A Plume of Smoke, Jos Smith
Maquette Press, 2016 £4.00
Aftereffects of Disaster
This pamphlet deals with the wreck of the Torrey Canyon off the coast of Cornwall in 1967 and the shocking aftermath of the oil spillage. From the outset the poems deal with volatility and the unpredictable. The sea takes the lives of fishermen in ‘the clock of its tides’; the land is a place of ‘graves and mines / harbour bells and broken-winged gulls’. The sea itself is described as a god, a presence which ‘feels your prow in the water / like ill thoughts kept secret’, while the land is an animal ‘grazing the outer edge of the sea’s volatile world’.
Of course, we depend on oil: in the poem ‘Fiat’, oil is ‘lured up, piped, refined / brought to us, asleep, where we dream’. But when the precious substance has spilled, it lies ‘like a black rind on the water still as leather […] the wild ocean somehow gone under’, words which brutally underpin the horror of a substance which apparently defeats even the sea.
No-one can escape the aftereffects of the disaster: ‘you ate it you drank it, you slept in it’. The poems are implacable in their detail (‘if you dropped a stone through it, a hole remained / staring back up with nothing to say’) and in their depiction of the helplessness of people in the face of the event. People rally to try and save oiled seabirds (‘the swapping of soaps and tips from those who knew’) but even so, no-one can defeat the ‘sense of failure that came in on that tide’. Even the men who go out to tackle the oilspill with barrels of detergent suffer from burned skin, and lung-damage. The problem is monstrous and Smith brings this home to us clearly and powerfully.
In the final poem, ‘Afterwards,’ he writes of healing and repair but it is a bleak healing marked by silence and absence – absence of birds and life forms to eat the green weed that grows back over the rocks. The desolation is emphasised by the single poignant detail of a creature that rises ‘from the pools / dripping and lonely and not what it was.’