TEXT review

Super Modern Prayer Book

review by Alison Clifton


Susan Bradley Smith
Super Modern Prayer Book
Salt, London, 2010
ISBN 9781844714490
Pb 112pp AUD24.95


Susan Bradley Smith had my admiration and attention right away with her latest collection of poetry, Super Modern Prayer Book.  Why?  The front cover of the book features a recommendation from Jill Jones, the well-respected Adelaide poet.  The poetry inside more than lives up to expectations: Smith’s work is fluid, warm, and dark.  Here and there golden hope glimmers, but mostly rage, disappointment and grief stain scarlet the black canvas of Smith’s poetry. Sensual and speakable, despite its often taboo subject matter and sometimes profane language, Super Modern Prayer Book is richly feminist writing at its best. Sleek, nuanced, intimately communicative, Smith’s poetry is the work of a writer comfortable with her womanhood.

The most impressive aspect of this poetry is Smith’s foregrounding of what in lesser hands might have become back story. Although this is lyric poetry, more often than not there is narrative here. As each poem progresses, the elements of the story emerge to colour the monologue with detail. Indeed, Smith shows great skill in her selectivity and positioning of details. ‘Sea monster’, the stand-out poem and the one which opens the collection, begins with the realisation that ‘You will never have to loan / her money or pretend you / like her husband …’ (3).  However, the touchingly familiar, humorously-inflected notions of mothering a daughter – advising ‘which / G.P. has the nicer touch for / Pap smears’ (3) – soon give way to horrific, plainly-stated details. It soon emerges that ‘your’ daughter went to a party and took a pill ‘from a boy, who had two / others standing behind him, / slyly enjoying the strain of / their cocks in their jeans’ (3). These boys ‘forced / themselves into all of her / three holes, for fun, it was / such a laugh’ (3). She took her own life afterwards, swimming out with strong strokes from the shore to drown or be taken by a shark. And now you sit in the courtroom next to her best friend – she too was caught by the boys, who ‘played their golf again’ (4). They told her to shut up, but she would not until this moment when the boys are given community service: ‘Fine young men undone by drink / and circumstance’ (4). This material could be maudlin in the wrong hands, could seem too over-the-top, details exaggerated until they are unbelievable, if it were not for the knowledge of cases such as the murder of Leigh Leigh in a small beachside community in New South Wales in 1989 (the play and film entitled Blackrock were based on this crime). Under the Melbourne poet’s deft hand, the powerful verse emerges from the murkiness. Shifting from a lyric style to paragraph form in a mid-poem caesura, ‘Sea monsters’ shows Smith’s trademark skilled handling of the interplay of form and content.

It is not always easy to digest the misery and despair only briefly lit by hope. A baby is left handicapped by illness (scarlet fever?) in ‘The Scarlet series of true belief’ (14), ‘small baby coffins’ haunt ‘Good decisions also get you stuck in traffic’ (96) and ‘a coffin for a baby’ leaves scars that cannot be erased from the skin of ‘In the human way’ (86). However, an infant girl prospers despite the distance between her father and mother in ‘Love fuck theory’ as the:


showered on the child by her mother nurtures the whispered chlorophyll ‘promise of … / return’ with which the poem concludes (84).

Here the green of growth and feminist thought plays off the red of blood, death and life; there the green and purple sash of the suffragette and the purple heart of the injured soldier encourage each other to feats of endurance. A sensitive writer, Smith is still capable of harshness and hardness in equal measure, but her humanity lightens the bleakness. One is reminded of the Japanese word ‘kokoro’, which means ‘the thinking and feeling heart’.

Not only is the poetry shaded by light and colour, but there is also a musical theme running through the collection adding to the cardiac rhythms of the work. The words of Green Day’s American Idiot (2004), a protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, storm the entrenched lines of ‘As far as I can tell there is nothing wrong with me: fugue for dying soldiers to sing out loud, as well as being a cento, for Charlie’ (77). The title of this poem may be less than catchy and its original content sparse – with Smith making use of large swathes of Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics as well as appropriating her main character from the music video to ‘Wake Me up when September Ends’ – but the juxtaposition of snatches of sneering lyrics from lead-singer Billie Joe Armstrong with the mixed contempt and desperation in the voice of the girlfriend left behind by the GI is effective. 

The musical theme is continued when a woman defined more by her status as an aging wife and mother than by her teaching position at a university realises that ‘Nick / Cave writes songs about women like me …’ in ‘Good decisions also get you stuck in traffic’ (97), while UK rock group Primal Scream light up the ‘pink ipod’ possessed by a woman indecisive about forsaking London life and taking a job in Australia in ‘Someone else’s cool’ (88).  The narrator of this poem looks into a kaleidoscope of past promise, present indecision and future potential for the young woman, once again delineating the sorts of details poets who court obscurity would omit.

If you are a reader who warms to a confessional style devoid of the pathetic undertones that can mar such poetry; if you are the sort of person who delights in the musicality of language; if you are the kind of listener who overhears more than might be considered healthy … if any of these descriptions suit you, then Smith’s Super Modern Prayer Book should be on your bookshelf, its words lingering in colourful thought-images in your head.


Alison Clifton is a PhD student at the University of Queensland.  Her thesis is in the field of contemporary British poetry and is entitled: 'Faith and Politics in the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill'.  Alison writes poetry reviews for M/C Reviews: Words and her other interests include contemporary Japanese fiction.


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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy