The Smile Was (Dannie Abse)

one thing I waited for always
after the shouting
after the palaver
the perineum stretched to pain
the parched voice of the midwife
and I can’t and the rank
sweet smell of the gas
I can’t
as she whiffed cotton wool
inside her head
as the hollow stones of gas
from the lights above
to the river-bed, to the real stones.
Push! Push!
as she floated up again
muscles tensed, to the electric
till the little head was crowned;
and I shall wait again
for the affirmation.

For it is such;
that effulgent, tender, satisfied
smile of a woman
who, for the first time
hears the child crying the world
for the very first time

That agreeable, radiant smile—
no man can smile it
no man can paint it
as it develops without fail
after the gross, physical, knotted,
granular, bloody endeavor.
Such a pure spirituality, from all that!
It occupies the face
and commands it
Out of relief
you say, reasonably thinking of the reasonable,
swinging lightness of any reprieve
the joy of it, almost helium in the head.

So wouldn’t you?
And truly there’s always the torture of the unknown.
There’s always the dream of pregnant women,
blood of the monster in the blood of the child;
and we know of generations lost
like words faded on a stone,
of minds blank or wild with genetic mud.
And couldn’t you
smile like that?

Not like that, no never,
not with such indefinable
dulcitude as that.
And so she smiles
with eyes as brown as a dog’s
or eyes blue-mad as a doll’s
it makes no odds
whore, beauty or bitch,
it makes no odds
illimitable chaste happiness
in that smile
as new life-in-the-world
for the first time cries the world.
No man can smile like that.

No man can paint it.
Da Vinci sought it out
yet was far, far, hopelessly.
Leonardo, you only made
Mona Lisa look six months gone!

I remember the smile of the Indian.
I told him
Fine, finished.
you are cured.
and he sat there smiling sadly.
Any painter could paint it
the smile of a man resigned saying
Thank you, doctor,
you have been kind
and then, as in melodrama,
How long
have I to live?
The Indian smiling, resigned,
all the fatalism of the East.

So one starts again, also smiling,
All is well
you are well, you are cured.
And the Indian still smiling
his assignations with death
still shaking his head, resigned.
Thank you
for telling me the truth, doctor.
Two months? Three months?

And beginning again
and again
whatever I said, thumping the table
however much I reassured him
the more he smiled the conspiratorial
smile of a damned, doomed man.

Now a woman, a lady, a whore,
a bitch, a beauty, whatever,
the child’s face crumpled
as she becomes the mother
she smiles differently, ineffably.
As different as
the smile of my colleague,
his eyes reveal it,
his ambiguous assignations,
good man, good surgeon,
whose smile arrives of its own accord
from nowhere
like flies to a dead thing
when he makes the first incision.

Who draws a line of blood
across the soft, white flesh
as if something beneath,
desiring violence, had beckoned him;
who draws a ritual wound,
a calculated wound
to heal—to heal,
but still a wound—
good man, good surgeon,
his smile as luxuriant
as the smile of Peter Lorre.

So is the smile of my colleague,
the smile of a man
secretive behind the mask.

The smile of war.

But the smile, the smile
of the new mother,
an extraordinary
open thing
it is.

Walking home tonight I saw
an ordinary occurrence
hardly worth remarking on:
an unhinged star, a streaking gas,
and I thought how lovely destruction is when it is far.
Ruined it slid
on the dead dark towards fiction:
its lit world disappeared
phut, through one punched hole or another,
slipped unseen down the back of the sky
into another time.

not for one single death
can I forget we die with the dead
and the world dies with us;
in one, lonely,
small child’s birth
all the tall dead rise
to break the crust of the imperative earth.

No wonder the mother smiles
a wonder like that,
a lady, a whore, a bitch, a beauty.
Eve smiled like that
when she heard Seth cry out Abel’s dark<
earth dark, the first dark,
eeling on the deep sea-bed,
struggling on the real stones.
Hecuba, Cleopatra, Lucretia Borgia,
Annette Vallon smiled like that.

They all, still, smile like that,
when the child first whimpers like a seagull
the ancient smile reasserts itself
instinct with a return
so outrageous and so shameless;
the smile the smile
always the same
an uncaging
a freedom.

1: Why do you believe the smile is so unique?
2: Why does the poet explain the smiles of a patient and a surgeon in the poem? What is the poet trying to illustrate?


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