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Nicholas Birns reviews

A Question of Gravity
by Elizabeth Smither

418pp. with 12 color plates. Arc. UK£ 8.95. 1-900072-75-0 paper

This review is 2,034 words
or about 4 printed pages long


Just as New Zealand was a leader in women’s suffrage, being the first modern nation to have women vote, so it has been a leader in woman poets who have canonical status. This is so even though the two most identifiable New Zealand literary movements in the twentieth century — the poets of settlemen — centered around (the early) Allen Curnow and the Charles Brasch  who founded Landfall. These poets wrote about explorers and pioneers and were the laureates of ‘Man Alone’.
      The second was the counterculture poets who emerged in the 1960s and were epitomizing a hippie machismo that became quickly outdated after feminism’s emergence in the 1970s. Elizabeth Smither, born in 1941 and hailing from the rural Taranaki region of the North Island, is just slightly older than the poets in the second group. But she has fashioned a very independent path for her career.
      Smither is a a poet who has been working at a level of sustained strength for over three decades, after publishing her first book comparatively late in her mid-thirties. Though she has published novels and short stories, Smither is mainly known as a poet. She has received substantive recognition for her work in her home country, including a two-year term as New Zealand poet laureate in the early 2000s, and has often appeared in anthologies of international poetry in English. The selection under review here, part of a series covering notable Australian, New Zealand, and related poets and intended in the first instance for readers in the UK, is culled from five of her most recent volumes. It thus is not an overall retrospective, nor a comprehensive selection. The selection is slim. But  there is nonetheless a sense of great abundance because of Smither’s compressed techniques. A Question of Gravity is an excellent overview of Smither’s spare, unobtrusive, methodical lyrics, and will make the reader who does not know Smither’s work feel that there is a gap in their knowledge of contemporary poetry.
      Smither writes concise, intelligent poems that sometimes exhort, sometimes muse, sometimes simply watch. Smither generally does not rhyme, though ‘Rhyme, Unrhyme’ playfully comments on this by rhyming in stilted couplets and ending by saying, of a causal conversation among working-class New Zealanders on a train, ‘if it rhymes it takes away all their hopes’.
      One of the salient aspects of Smither’s poetry is its clarity; but this does necessarily mean ‘simplicity’ or ‘transparency’. In ‘Six Little Poems About Canada’ the next-to-last poem is entitled “Why Do Colonial Voices Rise On The Last Word?”

      A disbelief that rushes to believe
      That you will disbelieve we believe
      And that we should be doubtful in belief
      Does not unsettle belief underneath

The Gertrude Stein-like repetition vies for control of the poem with its crystalline diction and the subtle logic. The rising intonation — the topic of the poem — betrays a sense of colonial inferiority, of not owning the language as much as its ‘original’ English users. The colonials think that the metropolitan people will be skeptical of them, whatever they say, and load their voices with a bit of preventive defensiveness. This is clear from the first two lines. But the last two are more opaque. Is Smither saying that colonials (remember, the poem is generated by a New Zealander visiting Canada) have core beliefs subtending the tentative surface they feel they must show to others? Or is she saying that colonial self-awareness of the absurdity of an inferiority complex with respect to the colonizer does not ‘unsettle’ (the pun with ‘settler’ is decidedly intended) does not undo the deeply patterned belief that only the metropolitan can possibly be important?
      Smither sometimes starts out with a straightforwardly humorous premise, then leads the poem somewhere else. In ‘Error on a Quiz Programme’ she records the game-show challenge ‘Give me the name of three lady violinists/who lived at Haworth Parsonage.’ The confusion of the Bronte sisters with violinists sets Smither off on a series of musings about the counterfactual  scenario of the three violinists:

      Charlotte on the violin, Anne the viola
      And Emily on the violoncello
      Each evening in the dark drawing room
      They drew up their instruments and played
      With the wind above the graves
      Charlotte was most in demand as a soloist.
      Anne was too shy and with a limited repertoire.
      The violoncello takes up too much room in a carriage
      If anyone was asked out it was usually Charlotte.
      Emily carried the violoncello on her back.
      As she tramped across the moors. Sometimes
      she laid it across a stream and jumped over it.

The poem makes sharp observations about the actual three sisters in the course of  this flight of fancy, ending up attaining greater insight on an oft-assayed subject than a more straightforwardly addressed poem or even essay would have done. What is a direct object for other poets is an indirect object for Smither. She takes one more step to get to her goal, which in this case is a wry sense of the hard-won nature of artistic achievement.
      Some of the book’s best poems are about paintings, and scenes that might well be paintings. ‘Three women sharing a bowl of crème brûlée’ looks at a scene of utter ordinariness and extrapolates from it a sense of both the fortuitous nature of cultural forms (the accidental invention of now-massively popular desserts such as crème brûlée, crêpes suzettes, and tarte Tatin) and how a casual, communal gathering can take on overtones of an extravagant ritual.

      Accidents which on the instant of occurring
      or in culinary terms — combining — become
      a poet’s inspired instinctive metre
      a villanelle
      perhaps, an enjambment
      so full of joyous creation
      Resembles wind through an open window

These lines can virtually serve as an insignia for Smither’s own aesthetic, which though not formally stringent or thematically premeditated has a great deal of design to it — design that the reader feels has arisen out of, and has elaborated upon, an attitude open to gleaning a sense of haphazard fortune from experience. Equally, it is astonishing, given that Smither is not a poet who prescribes intuition in an overall sense, how intuitive the process of creation is here.
      The very idea of a title like ‘A death and a marriage in one day’ makes one think of John Donne. Smither shows herself prepared to use images that come close to metaphysical conceits. The meeting of ocean and air is likened, in the first poem of the ‘Swimming’ sequence to ‘the Pope and the Dalai Lama meeting/under dissolving mosques and steeples and bells’.
      Though the poems in this selection are not necessarily exactly the ones the experienced reader of Smither would cull from her past few volumes as her ‘best’, they surely would be considered most of her best in most readers’ opinions . The Arc volume does, though, concentrate Smither’s strengths into several unmarked but observable thematic clusters: on nature, religion, language, women’s experience, and, as we have already seen in the colonial voices poem, New Zealand consciousness.
      Nature: Smither rarely writes a ‘pure’ nature poem, nor does she endow nature with a salvific meaning. For her a rainbow is only “a statute of limitations”. But she is deft at integrating nature into her general field of representation. “A Small Potato Crop” looks with a startled bemusement at how potatoes in a garden actually appear, as opposed to the speaker’s previous conception of them. They sprout up not:

      As I had imagined, drawn
      from mire to air, like a potato birth
      but clear, almost jokingly, jovial

The potatoes are later compared to ‘clean dirt’, like beautiful yellow-haired girls who have accidentally made a mess. The potatoes’ exposure to dirt and natural processes does not sully them, but leaves their ‘morals gleaming’. Smither is not rhapsodic about nature, but does celebrate the joy that the vegetable world can provide. (She mourns the equivalent sorrow also, as is seen in “Brutal pruning of a camellia tree”.) Though Smither is not a Romantic poet, she is not a deliberately ‘unromantic poet’ in the manner of, say, Lorine Niedecker. She recognizes the ‘needful dependencies’ between humanity and nature.
      Religion: ‘Saints’ names’ addresses the Catholic or High Anglican habit of dating letters by saints’ days, no matter how minor the saint, in so relentless a way as to be extracted from a ‘vast dictionary’. Smither delights in the most obscure saints: ‘St Bernadette Soubirous/St Fidelis of Sigmaringa’. Smither evinces no set religious position. But she clearly has been a close observer of liturgical Christianity, much in the manner of the Australian poet Gwen Harwood. “Crucifer, thurifer” uses the terminology of religion to sound its emotional depths. A thurifer is a person who carries a thurible, the implement used for carrying incense. A crucifer is the person who bears the ceremonial cross. Both words are dactyls in metrical terms. Both contain, as their final element, the Latin stem “-fer” or “to bear”. Smither senses a deeper affinity between the two words. One pertains to the joyous side of Christianity. The other pertains to its bitter side.

      The skirts of the acolytes
      Called to create high dignity
      or at least thurifer creates it
      Like rosewater, sweet-throwing.
      Crucifer brings it, high-headed.

Language: Smither is fascinated by obscure words like “gallimaufry”, by small typographical questions such as the “Oxford comma,” the convention of ousting the comma before the last term in a series when it is not strictly needed. Smither makes fun of the practice, but also indulges in it:

      Victory, loss, effusions, and stoicism
      Someone thinks but doesn’t say
      As the crowd files in and takes their seats.

Smither celebrates the ‘O’ in Shakespeare as a minuscule vocative that can encompass the entire globe, or Globe.
      She is as intrigued by the mysterious markings of the letters N and G in Stephen Spender’s poems as she is frustrated by excessive underlining of a prized copy of a Mary Oliver poetry book by its previous reader. Smither is seismically sensitive to the microtuning of language.
      Women’s experience: Smither elucidates the asymmetries by which women’s  experience is sometimes made to seem less than normative, sometimes wittily, sometimes with ‘high dignity’ or perhaps the gravity alluded to in the book’s title. ‘A Cortege of Daughters’ uses striking imagery, imaging a group of women mourners serving as pallbearers at an uneventful funeral in which even the priest is emotionally uninvolved; through their beauty and devotion, the women turn a dolorous occasion almost into one of celebration. ‘St Paul’s kind of love’ imagines new testament agape as represented ironically by just the sort of person Paul’s rhetoric about gender tended to exclude, women who could manifest a ‘gentle, not puffed up’ love once they had taken off their hats counter to Pauline diktat, and ‘let their hair stream/in a safe bedroom light… ’ Poems about pregnancy and female friendship also feature in the volume.
      ‘Jennifer’s Wedding’ is an epithalamium in which the groom is barely present, and the bride is associated with a continuity of nature in which her wedding is only one, rather inconspicuous event in an ongoing continuity of ‘a mille-feuille of growing’.
      New Zealand consciousness: Smither, of a generation that was educated before Antipodean nationalism became cultural coin on either side of the Tasman Sea (in New Zealand and in Australia, that is), is also conscious of herself as a New Zealander ‘writing back’ against a literary tradition dominated by England. A duo of poems concern the ha-ha, the device by which landscape on English country estates was made to seem continuous. ‘The family name’ records receiving letters promoting genealogical scams, drawing on a hunger for ancestry and pedigree, and then recounts searching for Harrington ancestors in Northamptonshire. At the end, though, ‘The Family name’ plumps for a necessarily fictional set of forebears:

      But my favourite Harringtons are
      the two mentioned by Jane Austen
      In Pride and Prejudice, chapter 39
      Who, without any detail, sound pleasant.

The mordant, self-effacing humor present here, along with that pervasive and unmistakable  sense of clarity, reminds us of how grateful we should be that Arc has enabled Elizabeth Smither’s poetry to reach a wider array of international readers.

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