Monday, June 19, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“NIGHT HORSE” by Elizabeth Smither (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99)

            I almost breathe a sigh of relief as I pick up, and at first flick idly through, Elizabeth Smither’s latest (eighteenth) collection of poetry Night Horse, before I get down to the serious business of reading my way through it. Across 70 pages, here are 60 individual poems, most occupying a single page only. Individual poems – not cycles of poems and not poems organised around some stated theme. Such “thematic” collections (“concept albums” I often call them) seem to be the only arrangement that many publishers of poetry now expect. But here we have the naked, raw individual poem to encounter, and that is the way I like it. In fact, that was the way I liked it when I reviewed Smither’s last collection The Blue Coat.

Of course I’ve been to Smither Country before. I know that she likes the moment of epiphany: the encounter, often with small and everyday things, in which a larger mindscape can be found – that element of transformation where the familiar becomes unfamiliar. Of course I know that in this volume you can you read the poet’s preoccupations and indeed you will encounter strings of poems on approximately the same theme. But they are not cycles. They are not intended to be read as a sequence. And the poet’s dry, ironical wit would undercut the implied solemnity of a poetic sequence anyway.

When I have in front of me a collection such as this, I always query why a particular poem has been chosen to give the collection its title. So to the poem “Night Horse” (p.20), which I here quote in full:

In the field by the driveway

as I turn the car a horse

is stepping in the moonlight.

Its canvas coat shines, incandescent.

Around its eyes a mask

a Sienese horse might wear.

No banners stir the air, but mystery

in the way it is stepping

as if no human should see

the night horse going about its business.

The soft grass bowing to the silent hooves

the head alert, tending where

the moonlight glows and communes

in descending swoops that fall

through the air like ribbons

as the horse moves in a trance

so compelling, so other-worldly

it doesn’t see the car lights.

In its six stanzas, note first the simplicity and directness of the language, and how it begins as a documentary depiction of a real thing in a real world. This is a night horse, not a nightmare – something seen in the physical world, a horse caught in a car’s headlights, wearing its canvas covering. The poet can see something heraldic about it – like one of those horses that run the medieval palio in Siena. There is something magical about it. The grass “bows” to it as if it were mejestic; the moonlight “communes” with the horse and falls “like ribbons”, and the horse is “other-worldly” and in a “trance”. When we go “incandescent”, we are on the edge of the transcendent. AND YET at the heart of the poem there is the unmagical and commonsensical line “the horse goes about its business” and at the end “it doesn’t see the car lights”. The point is this – the magic is in the beholder’s eyes, not in the physical scene. The horse is not relating to the human being. The horse is acting in a way that is specifically its own and unconcerned about human perceptions. It is an everyday (everynight?) creature transformed into something else by the poet. In a way, this is a poem about otherness. The horse is magical only because its world, its mindset, is really unknowable to us.

It is foolish to extrapolate from this one poem a prolific poet’s whole technique, but I can say that this controlled piece of observation does indicate much that is in this collection. There are other poems here that present an imaginative idea very similar to “Night Horse”, such as “Morning blackbird on the lawn” (p.25) where a [detached-from-us] bird is “levering up a worm, is concentrating / as if there’s something deeper even than music / deeper even than the beauty that covers everything”. Or like “The mountain” (p.45) where a snow-capped mountain seen at night is “solid” but transformed to the status of a ghost by the viewer’s mind

Smither often observes small and momentary things that are worked upon by the imagination. Take the opening poem “My mother’s house”(p.1) where a whole life is read in a woman’s domestic routine in one night; and note some persistence of night imagery in “Cat night” (p.18) where the ever-mysterious feline world awakes.

There is the domestic and family scene, as there usually is in Smither’s work, and there is much imagery in these poems of shoes, of dressing gowns, of ironed shirts – often seen without people in them, and therefore more urgent as mementoes of people. Stroking and playing with hair plays its part. Family means memory – of childhood in “Swimming with our fathers” (p.3) ; of parents in “Daybreak in dressing gowns” conundrum; and of somebody now lost in the elegaic “Eyebrows, toenails”.

I have said that there are “strings”of poems in this collection rather than sequences. There is, for example, a string of poems about animals: “Cat night (p.18); “The wedding party of animals “ (p.19); “Night horse’ (p.20) and “Blaming the horse” (p.21). There is a string of poems about the unselfconsciousness of a very young child [and her eating habits]  “An apple tree for Ruby”, “Ruby and fruit”, “The body of a little girl” –and later “Ruby and the Labradors” (p.24), one of Smither’s most exquisite inventions, where two dogs “taller than her chaff-blonde hair” (p.24) most intrigue the little girl, dwarf her, and yet become a sign of her protection. The poems “Consolation”, “Putting a line through addresses” and “Tonia’s cemetery” (pp.36-39) are all somehow entangled in death and finality. Later there are poems about a dying girl and about an open casket And come to think of it, even a longish whimsical poem like “Oysters” (pp.56-57) is about finality – or at least the disappointment that can come after a build-up and much anticipation.

As for the sophisticated, worldly side of life, there are poems about driving, overseas travel (Canberra, Spain) and dining and clothes. Unsurprisingly, high culture is here with references in poems to Mozart, Picasso, a Winged Victory in the Louvre, ballet and Jane Austen.

It is the poet’s good humour and wit, however, that prevents any of this volume from from becoming solemn or self-laudatory. The world is full of familiar things, but they can be made wonderful by a good poet.

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