After Altamira, A.C.H. SmithThe jacket is pale turquoisey blue. All text is black and centred. First and largest the title, then small on line below the subtitle 'and other poems'. Then the author's name. At the foot of the jacket, slightly smaller than the author, 'Greville Press Pamphlets'. No images.

The Greville Press, [6 Mellors Court, The Butts, Warwick CV34 4ST], 2022   £7.50

Choosing to rhyme

Ideas about time, continuity and history (and what it leaves out) dance lightly across these poems as quick as thought. It’s how the mind works, ranging and retreating, playing opposites and connections off each other.

All that, of course, could equally be done in prose. But Smith has chosen poetry. What can poetry (rather than prose) contribute to this flow of ideas?

It’s not just that poetry has higher levels of concentration but that its techniques — such as rhyme — underpin this tighter focus. Prose can be concentrated, of course, but only in ways that lose the movement between words that is inherent in poetry.

Smith’s use of rhyme is varied and subtle, like the jostle of ideas. There’s full rhyme which holds ideas closely — even those which seem unconnected, as in ‘In Particular’:

Viewed from a distance, Alpha Leonis say,
Everything that’s happened is going on.
Mallard smokes across the moorland. May
Strokes it past cover, completing Benaud’s arc.
The last helicopter leaves Saigon.
Norma Jeane is dancing in the dark.

Smith varies the rhyme scheme across six stanzas, so quietly you scarcely notice it unless you start to analyse it. The rhyming connects the ideas and also keeps them in separate units — train, cricket, Saigon, Marilyn Monroe. The final stanza holds Nuremberg clocks, King Lear (including Cordelia and the Fool) and a nod to Casablanca as a final flourish — ‘Us, we’ll always have Paris, given time.’

But half rhyme can flicker like shadows, like the rock paintings in ‘After Altamira’, the longest and most complex of these eight poems. The subject is the creators of the prehistoric cave paintings, introduced in supple half-rhymes —

First, survey the rockface for the bulges
That might serve well as heads or muscled haunches.
A crevice, jaws open to devour.
It is a serious business. Scaffolding
Is needed, burning wicks, charcoal, ochre.

When the twenty-first century barges in, it comes with a deliberate thump of full rhyme — ‘A couple grin as they take their selfie / At stick length, as they’d done at Delphi.’ Our era, says this rhyme, lacks subtlety.

And rhyme, of course, makes the ideas more memorable — and that’s what these poems are.

D A Prince