Reading a new Elizabeth Smither poem might initially seem like setting off on a familiar journey. The language sounds natural, as if the speaker has been encountered in passing and there are updates since last acquaintance — domestic moments, local anecdotes, traveller’s tales. And the form appears recognizable, where Smither’s tidy three- or four-line stanzas maintain a high standard of housework. But then. Then things happen: the end of a line turns a surprising corner, an unexpected twist occurs in a story, a rhyme pounces that was lurking in the language all along, there’s a laugh at something sad, an ache at a joke, a treasury of contrasts. But mostly, it’s the way Smither connects a thing, an image, to an emotion, and how the reader can never unsee that feeling; it’s for always. Smither is primarily an imagist who brings her original eye to uncovering the strangeness of being alive.
Smither’s latest collection My American Chair is her 19th volume of poetry and is a co-publication between her long-time Aotearoa publisher Auckland University Press and MadHat Press, North Carolina. Chair (yes, it refers to a thing) is quintessential Smither for its beauty, warmth and control, and yet it is full of newness. Up-to-the-minute Smither unpacks the contemporary item by item; where, for instance, the discovery of a new planet can be something close, first ‘ovaloid like a baby’s head’, then later:
But how delicious it sounds. The sun
that belongs to this planet (still unnamed,
just a number) as close in its orbit
as a woman is to her handbag (‘A new planet’).
These lines epitomise Smither’s often-used technique where quick-fire metaphors widen the view yet bring it so poignantly home: a baby’s head, a handbag.
Smither is, of course, well known for her prodigious output, not just in poetry but in fiction and memoir. She is published internationally and much-lauded: the national poetry prize twice, Poet Laureate, a Prime Minister’s award for poetry and an honorary Doctorate from the University of Auckland.
While she is hugely respected for her work, I have concerns about how closely Smither is read, and these ideas are partly to do with my personal poetry journal but also to do with audience. It’s time for full disclosure: It took me a couple of decades to appreciate Smither’s poetry, which I now find astonishing, but I think there are two reasons. The first is to do with my inability to read Smither’s seamless craft. I did not look deeply into the formal structures (noted at the beginning of this review) and to hear the sway of the conversational voice.
But apart from my own failings as a reader, I also believe there is another reason I did not initially understand Smither’s brilliance. She was not thrust under my nose as an inescapable part of the NZ canon. Much as Smither has been decorated, she has not received the critical investigation that her work demands. I put this down to the glaring fact of womanhood. A thumbnail sample of key Aotearoa poetry anthologies (that proclaim an overview) show Smither less represented than her male counterparts. Her topics are often domestic — notwithstanding that there is art, music, painting, belief; that her tone is talky, her voice deceptively glancing while all the time approaching nothing less than existential; why, how are we here.
Paula Green quotes Smither in Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry thus: ‘poetry is saying I don’t know exactly what it is I’m seeing but maybe if I keep looking longer…’ Eventually, thank goodness, I looked longer. I have come to not just admire Smither’s work but to rank her as one of the most striking voices in Aotearoa poetry.
A trawl through Smither’s many previous collections can help navigate the current book: The elegant yet violent The Tudor Style which includes Henry VIII and a Catherine; the hilarious yet poignant Red Shoes in which blistering heels are also about the heart; Night Horse with its trademark locating of generations, mountains, tablecloths; her Parihaka poems that were part of Wellington City Gallery’s Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance and proclaim her Taranaki base.
My American Chair, then, doesn’t come out of nowhere with its iconic voice and imagery, its juxtapositions of the everyday and the profound, the funny and the poignant, the personal and the universal, the documentary and the magical. While Smither revisits her favourite topics of thing, family, place, music, art – each poem is a unique in its vision. Elizabeth keeps on making it new.
The book opens with an ode to cranes. The speaker observes a building site with childlike wonder, noticing workmen sitting on planks for lunch, a chain on a boom like a ‘diamante bracelet’. This poem marvels at what human’s make: ‘we live here, thanks to cranes’.
These poems go travelling, but in ways you never thought of before. The distinct differences of the drycleaner in London and in Paris are compared. The title poem of this collection addresses distance, in place and time, as the American chair with its history both political and personal is carried away ‘like a giant crab’.
Funny moments abound in Smither poems. It’s part of the rawness. There are ducks on railway lines and ‘[t]he plastic skeleton I shook hands with when the surgeon left the room’. Funny stories abound. Smither’s narrative skill, so apparent in her droll yet stirring fiction, makes its way into the poems. It’s not often I laugh out loud at a poem, but I did at ‘The joke of the Sapeurs-Pompiers’ in which an English-speaking woman trying to hire a car in France ends up ordering a fire engine because she’s so intent on showing off her terrible French.
There are poems of grandchildren, tender and beautiful, as in ‘Night time words for Ruby’ (which incorporates one of Smither’s lovely tucked-in rhymes):
I’m bringing something I do not know
down to you in my embrace. An angel’s
wingtip, the first air movement of
a visitation of becoming and forever grace.
Beautiful girl, beautiful girl.
Structurally, My American Chair is a delight to unfold, as it moves through neighbourhoods of topic with two or three poems on each — skeletons, churches, family, gardens, music — which are subtly echoed later on. The arrangements reminded me of a garden planted in a combination of formal and wild, with features and shape, yet drifts come upon as if by accident. In her notes, Smither acknowledges editor Elizabeth Caffin for her vision in creating this structure, and it really does enhance the beauty and impact of the book.
The poems on music, for instance, thread and bounce, with not ten guitars but ten conductors, where a euphonium makes ‘a disgraceful growl // no animal would own, unless a cub / was tuning up to be a bear’.
Hugh Roberts surveying Smither on Poetry Archive notes that in her poetry ‘the simplest details can be trapdoors to eternity’. This seems apt, as Smither documents the moments of a life high and low — the everyday, family, home, aesthetics and belief. Her closing poem demonstrates this very quality with seemingly effortless beauty: ‘Later // after the dishes were cleared and washed / in your lounge’s two matching armchairs / you laid on my lap a large art book’ (‘A wild book’). Notice the armchairs?
In My American Chair, Smither once again delivers a poetry where controlled connections of image, moment, thought, story and emotion speak on our wild existence here.