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Stevie Smith’s poems suit a pandemic, even if they’re as soothing as sandpaper

Rachel Cooke
·3 min read

Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Stevie Smith. She was 68, and had been suffering from a brain tumour. At the end, her head wrapped in a startling pink turban, she was reported to have amazed visitors by performing her final poem Come Death from her hospital bed.

I’ve been keen on Smith ever since I was a teenager, a passion that at one point was so fierce that I was unaccountably moved to give a paper on her at an academic conference. (While other people’s side hustles are intended to make them extra cash, apparently mine must all involve unpaid work of the most futile kind.)

I love her spikiness. Sitting at an angle to everyone else, she cannot easily be appropriated; her verse will never appear in one of those ghastly anthologies that promise to console us whether we’re in love, or deeply grieving. She is as soothing as sandpaper, and all the better for it.

But watching Juliet Stevenson play her at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for Dead Poets Live – a celebration that’s free to stream until 5 April – I began to waver. The pandemic suits Stevie even better than a Peter Pan collar. (She was a famously prim dresser.) Covid has brought the suburbs into their own once again, and she was nothing if not the queen of Palmers Green: a person for whom bus journeys and bandstands bordered on the holy.

She needed life to be small, a constriction her poetry captures in a way that seems newly resonant now. Above all, there’s her preoccupation with loneliness. The first poem Stevenson reads is Do Take Muriel Out from 1950, in which a woman’s friends have all disappeared, taken (no spoilers here) by who knows what, or why.

Fable of a Korea girl

I smiled when I read that a North Korean defector had spent six hours walking along the border with South Korea, the guards there seemingly oblivious to his presence. It made me think of Crash Landing on You, in which a South Korean heiress, having been blown off course while paragliding, dashes around the wrong side of the border completely unimpeded, the North Korean guards being either too drunk, or too busy sobbing over a romantic TV show, to notice her.

If you’ve run out of TV to watch, this series is my steer, though it’s hard to describe. Imagine a telenovela that has collided with a Korean comic strip, and you’re about half way there. It comes with a love plot – what a cutie one of the North Korean soldiers turns out to be! – but it’s satirical, and quite funny, too. It also has an almost Dickensian morality. It is a fable of self-improvement. Marooned, minus all her usual luxuries, in the north (an alien realm meticulously recreated on screen), our spoilt heroine, Yoon Se-ri, is set to become a kinder, less materialistic person. Also, a less picky eater.

Literature of longing

A tinnitus masker is a device that fights noise with noise (to simplify: the brain gets distracted, and one sound cancels out the other). On this principle, I’m treating my ongoing loneliness by reading nothing but the literature of longing. Last week, I devoured – not once, but twice – Fitzcarraldo’s new English edition of Simple Passion, in which the great Annie Ernaux describes the suspended animation of a love affair with a man who is not free. Every paragraph, every word, brought me closer to a state of purest yearning, and thus my restless anxiety and general stupefaction were magically relieved, albeit only temporarily.

• Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist