In ‘Reading Maxine Kumin’, one of a number of bookish poems in her new collection, Elizabeth Smither alludes to that poet’s materia poetica citing ‘…The Green Well in which / a great pile-up of the spent and the dead / creates the sort of compost poems come from. From deep pity…’ It is not altogether surprising this should have resonated with Smither, for while some of the compost which generates the poems in The Blue Coat does derive from the spent and the dead — friends, relatives, even the occasional pet (Old Man Baby) — so much more derives from the pity, or more accurately her empathetic engagement with her world and all who inhabit it. Expressed another way this is the sounding of the heart she found in the very seductive William Carlos Williams she wrote of so many years, and books, ago.
Through these many books, Smither has so perfected her craft that the poems now seem effortless. The familiar voice is here: that of a wry and ever-attentive observer wearing her learning lightly; a good companion, a fellow reader, writer, and terrific conversationalist. She has a painterly eye for shape and colour, and often the poems themselves aspire to painting as in the very first poem, ‘Black Labradors’, invoking Braque and Roualt before coming to the dogs themselves: Two black Labradors on the grass / are a painting moving. Other poems are imbued with the qualities of still life painting or landscape.
It is a bravura performance, of course, as the expression of distilled art often is. As in any good painting, the pictorial element is merely the door that opens into a more meditative or even transfiguring space. The very blackness of the black Labradors raises the question, where does the light go that they displace? The pictorial elements, beautiful in themselves, of the white tram on the Dandenong Road throwing up autumn leaves, raise questions of whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and in its own individual way answers with assurance the old conundrum of whether a falling tree in a deserted forest makes a noise. Smither assures us that the beauty – the bliss– is a double blessing, precisely because we don’t see it.
Smither has always been an economical poet; not for her the epic or the garrulous ramble. Here the poems are often distilled to a few short lines, sometimes little more than an elaborated image, as in ‘Governess Sky’, a mere nine short lines, but beautifully compressed and beautifully limpid:
…The grey sky / the grey governess with the grey gloves / doing all the talking.
And ‘Two adorable things about Mozart’, a poem summed up perfectly by its title, is a mere six lines although the last three read: And secondly: how he drags something / like heavy fabric, like a train behind him / up stone stairs to a window with a view of graves. I venture to suggest that these three lines say as much about Mozart’s music as many another worthy tome might take a chapter or two to express.
There are other poems about music, and art and galleries, books, and many about gardens, trees and flowers. These are civilised poems, poems of observation, of the cultivated world Elizabeth Smither presumes her readers share.
The Blue Coat reads as a very personal document, so much so that I was surprised a little on re-reading it to realise that fewer than half of the poems are written in the first person. There is something of a progression, however. Because only a few of the poems stretch into a second page, the book includes a generous sixty or so. There are no sections as such, although the poems have been thoughtfully arranged so that certain patterns do emerge and there are occasional chimes among poems. Of the first thirty or so, only a third are written in the first person, whereas in the more people-centred second half of the book, over half of the poems are first person; moreover, several poems in this section are second person, often poems addressed to specific people.
Given, then, that it is not so much the use of personal pronouns that give the book its intimate feel, what does? The answer lies in the nature of Elizabeth Smither’s voice. It is unmistakeable and speaks to us from poem to poem, not exactly the voice of the Concert programme alluded to in ‘Virginia: gardening with a transistor’, but it could well be a voice on such a platform: clear-eyed, observant, witty with an elegant turn of phrase or an arresting image or analogy, and always, as mentioned earlier, that engagement as we accompany her through the mornings, afternoons and evenings of her life.
The compost the poems spring from does become more specific in the second half of the book and we are given poems addressed to or about particular people, often close friends or family members. Here we share a Chinese meal with a second language student who also has a sense of Dr Williams great dictum:
…I will hold an umbrella over her for her pristine devotion to scholarship / for her seeing in the heat of careless writing / a parallel longing for a jewelled fact // a beauty based on solids. And now comes / the procession of dishes: the Bang Bang Chicken / the Mapu Tofu and the luscious pink prawns.
We share an evening of ‘Intensive reading with Diana’ and rarely has silent reading been so passionately endorsed (my eyes seem to gobble the text), an operation (‘All Saints and the day of an operation’) and thereafter there are a number of poems which do pick over the great pile up of the spent and the dead: ‘Last sister’; ‘Dying’, ‘Credo’ and ‘Last week of a life’. These are leavened by a section dealing affectionately with birth and grandchildren and with a number of witty poems, often more literally intimate, including the title poem ‘The Blue Coat’, ‘The bra fitting’, and ‘Dressing in Nelson Street, King’s Lynn’.
The last section of the book delves into family, and there is an awareness here of generational shift with the poet herself looking back to her parents and forward to her children and grandchildren. Both these strands come together in the lovely ‘Ruby’s heirloom dress’, which previously appeared in the Paula Green edited anthology Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems:
Everything in your dress is openness: the neck / delicately trimmed with lace, the sleeves gathered in // with ribbon and rosebuds, the floating hem as if / great-great-grandmother was sailing around the world / stopping at islands with fruit and palm trees / and a soft sea with waves the way the hem falls.
The great-great-grandmother, repeated three times in the poem, seems almost like a dim Victorian figure until we realise with a slight start that this is the poet’s own grandmother, who would most likely have been very much part of her life even though …her long fingers and bent skull / are gone from the world…
The intergenerational theme is continued in following poems, particularly in ‘Birthmark’ and ‘For Ruby’, and then follow poems centred in turn on the poet’s father and mother, one being an amusing take on her mother’s driving skills and her father’s attitude to them: How / lovingly, consistently, he undermined her… This, without the first adverb, could have been my memory of my own mother’s driving and my father’s witnessing as well.
In keeping with the movement of the poems in the latter half of the book, the final two poems strike an elegiac note: ‘Signing the will’ and ‘Blessing the house for departure’. The juxtaposition of the two gives the final poem a special frisson. It is both a prayer and a description of a prayer, the house like the poet a fixture between generations: who live in it. Have lived, / will live… It includes a blessing to the paintings to keep their eyes open, to know they are regarded and prayed over…. All while the taxi is heard in the drive.
In ‘Leaf Flurry Tram’ the transformative tram is a ‘great wizard’, throwing up a beauty the travellers are unaware of. In The Blue Coat, Elizabeth Smither, ever open-eyed, presents her readers with a collection of beautifully-crafted poems. Unlike the travellers on the Dandenong tram, few readers would remain unaware of the humanity and craft between its covers.
JAMES NORCLIFFE‘s latest fantasy novel for young readers Felix and the Red Rats, written during his 2012 stint as Creative NZ / Otago University College of Education Children’s Writer in Residence, has just has been released. 2012 also saw two new poetry collections: Packing a Bag for Mars (Clerestory Press), aimed at younger readers; and Shadow Play from Proverse (Hong Kong), a finalist in the Proverse International Writing Prize.