One of her recurrent subjects, rich in poetic potential, is Black women’s hair, in particular the more specifically (perceived) threatening transformations of her own once familiar dreadlocks into snakes and, ultimately, herself into the petrifying image of Medusa. Such heady metaphors allow Smartt to explore a wide range of aspirations and wrong-headed assumptions, as well as creating a multi-faceted portrait of one particular woman; a more generalised idea of all Black women; and a wider mythical image, where that defining stubborn stuff itself, the Black woman’s Afro hair, is writhing and alive, spitting venom like those serpents which, according to Ovid, adorned as a perpetual punishment the horrified and terrifying Gorgon’s (once) beautiful head. The reptiles are only subdued, as it were, by hair-straightening, and a popular chemical for that is comically called ‘lye’ – a “Fact”, as Smartt records in ‘Five Strands of Hair’ - wherein lie the Black Medusa’s symbolic duality and her terrible dilemma: her ancestral origins, history and identity are tied up in that same hair which now (supposedly) appears to limit and torment her and even threaten the onlooker. In Connecting Medium (2001) the Brit-born Bajan explores socio-political and personal issues in the intertwined themes of distant heritage, home and hair with a firm, often angry, hold on reality, as well as a sympathetic awareness of underlying recurrent hopes and dreams.
These “Diaspora lines” weave people and histories in a “worldwide web” which enables the poet to be a conduit for pictures and narratives from a past forever yielding up stark unsentimental truths. In many poems Smartt the time-traveller crosses cultural boundaries with confident ease, speaking in the appropriate register, polishing diction with her eye and ear alive to its linguistic, musical and moral currency. Her borrowings and invention come together in Samboo’s Grave/Bilal’s Grave (2008), a collection which serves as both memento mori and uncomfortable fable for contemporary Britain and the wider world. A series of poems commissioned to highlight a campaign for a memorial to Lancaster’s involvement in the slave trade, it is a powerful sequence of haunting snapshots which capture an African-Caribbean slave boy’s abject existence after being “kicked from his calabash pot” by his captor and brought back to Lancaster as a gift for the sea captain’s wife. “’Boy’” or “’Samboo’” as he was called, would die not long after his presentation, and religious and racial bigotry prevented those high-minded Lancastrians from admitting him to a Christian cemetery. So in a bleak spot near the mouth of the River Lune he was laid to rest and abandoned to the elements: "Here I lie. A hollow/ Samboo. Filled with your tears/ and regrets." His grave is marked by a plaque bearing a lengthy poetic epitaph written sixty years later, in 1796, and it is at this bleak memorial that Smartt too lays herself down: "waiting for full earth to speak to me,/ waiting for buried bones to whisper/ as a flow of fears floods through me." These elegiac, poignant lyrics of loss occasionally give way to more violent emotions as in ‘The 99 Names of the Samboo’, a bold incantation variously naming the ”beloved” and the “damned”, which shocks in its relentless blows and their cumulative effect. Smartt re-names ‘Samboo’ Bilal, inhabits Bilal’s very being, tracing and feeling every heartbreaking pang of his trajectory from Fulani Muslim boy to black novelty in proud “Lancaster life”. Her reclamation of his abandoned figure is an act of familial love, exemplary humanity and timely justice, which welcomes Bilal into a Diasporic mythology and, poetically, gathers him into the artifice of eternity.
Of course, being just a small part of this “worldwide web” does not lessen the significance of Smartt’s South London self, circumscribed by Battersea and Brixton, and nurtured in the proudly kept home of her immigrant parents, arrivals from Barbados in Fifties’ Britain. Her poems about domestic and school life address the private world of childhood with vivid insights, as do those tackling the commonplace slights still suffered in contemporary Britain – ‘Pissed Off’ is hilarious and agonising. And it is in some of these often funny rants and ruminations that she slips into the Caribbean rhythm and sing-song of her first speech, only to tumble headlong back into the ‘sarth Lunnun’ accent acquired during her Battersea youth. Such subtle counterpoint requires precise vocal skills, and as a reader, Smartt is superb in her miniature dramatisations of image and emotion; and though her poems own the printed page as well as she hopes, they do nevertheless live more fully in the mind when performed by their immensely talented creator.