Colette Bryce on ‘Perfect Smile’

white goatI’ve been keeping the company of certain poems for so long now that they weave their way unbidden into the thought process. I like the disorienting effect when this happens. The Dickinson line floated in quite naturally, beckoned by the porcelain shelves. And Patrick Kavanagh is behind the cluster “kinggovernmentandnation”, from his wonderful sonnet about the poet’s predicament. That poem shares a mental shelf for me with Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Crusoe in England’ with its curious stanza on self-pity, an undeniable part of the poet’s condition: “Was there / a moment when I actually chose this?”

I’m sure I remember a goat in Bishop’s poem, and when I look it up I discover many goats – all white, until Crusoe dyes one of them red. But this goat train of thought is becoming a red herring. So getting back to what is behind my poem: the castaway theme will have led me, at some point, to Diana Souhami’s Selkirk’s Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe. Between the true and the strange, a poem can grow.

The smile is always present in the simile. I once saw a clip of a python swallowing a deer on a golf-course in Australia. (Head and shoulders first, in case you’re wondering.) In ‘Perfect Smile’, there is an eventual slinking away “into the aircon cavern of your car”, which reminds me now of Lawrence’s snake disappearing into ‘the earth-lipped fissure in the wall’. Oh dear. “To write a poem is to make a new mark on top of all these old marks”, Emily Berry reminds us in her current editorial.

None of this explains very much about ‘Perfect Smile’, I realise. What can one say? As a last resort, I ask my partner: what do you think is behind the poem? “Vanity,” she replies, “And a mid-life crisis.” Harsh, but I’ll let her have the last word.

Colette Bryce’s poem ‘Perfect Smile’ is published in the Autumn 2017 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 107, No.3.