Fingerprints over everything, Lawrence Jones

Red Shoes
Elizabeth Smither
Godwit, $29.95,
ISBN 18569621034

The Sea Between Us
Elizabeth Smither
Penguin, $27.95,
ISBN 0143018590

Reviewing You’re Very Seductive William Carlos Williams 25 years ago, Lauris Edmond complained that in the poems we did not “feel that lurch of the spirit that comes from a flash of recognition of a shared experience”, that while the poems were “sharp, intelligent, sometimes witty, usually compassionate”, they were “too cool, too remote”, lacking that “reckless spending” of the self, “the urgency, the immediacy that catches an experience and holds it in mid flight”.

The following year, in an interview with Maurice Shadbolt, Smither claimed that “lurch” for her writing experience: speaking of the subconscious, she said: “Sometimes, don’t laugh, I’ve actually felt it lurch, when I was in a bus, or driving a car.” The “lurch” meant that the subconscious had engaged with something consciously seen, heard, or read, and the result was going to be a poem – expressing not an experience caught in mid-flight, but rather something internalised, connections made in the poet’s individual sensibility. Edmond was looking for poetry like her own, personalist poetry, with an “I” at the centre, observer and often primary actor, dealing with a literal experience. But Smither’s poetry was, and remains, personal without being personalist, the expressions of a unique, often quirky individual sensibility. In an interview with David Dowling in 1984 Smither remarked that “the personal is unavoidable in writing – if you break into the bank you leave your fingerprints over everything”, and she went on to say: “we all have our own fingerprints – you don’t need to worry about individuality, everything about us is individual.”


Red Shoes, Smither’s sixteenth collection (if you include the little press publications), the result of her 2001-2 reign as the third Te Mata Estate laureate poet, is as personal as any of the others. It can be read almost as an expression of a distinctive personal taste. An “I” is explicitly present in many of the poems (there are fewer poems about literary or historical figures than in some of the previous volumes), implicitly present in the others, but always in relation to or in response to something else – a friend, a piece of music, a book, an object, a moment in nature, and the response is primarily aesthetic, a matter of taste.

Michele Leggott has in the past complained that Smither’s poems are “not far short of cultural tourism” and Iain Sharp has referred to “literate gossip … bluestocking chitchat”. Certainly the poems are full of high culture references: Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, Brahms’s “Lullaby”, Beethoven. Enesco, Handel, Strauss, Cecilia Bartoli, Toscanini (and Richard Rodgers and Gene Kelly), Seurat, Caravaggio, Hotere, Basho, Akhmatova, Phillippe Aries’ “The Hour of Our Death” and Philip Larkin’s “Next, Please”, Shakespeare’s “Sonnet LXV”, Mary Oliver, Thom Gunn. But the aesthetic is not restricted to high culture. Social occasions and their accoutrements are similarly aestheticised. There are poems about parties, and there is the food and drink associated with parties and dinner parties: croissants, artichokes, terrine, marzipan, Brie, cherry tomatoes, red wine (Te Mata Estate Coleraine 1998), white wine (Cloudy Bay), “eye fillet and a nice beef roast (special visitors)” and even, from childhood, the homely saveloy, caught in a typically witty and idiosyncratic set of related images:


like a tart’s lips and typically
when the water in the pot comes to a boil
stepping out of her underthings
or worse, looking like a condom.


There are the clothes associated with the social occasions: the titular red shoes, the matching red dress (following up “Red Lipstick” in The Lark Quartet), the friend’s black shoes, the black jersey and black bikini, the feel of new gloves. And there are the friends themselves, for and with whom the social occasions are enjoyed: Carol, Toni, Fiona, Judy, Beth, Margo, Barbara.  The “fingerprints” revealed in the book are more like a “profile” drawn by the taste police.

When Smither wrote of her Catholicism in “The Source of the Song”, the essay took the form of an impressionistic appreciation of the fiction of François Mauriac, and the explicitly Catholic poems in this volume deal with potentially aesthetic objects: an old prie-dieu, Gregorian chants, incense, funerary sculpture. The descriptive outdoor poems likewise have an aesthetic cast. The colours of a rainbow are “just now fixed”, with the sky as “the developing tank”; moss creeps upon “a cracked path/as if some Japanese master sought/in tracery the path of snails”, while “autumn shows the way to go/like an old-fashioned usherette/in an old-fashioned cinema”. Suffolk sheep reveal “design excellence”. A girl out walking with her stylish wolfhound, with her “elaborate braided hair/into which – what artifice! –- small crystals/wink and glitter” becomes a painting as she stops at the crossing lights:

        deep-framed in gold summer light
and underneath a little polished plaque:
Girl and her wolfhound at Glebe.


Although Smither told Harry Ricketts in 1985 that it would be dangerous if literary theory “leaked into the work, like an atomic reactor on Three Mile Island”, some theory leaks into these poems, but only as a kind of intellectual aestheticising. Thus the late summer dew is Derridean, “Some measure whose meaning we defer”, and the rainbow, unlike Noah’s, refuses to have its meaning determined:

                                     its message
is to take from it whatever significance
seems appropriate: a promise with a
time-frame, a statute of limitations.


As is usual in Smither’s work, the poems are short (54 in 63 pages), and often are “treasure” as “tiny coins/sayings with a petit range/hardly worth recording”, as she says in “Pieces of Eight”, the last poem in the volume. But of course they are very much worth recording. Not all of them work, for me at least, but enough of them do to make me want to go on to the next one to see if it suddenly glows. Sometimes the glow comes from a descriptive image:

                the quiet New England burial grounds
of graves like gentle sheep, cropping together
in a meadow that seems more eternal
than their eliding inscriptions.


Or it may come from an image operating as aesthetic criticism: Larkin’s “Next, Please” “makes death sound so flat-bottomed, be-/calmed and drifting”. Sometimes a whole poem glows. The quiet “Listening to Handel with a Cat”, marked as “for Bill Sewell”, is a homely poem of an undramatic experience, but one that builds to a unified effect like that of the music. It opens with the poet “reading in a chair” and the cat “lying stretched on the red tile floor/in the summer heat”. Handel is on the radio or CD player. The music is “conservative”, but it

        makes its own way, as water does, and swells
with sufficient volume between confining banks

which stalwartly resist – to the exact pitch
of water flow – until, and here the cat

stirs and his whiskers twitch – grandness comes
as if every drop resolves to go, magisterially

and slow and everything is resolve, resolve
and not a drop is wasted, not a vapour

above the darkening river, in the mist
but everything accrues to grand and majestic.


The water image works wonderfully, the effect is like the Grave of Handel’s wonderful “Sonata in G Minor” as transposed for two cellos by Tortelier. There is subtle internal rhyme (pitch/twitch, flow/go/slow) and the sentence builds to “everything is resolve, resolve”, as fine in its way as Elizabeth Bishop’s “everything/is rainbow, rainbow!” at the end of “The Fish”, with the double “resolve” carrying both a musical and a moral meaning. The ending lets the poem down slightly, both too adjectival and not rhythmic enough, but that is a small flaw in a fine poem. In a sense nothing happens, no great claims are made, but a personal aesthetic experience worth recording has been captured.

Another librarian-poet, Marianne Moore, once, as a gentle joke, ended a volume with an index of the objects and people mentioned, and something similar would be possible here. Moore and Smither are, of course, extremely different in their poetic personae and their personal styles: I think of Smither, so trim and elegant at Literary Fund meetings, and Moore, so dowdy when I heard her at a poetry reading at UCLA. And Moore could no more have written “Listening to Handel with a Cat” than Smither could have written “A Carriage from Sweden”, but in the poetry of each a quirky sensibility interacts with the things that attract it, with the result that “The mind is an enchanting thing … Like Gieseking playing Scarlatti”.


That a writer of short poems expressing a quirky sensibility should publish four volumes of short stories, as Smither has done, is understandable, for the short story can be closer to poetry than to the novel. But how can she deal with a multi-generational family saga, which is what The Sea Between Us, her third novel, might appear to be? Built from the same material as “Six Sisters from Ouse” in The Mathematics of Jane Austen, it deals with three generations of the Berryman family – from Jane and William in the 1930s to their grandchildren, Minnie and Harriet and Billy, settling into middle age in the 1990s. The link is the mothers from the middle generation, Maud, Emma and Irene, three contrasting sisters from a family of 12 chidlren. The social canvas extends from rural Tasmania in the 1930s and 40s to the servants’ world in Government House in Melbourne in the 1940s, to the Melbourne art and retail worlds in the early 1960s and the University of Auckland in the late 1960s, and finally to the Adelaide Arts Festival and Melbourne Grand Hyatt Hotel and the Indian Pacific luxury train in the early 1990s. Such material would seem to call for something like The Forsyte Saga or the Palliser novels, the kind of thing that the BBC used to do in 26 episodes, and TV1 used to give us on Sundays, before attention spans shrank to seven minutes and TV1 decided that its advertisers’ demographic would be more effectively captured by the Sunday Murders.

However, Smither has not expanded her original short story into a multi-volume saga, but into a modest 270-page novel. Instead of the leisurely pace and expansive style, the intricate plotting and narrative continuity, the long scenes and causal-chain sequences of the Victorian novel, there are quick cuts, short scenes, rapid movement from one time-level to another, with large gaps between, the text written in a witty, compressed, even aphoristic prose style. Each scene is intensely realised, economical and suggestive, with the skills of the poet and short story writer in evidence. Female friendships, so important in the poems, appear, especially in Harriet’s and Rosa’s long relationship. The world of the arts and the aesthetic is as prominent as in the poems: in the hoax Rosa and Harriet and their friends perpetrate when they win a prestigious prize with a joint “painting” attributed to a non-existent artist; or in the relationship between Rosa and her eccentric aesthetic friend Lucien; or in the behind-the-scenes portrayal of the Adelaide Arts Festival. There is Maud’s Catholicism, and there are the various fashionable worlds of Government House and a great hotel and a luxury train, again viewed from behind the scenes.

The result is a quirky, somewhat discontinuous, but immensely readable novel, implicitly the expression of the same individual sensibility that underlies Red Shoes. There is not the moral weight nor the slow but powerful narrative momentum of the great Victorians, and we do not know or care about any of the characters as we know and care about Becky Sharp or Dorothea Brooke, but as in the poems there are intense flashes of the revelation of character (somewhat in the manner of such a poem as the earlier “The Beak”). In the fully populated world of the New Zealand novel, the book is as distinctive as Smither’s poems are in the world of New Zealand verse. And, as with the verse, a sudden glow lights the page:

grief had a way of mining old channels. Underground passages …. Escape passages, sometimes, used in times of crisis and boarded up. Then something causes them to re-open; a flash flood pushes memory along them …. everyone had them, these hollowed-out prepared places where grief had done its work.


In the poems such passages stand alone; here they are less frequent but are given a further dimension by the context of narrative and character. In both genres the individual fingerprints are evident, the personal taste expressed.

Lawrence Jones’s Picking up the Traces: The Making of a New Zealand Literary Culture 1932-1945 has just been published by Victoria University Press.


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