8 Poems By James Sutherland-Smith

James Sutherland-Smith
James Sutherland Smith

JAMES SUTHERLAND-SMITH was born in Scotland in 1948, but lives in Slovakia. He has published seven collections of his own poetry, the most recent being “The River and the Black Cat” published by Shearsman Books in 2018. He has translated a number of Slovak poets, publishing three individual selections in Britain, two in Canada and one in the United States and three Serbian poets with two selections from Miodrag Pavlovic and Ivana Milankov in Britain. His translation of poetry has been awarded the Slovak Hviezdoslav Prize and the Serbian Zlatko Krasni Prize.

His most recent translation is from the poetry of Mila Haugová, Eternal Traffic, published in Britain by Arc Publications.

His website is http://www.jamessutherland-smith.co.uk

For The Disputed Index Finger


Note: Ember days are days in the Christian calendar taken over a thousand years or so ago from pagan festivals of rituals requesting nature for help in the seasons of the year. This one is located in early spring.

Black ants that sting swarm about
the Siberian irises.
Tulips fold up for the night
into a solid geometry,
one so dark a blue it could pass
for black did not light glint through it.
Anemones under the dogwood
press their petals together,
the ghosts of fingers at prayer,
and I wonder at the hydraulics
they have in common with tulips,
the dogwood itself displaying
tips of pale green flame on red twigs.
Close to, a woodpecker pounds
on bark, a cat´s purr of sound.
What is human is second-hand:
trucks grunt and hiss on the high road
beyond lime trees pollarded
while there´s my own voice in my head,
echoes of other utterance
filled with multiple dissonance,
deprecation and arrogance
until phrases of the divine
arrive, birdsong at dusk whose tones
of desire and celebration
break off, mid-note, much too soon.



The ring doves that have eaten
all our carefully sown grass seed
wheeze and creak through other gardens.
A wren scolds me from an apple bough,
agitates a beetle from the bark,
fidgets twig to twig, whirrs away.
If only it were possible
for me to know absolute silence,
not the quiet of my own breathing
or momentary breeze ruffling
the slats of a jalousie,
but silence, pure and complete.
I´ve tried holding my breath:
not nearly good enough.


It´s past midnight.
Moonlight in the garden
glints on the edge of leaves
so only their shapes are visible.
So save for hints of green
there´s no controversy of colour
as I draw a fingertip
over your magnolia slip,
a finger tip over your forearm,
the glimmer of fine blonde hair
and a long comfortable sigh
confirms your untroubled sleep
So I speak to myself
with a slight release of breath.


The slopes beneath the woods have yielded
 the year´s first crop grain and now
 are round and gentle as the crowns
 of heads of country girls who´ve tried
 a buzzcut for the very first time,
 the stubble such a deep rich blonde
 you might almost call it red.
 Sodom and Gomorrah!
 Their grandmamas might exclaim,
 but below the woods they are giantesses
 whose eyes, brown or blue, have closed,
 earth spirits asleep breathing easily.


Note: “queer, sardonic” from Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)

 There are ghosts of forest everywhere.
Glimpses of groves of conifer and beech
and odd shadows jutting like primitive altars
just before main streets reach vanishing point.

 Here in the centre tree spirits have transformed
to stones of a Gothic prison or grain store
(the evidence for either can be scorned)
on which the afternoon sun mottles

 green and yellow as in a healthy copse
whose leaves rustle what remains of innocence.
Not that there´s even this left to celebrate
as the men spill out from the town hall

 in bum-freezer jackets, their women in silk,
ill-fitting apricot or pink, the bride
in dazzling white so backless its hem has sagged
and the top of her knickers is visible.

 Azure day with cloud banked so high
above the hillsides beyond this little town,
a tenement of vapour, floating, pearly
with guests like us sweating in our second-best

 as a rat hops from beneath the bridal car,
"queer, sardonic" witness to catastrophe,
saunters to an opposite patisserie.
Not that anyone else notices or cares. 


I went for a walk
 to restore my sense of rhythm.
 That was the reason
 before I put on my jacket
 and unlatched the gate,
 Then I remembered
 a house by trees under the ridge
 which had a turret
 on one side with a gable roof
 and weathervane on top
 whose polished brass globes
 at the end of glinting rods,
 north south east and east,
 spun whenever a stiff breeze
 tugged at chimney smoke.
 Under Gorky Street’s
 rows of copper cherry I walked
 to where the turret
 and weathervane had to be,
 but didn’t find them.
 I passed a woman
 weeping as she wheeled a pram
 with a headless doll
 dressed in expensive baby clothes
 of delicate cotton
 and on a corner
 a man with an eyepatch smoking
 whose face mask pulled down
 showed the edge of a red beard.
 Yet there was no sign
 of house or turret
 though I found an eyebrow dormer
 window fringed with off-cuts
 from wooden shingles making
 a vast Egyptian eye.
 It was getting dark,
 so I turned back down a street
 parallel to Gorky
 and saw the pram empty outside
 a run-down unlit house.


for Luljeta Lleshanaku

A woven purse of shot silk threads
 covered in a glitter like hundreds-and-thousands,
 a dust from semi-precious stones
 so the purse is abrasive to touch
 inside a black leather handbag,
 perhaps Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada,
 which also contained car keys, a compact,
 scent spray, cigarettes, a small can of mace,
 the handbag most recently lying
 on a double bed in the blue room
 of an eighteenth century mansion
 within extensive landscaped gardens
 bordered by a crescent-shaped lake
 that reflects and absorbs the night sky
 and the stars like hundreds-and-thousands,
 rather billions and trillions,
 consequences of events too far away
 to have been noticed, universes
 coming into being, dimensions
 unimaginable until the purse
 was filched from the handbag, not on the bed,
 but on the arm of its owner
 so that the cosmos turned inside out
 as the purse was passed from hand to hand
 in a manoeuvre of thievery
 as old as the first town and the first
 crowded thoroughfare and the first
 metallic chink of value you can’t eat
 or create from, leaving its owner
 in distress, transparent beads of tears
 running down her cheeks, in the sun
 glittering like hundreds-and-thousands.


I stare upwards to check if the tightened bolts
 and silicon seal, squeezed like toothpaste
 into the gap between iron beam
 and pebble-dashed back wall, have stopped
 the rain or what might be called nature
 or the other or wildness seeping in.
 The cat chirps kitten cries with her adult voice
 and watches each bird wing flash of lightning,
 then twitches at every loud thunder hiccup,
 her paw and tail tip resting on my shins.
 From the corner of my eye I observe
 ripe blackberries soft but glittering
 like ancient obsidian brooches above
 day lilies blooming in the heat and downpour,
 dyed redheads of a certain age on a spree.
 Is there a moral of energy to be drawn?
 The distant ridge is a blur of green on green
 through the misted doors as the rain runs down
 the glassy roof in washes of abstract,
 moving lines overlapping moving lines.
 The cat elects to play with her toy mouse
 and the wild rain fills me with its light.

© All rights reserved by Torkito Tarjoni

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