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This review is taken from PN Review 116, Volume 23 Number 6, July - August 1997.

FAMILIAR PROBLEMS CHARLIE SMITH, Before and After (Norton) $11.00
DIONISIO D. MARTINÉZ, Bad Alchemy (Norton) $12.00
DAVID HARTNETT, At the Wood's Edge (Cape) £7.00

If Before and After were a portrait in oils, it would be unlikely to hang above the sitting-room fireplace of any but the most phlegmatic of families. Peopled by his stifled father, his mad mother, his damaged brother and his damaged self, the family of Smith's poems knows violence, dissolution and despair. Taking its cue from Lowell's Life Studies, it is a stark study of the destructive force of family life.

It is a book to be read at a sitting. What at first seem to be relatively recognisable characters and relationships fracture as the poems proceed. Histories thicken, positions are shifted, and what appear to be defining moments simply bleed away. What intensifies is a sense of almost breathless constriction, from which the only relief is the assurance and poise of the poems themselves.

Before and After is a book of free verse. The language is familiar, even colloquial, but awkward line-breaks interrupt its ease and present the reader with small breakages which indicate much larger disruptions. The poems appear to bloom towards their endings - the clipped, factual, almost dispassionate narratives of each typically broaden into a closing moment of lyrical intensity, which may be, but more usually isn't, a moment of resolution or illumination:
 

… You know how it starts:
upright in church, it's spring,
a softened, gentle breeze drifts in,
you turn your head, see your child
caught inside a beam of ...


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