Five poems by James Sutherland-Smith

06 September 2019
Author :  

JAMES SUTHERLAND-SMITH was born in Scotland, 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 also translates poetry from Slovak and Serbian for which he has received the Slovak Hviezdoslav Prize and the Serbian Zlatko Krasni Prize.

His translations include selections from the work of Slovak poets Ján Buzassy, Mila Haugová, Pavol Janík, Ivan Laučík and Milan Rúfus and Serbian poets Ivana Milankov and Miodrag Pavlović. Selections of his translations of Mária Ferenčuhová’s Slovak poetry and Rajko Dzaković’s Serbian poetry were also published in 2018 and a second selection of translations of the poetry of Mila Haugová is about to be published in Britain by Arc Publications as well as a selection of the poetry of Ján Gavura in Slovakia.

His eighth collection, Small Scale Observations, is in preparation as is a selection of from the Serbian poet, Ivanka Radmanović.





Outside cold drags us down to minus ten degrees.

I’ve yet to shake the snow from our conifers

beyond which the streets run parallel to one another

their vanishing point under steep hills once patched

with orchards never lit by the orange street lamps.


No-one walks out, though on the radio a dance

from heat quickens on a guitar to abandon,

sounding where snow falls rarely on the glossy leaves

of orange trees growing in long parallels

and even then it turns to vapour upon the grass.


The guitarist’s fingers could be at minus ten degrees,

their touch exact and gentle as the falling snow

on strings not quite parallel to one another

where the notes walk out like folk acquainted

with one another shading their eyes against the light.





Our world today is melting.

The red arcs of the creeper

bend and shake with beaded light

continually sliding

to the point where a twig ends

its own non-Euclidean form,

so water drops on to mulch

which stirs under the impact.


Now your hair is much thicker.

You’ve washed, dried and twisted it

into a braid whose gold sparks

with light when you comb it out

and my gaze is held there by

electro-magnetic force.






I saw a snake swimming in the stream.

It moved in time with the minute changes

of the ripples over silt and pebbles.

So at first I thought it was a reed

or a long wild iris leaf folded double.


But then it seemed to tilt of its own accord

against the cool current and I made out its head

as it broke the surface then paused,

a mottled yellow like a linden bud,

on a stepping stone’s rough, warmer edge.


It withdrew once more into the water

so nonchalantly at ease in the cold

until the liquid and mineral mutter

accelerated and the snake rolled

sideways to slip between tree roots in the bank.


I left the cabin that night with you to look

first at the stars and meteors burning up

in the atmosphere of our dying planet,

then watched the stream with its scintillants of light,

the tail-end of a galaxy shaped like a snake.


There was rustling near us. It was not the creep

of a mouse. It was too continuous, too slight

like a breath avoiding words which wait on the tip

and back of our tongues so that language fails

and stays unformed in the dark heat of our throats.





The signs were there for all to see.

Red ants raised little dirt volcanoes

from cracks in the gazebo’s masonry.


Fruit dropped from creaking trees on cue

each windfall more circular than the last

and colouring to a blush’s hue.


Our manuscripts were carelessly left out.

Their ink ran like witch’s blood and scorched the grass

so nothing healthy would ever sprout.


The laurel was transformed by ill will.

Wind could not stir leaves which yet moved

when the air was absolutely still


as though they were lips round dark mouths

babbling above mould and loam where neither

bird hopped nor lizard scuttled. Truths


beyond our hearing’s pitch were uttered.

We slowed the noise down octaves, reversed it.

All we heard was meaningless mutter.





Who will tumble from the sky

and be arrested in my garden

disentangling themselves from a parachute?


Who will thrust up through the soil

and brush crumbs from their heads and shoulders

staring goggle-eyed waist deep in our cabbage patch?


And who will flit like a bat

intent on catching moths and midges

claiming they are between heaven and the earth?


None of my friends, I suspect,

though of those who are outrageous

some still love their wives, some still believe in God.


We look up at shooting stars.

The ground beneath our feet is unmoved.

Something dark in the air shies by very fast.







































FIVE POEMS FROM “The River and the Black Cat”




The trees have devised an alphabet of colour.

The river nurses a favourite vowel

over hieroglyphs of shadow and small stones.

Yellow and green is the business of the day

although the black cat denies this

leaping from branch to branch in the apricot

as if blackness and points glittering

from the sunlight in her fur had nothing to do

with our language where syntax rattles its bones.

We regard and whisper nonsense

over the clauses of each other’s bodies

to confirm we are landscapes within

or landscapes without, trees without leaves

or blossom, flowering heads without

petals or colour, scent the breeze has brought

from somewhere we can never locate.




All at once more considered,

more leisurely, more constructed,

over time less inspired,

less impetuous, less improvised,

the garden comes alive at appointed places,

brown, violet, pink velvet buds,

nature imitating the unnatural,

staked, pruned, espaliered,

a language on its best behaviour,

voices practising a nuance,

hands splaying their fingers to make a point,

smiles not residing in the eyes,

laughter deliberately musical,

a heart breaking with perfect manners

unlike the river unruly with melting ice

while slightly elsewhere between little

avenues of rose twigs the black cat trots

with the first song of spring in her jaws.









A headless thrush brought in for breakfast,

the black cat more than usually companionable,

unseen, unheard the river conveys greetings

from the Holy Roman Empire to the court of France

despite the raucous manners of jay and magpie,

the calloused hands of the executioner grasping an axe,

a would-be lover having to comprehend that No means No

while the garden begins to flourish before its due time,

the apricot breaking out into white and pink

and you and I embrace naked heedless of the open window.




Our journey to the centre of the earth

begins without the clean-living white hunter,

without the absent-minded professor,

his devoted person-of-colour servant,

his critical daughter, virginal

obsessive cleaner of test tubes.

You require somebody who always leaves

the toilet seat down. I require somebody

who always laughs sincerely at my jokes.

The language synchronizes with the earth

and opens its golden fissures into which

we dive speaking unintelligible tongues.

Crust, mantle, magma are exposed as myths.

The river is a surface expression

of underground idioms and jargon.

The black cat frisks over continents

of extinct animal sounds to join us.





The Golden Age is once more upon us,

sunshine alternating with bouts of rain,

the black cat sheltering in the shed,

the river surly with reminiscences of the hills.

You and I, too, are fire and water,

our faces perfect shining miniatures

in drops of water, our kisses vapourising

with a tang like wine spilt on a hot stove.


Literary Editor

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