Book Review: Night Horse, by Elizabeth Smither

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_night_horseElizabeth Smither is a well-known figure in New Zealand poetry, and Night Horse proves again why this is so. In her eighteenth collection of poetry, Smither portrays an enchanting world by shining moonlight on the quirks of everyday life.

In this collection, Smither shows how skilfully she can render moments into soft and beautiful scenes. In the poem Wedding Car, she brings out the image of a 1926 Nash / in deep forest green’ driving down the road. Throughout the poem, Smither portrays a number of other blushed and brilliant images, as if the world were on pause: wheelspokes that ‘measured each revolution like time’, a bouquet, white ribbons in the wind. Finally, Smither states that ‘though, today, someone else will ride in it / you are both still there’. There are many layers to one moment, and the memory that Smither is recalling is just one of them.

Further on in the collection, Smither heightens this dreamy atmosphere into something eerie. In the poem Cat Night, she starts with a normal scene: cats walking through the street after the sun has set, ‘waiting to see how the night will shape itself’. There is something peculiar in this little description of suburbia. And at the end of the poem, Smither wonderfully declares ‘Let the street lights mark / the great promenade down which love will come / like black carriages on the Champs-Élysées’. Here, the everyday has been turned into something grand and enchanting.

Smither finds other peculiar moments in ordinary life. In the poem Oysters, she portrays a seemingly normal scene: a banquet table filled with food. But in this world, things morph and become strange. Standing out from the selection of food are six dozen oysters in a champagne bucket. After the oysters have been devoured, Smither draws out the uncomfortable image of ‘thin oyster lips’ and smiles, turning this moment into a scene that feels much more uneasy than a regular gathering.

My favourite poem in Night Horse is the final poem in the collection. From the title of the piece, Smither tells us that ‘The heart heals itself between beats’, and this anchoring phrase continues throughout the poem. She sets the scene in Middlesex Hospital, the bustle of doctors around her. It is in the chapel that Smither finds some quiet, watching as matrons and surgeons go about their duties. While she meanders, she also wonders about the heart and how it heals itself. She thinks, maybe each cell proposes a soliloquy to itself and speaks’. And then, in the final line, Smither beautifully concludes ‘The heart heals itself between beats / I heal myself between beats’.

Night Horse is a wonderful collection where each poem brings something new and unexpected. Smither perfectly captures an atmosphere that is dreamy and magical, yet also eerie. Her poems are the kind of pieces that will make you take a second glance at things in life that once seemed ordinary—statues in a park, a cat prowling through the streets—so you can stand for a moment and wonder what worlds they have seen.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Night Horse
by Elizabeth Smither
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408701

 

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Book Review: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017, edited by Jack Ross

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_poetry_nz_yearbookThe best way to take the pulse and determine the health of poetry in New Zealand is to crack open the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook. It is proof that the art form is very much alive and vibrant in 2017. As the first issue through Massey University Press, the journal covers a lot of ground. Since its inception in the 1950s, the journal continues to showcase poets of longstanding, such as Riemke Ensing, Michelle Leggott, Owen Marshall, Iain Britton and Elizabeth Smither, while introducing readers to younger, emerging poets, such as Devon Webb, Callum Stembridge and Harriet Beth.

The inclusivity of this issue is a sign of the times, with a curatorial tendency towards one or two poems from a larger pool, rather than several poems from fewer writers. This makes sense from a sales and marketing perspective. It widens the net of potential readers in the form of friends and families of the poets. As a reader, it is akin to the way television flits from image to image at breakneck speed; it allows little time for immersion and only a brief window into the sensibilities and fascinations of each poet.

On the subject of inclusion, Janet Charman’s feminist essay on the editorship of Alan Curnow is a brave and robust insight. In her well-researched piece, Charman explores the historical tendency toward erasure of the feminine within New Zealand poetry anthologies.  In 2017, the journal celebrates and promotes the work of women poets, both through featuring their work and discussing their books in the review section.

Elizabeth Morton’s suite is accomplished and mesmerising. At times her work sends the reader on a surreal journey, like a Chagall painting. She drifts in and out of dark themes, from the personal (visiting someone in hospital) to the political (the refugee crisis). It is satisfying and intriguing work: ‘I bring you / blackberries, frankincense, / lorazepam. / I make marionettes with my hands / I make you the best alpaca you’ve ever seen.’

In terms of content, not many poets included attempt traditional forms, opting instead for mostly blank or free verse. The poems meant for performance are easy to spot, with their emphasis on the lyrical rhythm: ‘Do not become / your mother. / Not because you / do not  love her, / you do… (Note to self).’ The inclusion of poetry from this milieu offers a fantastic glimpse of the generation gap in approaches to the craft (why labour over an enjambment when the meaning will be lost when read aloud?).

Of course, it wouldn’t be New Zealand poetry without the references to the great outdoors: ‘for several summers we camped there / canvas tents cheek-by-jowl guy-ropes… (Paraparaumu) and familiar settings (A Dunedin bar, the Wellesley Street intersection).’

This collection offers jumping off points for anyone, no matter your poetic inclination. Not one to be raced through, each reading brings a fresh new image, ‘when you least expect…a dull ache in the memory (When you least expect) …has the / power to flatten me.’ (Lithium).

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017 
edited by Jack Ross
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994136350

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Book review

Book review: The Blue Coat, by Elizabeth Smither

Events

Robert Sullivan is the featured poet at Poetry Live! Auckland tonight, 8pm, Thirsty Dog, K Rd….

Warhol: POP is tomorrow night! Experience The Factory brought to life in 2013. Tickets limited, complimentary drink

Book News

Buy a Kobo from one of your local independent booksellers. Time Out in Mt Eden have just started selling Kobo e-readers!

Awards News

#nzpba NZ Listener’s Guy Somerset has summarised their coverage of the finalists

#nzpbaNZ Post Book Award finalist taster: pages from PATCHED by Jarrod Gilbert 

#nzpba Finalist The Darling North reviewed by Rachel O’Neill

#nzpba Facebook book giveaway: The Big Music

Author Interviews

A glimpse behind the crime scenes in the lovely Copenhagen
Tim Jones talks with Wellington author Latika Vasil about her new short story collection “Rising to the Surface”

From around the internet

Designing Ebooks (just as important as paper books)

Congratulations Raymond McGrath who won the What Now Best Children’s Music Video for ‘It’s Not A Monster, It’s Me!’ 

Tuesday poem

Surface, by Peter Munro

Book review : The Blue Coat, by Elizabeth Smither

This book is in bookstores nowcv_the_blue_coat

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
ISBN: 9781869407360