominating themes and symbols interwoven throughout– providing the collection with a sense of direction and structure. Understandably, the notions of life and death feature heavily, as do some of those forces which cruelly govern their balance – such as war, and water. As Smyth moves from “Prehistories” to “Histories”, and then ultimately to “Survivals”, he undergoes continual digressions between the states of innocence and experience. The poet’s incorporation of longer lines, as well as his departure from an initial use of a rhyming scheme, are just two alterations which help make these sections feel distinct yet cohesive. As his earlier poems are deceptively simple and lyrical, the latter are instead more comprehensive, and often peppered with intertextual references and engaging contextual glosses. “On The Third Persepolitan Writing” is an example of such a poem; in this case, his intermediary quotes derive mainly from the writings of Edward Hincks: an influential Orientalist who lived close to Smyth’s home town. Hincks was one of the archaeologists who deciphered the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, and whose impact had specific influence upon Smyth. In this poem, Smyth draws inspiration from Hincks’ discoveries as a means for him to both engage with his Irish heritage, and to effectively explore his own poetic themes –
The lungs, the lips, the teeth, the tongue, the brains,
waterlogged with talk, chambers flooding with grammar,
the old wineskin of the body fit to burst.
Water is everywhere, after all, between rivers,
dry land a hyphen and mud a half-way house.
Mesopotamia is a collection which is poignant yet assertive, and Smyth employs his poetic licence skilfully in order to achieve a balance between informed historicity and stylistic implication. The poet’s collaboration of the foreign and the familiar is likely to both intrigue and engage, especially for those who are more willing to become absorbed into his sombre, but nevertheless captivating, reality.