Elizabeth Smither’s latest collection is a kind of tea cosy over my winter reading, with a gentle, pretty exterior containing something much more robust and satisfying within. Broadly, it comprises a series of vignettes, sometimes detailing the minutiae of domestic life, sometimes chronicling the orchestra, the streets, births, deaths, and marriages. There are a lot of gardens.
Particularly endearing is Smither’s observation of the flaws inherent in everyday life, casting them as precious things. So the chipped Limoges plate becomes “the beautiful damaged thing, adored” and the third-rate roses “corkscrew swirls” which speak as though straight from Alice in Wonderland. This love for the disguised and disused later develops into a dark comic tone with poems such as ‘Credo’, featuring a woman who impales herself on a fence to dislodge a piece of food.
The Blue Coat is punctuated with metaphors that serve to illuminate personalities and emotions, and they are especially effective when the focus turns to a particular object. A personal favourite, ‘Ruby’s Heirloom Dress’ resonates long after the book is shut:
“…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 lush imagery and clever use of language make it clear why Smither is such a lauded author. She makes words work so specifically –here painting the precise topography of a garment—yet at the same time has them cast us away across generations.
The narrative darts effortlessly between past and present, reminding me of how my grandparents’ generation often recollects events, mingling tenses together. By magnifying a given moment and sense of feeling within it, decades are rendered irrelevant. In ‘Dying’, for example, the speaker notices Jean’s “magenta toenails still dialed to gaiety and travel” –it’s a dramatic flashback which perhaps functions as a way of mitigating the present loss.
Beautifully produced by Auckland University Press, The Blue Coat is perfect for mothers, grandmothers, and anyone with an interest in contemporary New Zealand poetry, a genre which is frankly, blooming.
Reviewed by Caitlin Sinclair
The Blue Coat
By Elizabeth Smither
Published by Auckland University Press