Lou Smith’s riversalt is a thoughtfully intense, and an intensely thoughtful, collection of work. Thoughtfulness and intensity both inhere in the very form of these poems: short lines, which feel the length of a short breath, bring a reader to the gradual awareness of “wounds carved/deep/and bloody” (‘The Sadness’.) These “wounds” are the wounds of history; of slavery, colonialism, industrial revolution, migration — intersecting, crosshatched, scored across bodies and earth. riversalt is truly a work of postcolonial literature, in its attention to the forces which have scattered (and continue to scatter) history’s human actors across the earth.
The poems in this collection take place in Newcastle, Australia; in the valleys of Wales; in the forests and shanty towns of Jamaica. These locations, Smith tells us, are the sites of her own family history. Family figures occur and recur: parents, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond, the generations recessing into shadow. Like shadows — like Smith’s own shadow, which, as she describes it ‘The Follower’, is “a dark mass,/an eyelash smudging my vision” — the boundaries of these ancestors are indeterminate. Histories and sites overlap.
Grandma Smith’s father was from the Vale of Clwyd, in Wales (‘The Mines’). Later generations of Smiths worked in and around the steelworks of New South Wales, where towns and collieries were named after their Welsh antecedents. Though colonial settlers possessed the power to (re)name this land, there was nothing “new” about it. Awabakal people had already named part of the land around the Coquon (Hunter) river “Tirrikiba-place of fire” (‘In Sea Fog’). Later, these lands would become the site of the Newcastle Steelworks. So the wounds of colonialism and industrialisation are repeated upon the lands, from Wales to New South Wales, and are repeated upon the people who inhabit the lands.
Bodies of water also recur in Smith’s poems, the collection’s title, riversalt, giving a reader their first clue as to the importance of water imagery in Smith’s poetics. Over and again, the speaker of these poems speak to us from the water, or speaks to the water. Though a location is sometimes identifiable — a Newcastle beach, for instance, or a Jamaican harbour — this is not always so. Water is a border (“I’m weaving knowledge/of your migration” writes Smith of an ancestor who crossed oceans in ‘Migration’), but it also dissolves borders, makes nonsense of them, for who can lay claim to the sea? Perhaps only the plants and animals can, like the “little terns” of ‘Sea Horizon’, which “formed their V/under clouds the shape of fishbone”. The speaker of ‘Sea Horizon’ can only draw a line (another border, another boundary, “it was in my head”), but the birds can confound the line.
By the time that riversalt winds to its concluding poem, ‘In Sea Fog’, we have voyaged with Smith through many places, and we are voyaging still; “the river flowed on strong,” she writes, “to the sacred songs of tel-moon”, a native woodpecker. riversalt, too, is a flowing and song-like book, and one which I do not hesitate to recommend.
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