Still in the ascendant, Anne French

The Lark Quartet
Elizabeth Smither
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86940 216 2

Now here’s a curious thing. The Elizabeth Smither who burst fully formed out of the New Zealand literary forehead 25 years ago, back in 1975, turns out to have been not so very different from the poet who wrote this latest book. Ah, the mature poet, you say approvingly; but there’s not much in technique or subject matter that separates the poems in Here come the clouds from The Lark Quartet. Semper Elizabeth, semper callida.

What an odd thing she was in 1975. It was International Women’s Year, you may recall, if you can cast your mind back to those innocent days, when racy ladies in cardies and blue rinses linked arms with those clever Kedgleys and newly-out lesbians to sing “I am Woman” and believe fervently in sisterhood. Back then, feminism was a straightforward matter of making policy not tea and leaving your legs unshaved.

Smither may have profited from being a girl when female was the latest fashion – her publisher was the young Alister Taylor, shrewd about timing and talent – but the author blurb on Here come the clouds makes her sound positively staid: “was born in 1941 in New Plymouth where she has lived most of her life with the exception of two years in Central Otago … She trained as a librarian, did part of a degree in English and Latin and married in 1963 a well-known New Zealand artist. They have three children.” Not quite Emily Dickinson, but close – a married younger sister, perhaps. And she was only 34, though 34 was a lot older than Gen X contrives it these days.

It was a stunning first book, but not, alas, very modish. The intensely female outlook of her fellow Classmates of ‘75, Head Prefect Lauris Edmond and naughty fourth-formers Jan Kemp and Rachel McAlpine (with their sexy feminism and feisty independent outlook, and a marked tendency to shout “look at me!”), is quite absent in Smither’s Clouds. The influences of popular music or American poetry that thumped a compelling bass line in the work of David Mitchell or Arthur Baysting or Alan Loney is hundreds of miles off – as far, you might say, as Led Zep IV pumping out from a student flat in Parnell one humid midnight was from the painted cherubs of the Catholic church in New Plymouth on a placid grey Sunday.

What we got instead was a calm intellectualism, a knowing glance from under the blonde fringe, and some quiet showing-off with language and ideas.

Take a poem such as “The three stages of friendship”: “Now his grin sags. His teeth seem wired. / He’s in the luteal phase. He asks if he can use / The phone? Tiptoes. His voice is the same / But you see the morbid fear that makes him smile…” Note the elegance of “luteal”; a female perspective, but subtle. “Luteal” is not a word Mitchell would have used, nor even the cerebral Wedde. The central conceit of “Webern’s cigarette” is the kind of thing only the later O’Sullivan would bring off. No wonder Alister Taylor signed her up!

There were some gems in Here come the clouds: whole, perfect poems that didn’t put a foot wrong. “Last fairy at Hitler’s Christening”, for instance: “If only he could / Have been inspired to act in a little theatre / But I overdid the gift. The Rhine / Flows to the sea, in his fruition, full of blood.” Others sound oddly like other people. “Mission Impossible” is a Vincent O’Sullivan poem from The Pilate Tapes (not to be written for another ten years); “The burnt child” is surely a non-prolix Les Murray; “To write of love” is clearly Kevin Ireland of Literary Cartoons vintage; “The maid” is middle-period Eileen Duggan; “The intrusion” is early Lauris Edmond. Was she raider or raidee; or simply working and breathing in the same slightly stuffy cultural air as everyone else?

But here too Smither’s virtues are to be found: a particular kind of literariness; a spare, precise vividness; a preoccupation with religious subjects and non-20th century matters; an even, somewhat narrow tonal range; flickers of verbal brilliance.

And so, at last, after 25 years and 11 more collections, we come to The Lark Quartet. It is accomplished, but unmistakably the work of the Clouds poet, aged little more than a year in the quarter century that separates the books. “Coming out of the looted emporium / onto the street which always seems to have / a raised pavement, deep gutters // stepping through the glass like diamonds / like angels departing a tomb …” Who else writing in New Zealand today would see looters on telly and think of angels? (Greg O’Brien on a fey day, perhaps?) As well as angels, in this book we have an epiphany (about a film shoot), a miracle (in the playing of a string quartet), Eve (looking at apples in an orchard), the “puzzling condescension of God” (starlight seen through branches), another angel (a man walking in white shoes), a Presbyterian heart (like coal in an engine), yet another “angel above machinery”, and Lazarus kissed by his sisters. Clearly Smither customarily thinks in religious, indeed Catholic, terms.

I don’t want to labour the point, for one could make a good case in this book for gardening imagery as well, or even (in places) musical metaphors: eg, “two white minims on stavelike legs”.

Unlike her (ex-)husband, the unnamed “well-known New Zealand artist” Michael Smither, the poet Smither has never had a conspicuously domestic phase. Painter Smither’s grotesque, awful children, ugly with quarrelling, must have been a long way from the poet’s study. Indeed, she didn’t have a confessional phase either, in the Plath/Sexton sense; nor a self-aware one (like Edmond or Adcock). But there is something faintly Edmondesque in the grand-maternal pair of poems “The announcement of a pregnancy” and “Sarah in the second trimester”, though it is muted and cautious, almost polite:

The tentative voice that asked
if a schoolfriend could stay overnight
or help be given with a project

now in the woman requires consent:
I’m pregnant. No soft way to announce
except in the soft wondering words: I’m pregnant

Edmond’s enthusiastic celebration of domesticity becomes in Smither a quiet, churchy intensity. Though the word annunciation is not mentioned, there is a dim echo of it in the final line: “to gild the announcement with the moment”. Pregnancy is no matter of melons in a string bag bouncing on the hip, no mere physicality; but “more gold leaf / and more, acorns and grapes and even / the gargoyles rendered innocuous”.

Sex, that great absorbing obsession of the last 40 years, has scarcely touched Smither. Her 1981 Casanova sequence was more literary than sexual, all courtship and collecting – compared with Adcock, say, who was against coupling (but rarely).

Ah, but easeful death is a different matter. Smither is quite at home in cemeteries:

On the slope of a little hill
where one might roll down
then pluck straws and
decorously open a book

lie graves in a sweet opened palm
in unmown summer grass
the colour of summer hats
with posies at their throats.

Relaxed about dying:

    The terrain is usually easy
with just a faint mishap, a possibility
the crosses, like tiny wayside chapels, complete.

And even prepared to confuse it with marriage, as in “A death and a marriage in one day”:

   All those vows and then no vow left
but a life of making one long joined
vow of everything, complete and incomplete
all those hats and flowers.

The Lark Quartet, like Here come the clouds and all the books in between, betrays no sense of strain. It is said – perhaps she says it herself – that Smither doesn’t do drafts. If a poem doesn’t work all at once, like a water-colour, she throws it away and writes another and another, till one comes out word-perfect. That’s a poem; the others are never looked at again. That would explain it (or so we habitual re-redrafters would assert): her easy command of language, the fluency, and perhaps too the odd lack of progression.

But what is progression, anyway? We have become convinced by Yeats (or Fairburn, or Baxter) that poets must begin callow and greensick, and finish wise, the masters of their craft. Smither has begun a master and become a little more tentative as she has gone along. Don’t misunderstand me – her work is significant, the whole oeuvre continues to command our attention; and she may come to be seen as more influential than anyone could have supposed. But she herself is neither romantic nor modernist nor post-modern; but something separate and distinct, a silvery Zeppelin floating in the middle air, regarding us with detachment and a degree of interest:

like the puzzling condescension of God
so hard to explain: such distance between
the light and the light’s work.

Anne French’s latest collection of poems, boys’ night out, was shortlisted for the Poetry Section of this year’s Montana Book Awards.

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