Issue 18: Cherry Smyth

Talisman and Other Guards

Act 1

I look at her hands.

They are hands in a dream.

Not even a dream, more like a parallel place.

Not of my people’s bones or skin.

‘Pass me your hands.’

Will they be palm up,

as for a reading, or down?

‘You will live longer than you think.

You will love clouds.’

Clouds in her palm have passed.

Those near-death experiences

have made her.

‘Come,’ she says with

a firmness that fills me.

She holds a guy rope and a tent peg.

I will come.

I don’t care that there is no tent.

Between the Acts (i)

                                                                                  ‘I feel like running.’

                                                                                  ‘Don’t run.’

                                                                                  Everything said was written in a black

                                                                                  notebook left behind on a 747.

                                                                                  The running ran all down my legs as if

                                                                                  they were bound too tightly,

                                                                                  hardening in plaster of Paris before

                                                                                  that dreadful itch.

                                                                                  We wanted to wash our faces

                                                                                  but that would spoil the make-up.

                                                                                  One of us stretched,

                                                                                  the other checked her emails.

                                                                                  We veered between loving the lines

                                                                                  and being thoroughly bored by them.

                                                                                  Did the theme deliver the words

                                                                                  or vice versa?

                                                                                  She poured herself a glass of Rioja. 

                                                                                  ‘Never before the second act,’ I said.

                                                                                  There was a three-dot pause to notice

                                                                                  the green language of eyes. 

                                                                                  Our cunts didn’t discuss it. 

                                                                                  There was no nudity.  Age had made

                                                                                  someone else with our bodies.  We

                                                                                  knew not to spend the audience all in

                                                                                  one go, not to touch everywhere on

                                                                                  the first night. One couldn’t come for

                                                                                  weeks until the other said, ‘It doesn’t

                                                                                  matter, it’s not all about coming.’  But

                                                                                  it was.  It is.  There is no opening night

                                                                                  if nothing will open.

Act 2

After three months, the weeping stopped.

First, the tears love demands to be renewed,

then tears of trust working through.

Kissing made our mouths

alike.  None of this can be repeated.

The white travel stone she gives me

gets grubby with coin grease and graphite.

You can’t choose someone’s luck for them.

I return safely in a one-piece bathing suit.

We promise to leave couple habits at the wayside.

A wayside proves hard to find.

We plump for an underpass.

All tracks lead somewhere:

the corner of a kitchen; a certain view;

a run in the car, before a rite is a rut.

When her mother died, she found boxes

filled with thousands of photographs

of her pet dog eating its food. 

That was all.  The dog and the bowl. 

Every day.  Who’s to say where ritual comes from? 

Telesma, Medieval Greek, travelled

the wind into Arabic as tilsam, tilsaman.

Between the Acts (ii)

                                                                                  Things get deeper as they get rougher. 

                                                                                  All hands on deck.

                                                                                  A sailor doesn’t know her craft

                                                                                  until it hits a storm.  Words at the

                                                                                  wrong pitch, wrong speed.  We

                                                                                  breathe, slowly, s*p*a*c*i*o*u*s*l*y.

                                                                                  One smiles.  The other is not ready to.

                                                                                  She was only acting meditating.

                                                                                  The former is profuse in sorry 

                                                                                  like heavy summer rain.

                                                                                  The latter grasps the handrail tighter,

                                                                                  braced against a gale that has passed.

                                                                                  She liked the way the wind blasted

                                                                                  her, blew all the wrinkles away.  Rage

                                                                                  takes you out of time.

                                                                                  The one with the better memory hurts

                                                                                  more.  Hurt congeals like facts. 

                                                                                  To forgive is to forget a fact.

                                                                                  I have met her to be taught this. 

                                                                                  I step out.

                                                                                  ‘I’m sorry too.’

Act 3

We walk in circles, one leading

then the other.  If instinct is in our bones,

does it shrink when bones tighten? 

Sun underscores the evening clouds.

She calls me to look at their unframed reds.

Romance is no talisman for love.

A bell rings.  We sit down side-by-side.

‘How shall we live?’ I ask.

‘Don’t wait in each other’s wings.’

Fire & Wings

The Spanish hang small plaques of bits

that ail them from the church’s rafters:

an embossed tin leg or arm, a plaster heart.

I have brought my milagro above the sea

for the clearing prayer of salt and silence.


Most children sleep through a smoke alarm.

Boys more so than girls.  The parents who set

fire to their house did not know this.

All six died.  What form does memory take

after something like that?  What body part

do you raise up, and where?


Motes disband against a green wall in a sunlit room.

What passed for touch that summer: a veil of gold scurf. 

The wind on the road through Ally Pally tasted sweet. 

‘It’s smoke,’ said the young boy.  I took his hand

at the bus-stop, sent a hush into it.  The relations walked

backwards, shaking the urn, then tidied their hair. 

Family gusted up our bare arms.


You’d think it would be instinct to throw

the fire’s ashes over the garden wall, she said.

It was so wild I couldn’t see the garden’s edges.

An old Irish saying: death is a garden with no wall around it.

Or is that new poitín in an old lemonade bottle?


You burnt and flew while still in the body,

vibrant, poor, as Jean Rhys in a Paris café.

The moon in the noon sky.  We know it without the dark.

You did not fade.  You set. 


The dug grave has definite edges.  You feel the cold

for the corpse.  It can hear you think.  Especially at dusk. 

You go with the body and then you have to stop.  Carcass. 

Carrion.  Words you push away from your friend’s ears. 

You picture earth’s process and then you stop. 

It seems disloyal not to wait for the skull, the body over. 

If imagination’s sick, put it to another use, another matter.


You were topped with joy

and morphine.  You let me hold

your hand because you were

recovering poise and privacy slowly.

If you’d known, you’d have kept

your hand away.  Pity sealed

you in sickness.  You had no truck

with it.  Your lack of complaint

saved the light of your inner life.


Grief is promiscuous. 

It leaps to a previous death or one to come

or the family you didn’t create,

all the unsustained songs.


Smoke from crematoria is checked

for levels of pollution.  An inspector comes. 

I can’t tell you this.  Different pigments

have different weights.  You knew this. 

Were you a neon Breughel in the night sky?

Better you were scattered now.  That dark

and still somewhere is no place

for careering thoughts, mobile sentences. 

I imagine you on this Atlantic wind, the coast

remote and battered, where your electricity

landed at 5am, telling me to quit being morose

and live the cure like you, like a crofter.


When Agnes Martin was ninety-two,

she laid down the metal ruler

that had measured decades in floating grids,

testing the space between replica and repetition –

the vast flaws in peace.  Her last, small drawing

was the freehand curve of a vague pot,

rising into pods, or leaves, possibly fruit.                                

Cherry Smyth is an Irish writer, living in London.  Her first two poetry collections, When the Lights Go Up, 2001 and One Wanted Thing, 2006 were published by Lagan Press. The Irish Times wrote of this collection: ‘Here is clarity and realism, couched in language that is accessible and inventive. The title poem carries all Smyth's hallmarks: precision, linguistic inventiveness and joy.’ Her third collection Test, Orange (2012), was published by Pindrop Press and her debut novel, Hold Still, Holland Park Press, appeared in 2013. She also writes for visual art magazines including Art Monthly. She is currently a Royal Literary Fellow and is working on a punk libretto. See