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Famished
by Cherry Smyth
£10 (pub. 2019)

This collection is startling. More than that, it is vitally important. Combining lyrical poetry with statistics, quotes, newspaper cuttings, snippets of conversation and even nursery rhymes, it charts the Irish Famine from the potato blight and the impossible poverty that followed, through the disease and death on a massive scale, the political decisions that worsened an already dreadful situation, to the people forced to pay passage to North America and Australia on freight ships, known as ‘coffin ships’. Finally, Cherry Smyth evokes the current day as she describes the journey into her country’s past, its language and the ‘plot of scarcity’ that decimated a nation – a scarcity that bears no little comparison to the plight of political and economic refugees today.

A trailer for the stage performance based on Famished can be seen here.
An interview with Cherry about Famished, including excerpts from the stage show, broadcast by Radio Ulster on 17 May 2019, can be heard here
(interview starts about 14 mins in).
An article in The Irish Times reviewing the show can be read here
And an interview with Cherry in the Honest Ulsterman Magazine can be seen here.


Reviews of Famished:

"When I was sixteen, I skipped after-school study with a group of friends to drive to the boy’s secondary school and throw eggs at their cars. It was part of a pranking tradition that happened towards the end of secondary school in our small town of Bandon in Ireland. When the boys retaliated the next day, we were screamed at by our vice-principal, and sent to our class head teachers for punishment. I went alone to see Mr. O’Sullivan, an ex-monk religion and history teacher, while the other girls went to see their much less earnest (and female) heads. Mr. O’Sullivan listened to me while I panic told my story, he paused after, and with his notorious intensity doled out his punishment. He asked me to go to the Famine graveyard, a ten-minute walk from our school, he told me to go, and pray for people who did not have eggs to survive, let alone throw at cars for fun. Fifteen years later, I went.

I’ve written one poem about my visit to that Famine graveyard. It took months, and endless rewrites, and it still doesn’t capture a morsel of the feelings I experienced. In Cherry Smyth’s 2019 collection Famished (Pindrop Press, UK: 2019), she manages to encapsulate the intergenerational trauma of the Famine (An Gorta Mór) in over fifty poems. Her extensive research and lyrical mastery creates a poetics that conveys the harrowing shame, and the derealisation, that occupies the historical and contemporary accounts of an event that goes partway towards explaining why I am writing this review in English.

Throughout the collection, Smyth regularly extends the space between words, illuminating the white of the page, creating this in-between emptiness, leaving space for a lost language and people. Liminal spaces, thresholds, and states reoccur throughout many of the poems in this devastating collection. In ‘A Stethoscope, Murrisk’ (37), the lintel (which supports the space between the door and the roof) of the demolished houses frames those who died in isolation, in an exercise of self-tombing.

In ‘An Gorta Mór, All Over Ireland’ (39), the ditch, or the space between the road and field, provides “a soft bed / made a short rest last forever.” Smyth refers to Ireland as a “morgue state”: “We rule this morgue state” (41), conceptualising the image of a country full of people in a state of waiting between death and a resting place. The sonic quality of ‘Plague-Breath, Everywhere,’ (50) keens through the pages, a hauntological sound like a Banshee, reminding us of lost futures.

Famished has echoes of Patricia Smith’s 2008 collection Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press), based around the travesties that occurred during Hurricane Katrina. Both collections call on spatial temporality to create a typographic journey across geographic and historical boundaries. The line “To be unfamilied. / Is that the shame?” in ‘A Serving Spoon, Melbourne’ (70), reiterates the lost generation, the lost future of Ireland. I felt a contemporary connection to queer theory literature on anti-futurism, indebted to Leo Bersani’s 1987 article ‘Is This Rectum a Grave?,’ which challenges heteronormative assumptions around reproduction. As a queer writer from a Protestant upbringing in Portstewart, Northern Ireland, Smyth provides a perspective from the lesser heard fractions of Irish society, where there can often be silence and erasure around anything that is not heterosexual and/or Catholic."

- Emer Lyons on queenmobs.com

 

"I just finished a cover-to-cover read of Cherry Smyth's dazzling, heart-breaking Famished. It's hard enough to read, so goodness knows how the poet lived with that material for so long.  This work encompasses (& shows the interconnectedness) of so much, socially, politically & personally: economics, the social order, racism, immigration, empire, war crimes, even ecological disaster."

- Emily Critchley

Praise for Famished:

“Famished is a powerful read. I can only imagine the extraordinary work of composition and transformation that Cherry Smyth must have gone through to turn such extensive, and what must have been pretty harrowing, research – historical and haptic – into such a finely crafted map of poems. It is a brave book. It should be handed out at tube stations. Lest we forget, not simply that it happened (and it happened like this, and it continues to happen) but also lest we forget the complicity of forgetting itself. Thank you, Cherry Smyth, for the reminder.”

Brigid McLeer

“So much sorrow and complexity – reading this I felt as though I was being tossed in a turbulent sea, without gravity yet leaden, held down by the legacy of history – struggling for breath. The stuff of revolutions!”

Anne Tallentire

“Famished is devastating yet measured, profound yet curious, elegant and full of compassion, solidarity and momentary sparkles of humour - it’s such a gift.”

Mikhail Karikis

 

A GOOD FEED

I’m dying of hunger/I could eat a horse/I’m famished/I’m starving/I need a good feed/I’ll eat you out of house and home/I’m fine/I’m set/ I’m finished, I’m grand/I’m stuffed/I’m bursting/I’m full/I couldn’t eat another bite/my eyes are bigger than my belly/I am going to puke/boke/vomit/I don’t want it to go to waste/waste not, want not/I’ll try a little just to taste it/I’m peckish/I could do with a snack/I fancy a nibble/I don’t know what I want but I want something/just a taste/a soupçon: who’s for seconds?

 

(from Famished)

 

Famished

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