Elizabeth Smither lives in New Plymouth, New Zealand. She is a poet and the author of five short story collections and five novels. The Lark Quartet (AUP 2000) won the Montana NZ Book Award for Poetry in 2000, and Elizabeth was the first woman to serve as Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate (2001-2003). She was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008.
Tree breath and human
Trees in the garden are expelling
the breath I need. It enters windows
and I breathe out what they breathe in.
How we should love them, never moving
from their posts, withstanding wind
creaking sometimes, losing limbs
but aiding us with oxygen.
While we climb them to gulp in
the freshest air, the most pure
reason for their being here:
their breath and ours comingling
into needful dependencies.
This poem was screen-printed on a T shirt and it gave me great pleasure to think of people wearing it and advertising the role of trees. I think it was also inspired by the huge pohutukawa trees that grown close to my house, releasing the most beautiful cool air. I always think of it as a protection against pollution.
A cortège of daughters
A quite ordinary funeral: the corpse
unknown to the priest. The twenty-third psalm.
The readings by serious businessmen
one who nearly tripped on the unaccustomed pew.
The kneelers and the sitters like sheep and goats.
But by some prior determination a row
of daughters and daughters-in-law rose
to act as pallbearers instead of men
all of even height and beautiful.
One wore in her hair a black and white striped bow.
And in the midst of their queenliness
one in dark flowered silk, the corpse
had become a man before they reached the porch
so loved he had his own dark barge
which their slow moving steps rowed
as a dark lake is sometimes surrounded by irises.
An actual funeral only I had the daughters-in-law wrong – they were all daughters. The first stanza is deliberately rather banal and flat so the image at the end can shine. I still like the way the word ‘queenliness’ slows things down, like the slow steps of the pallbearers.
Margo and Sir Walter
for Margo Buchanan-Oliver
She lives among others but loves Sir Walter
best of all men, presuming she could choose
from all history’s pages, up to today
the interpretive and the hazy, equally weighed.
She loves him in his Tower rooms, writing
and his evening stroll upon the battlements
his pipe smoke escaping in the London air.
She loves him for going to death over a marriage
an English and a Spanish king arranged
with him as the prize gift. She loves
his request for a knife to stir his wine
and then his abandonment of it for his quill.
She loves – there is no end to the catalogue –
his profile, his beard, his great foxiness
his manliness on his scaffold walk and speech
so if a drop of his divine blood flew
and landed on her dress she would
cut it out in a square and place it
behind glass and in a gilded frame
and draw a heart with Ralegh and her name.
My much-admired and very intellectual friend, Professor Margo, candidly confessed Sir Walter was her secret love which set me thinking about how passion knows no boundaries and ignore centuries.
Tonia looks at her hands
You were in an audience, among
beautiful people, beautiful gowns.
Suddenly you looked down at your
You loved them, you realised.
You praised them at a glance.
No one else would consider them
hot (they had done heat
and cold, bone-chilling cold
plunged into buckets with detergent
and worse, worn themselves thin
with caresses, as if
they, of all parts, echoed your heart
and its wearing, recording gestures).
Heart and hands. Your heart looking
down on them, admiring, praising.
The beauty in a pair of hands, even if they have been neglected as hands tend to be.
Causing someone to follow in a foreign language
Je ne suis pas d’ici, I say
to the young woman who asks direction
but I do know where the rue Dauphine is.
Follow me, under your umbrella.
My French is broken and peculiar
and I am older. A heavy shower
though she’s uncertain binds us together.
We walk in single file through the same puddles
and several times I stop to listen
if she’s following like Eurydice
this vocabulary-less Orpheus
not with a flute but a leading umbrella
and several times I turn to smile
and she smiles back as it thunders
overhead and people run
to shelter in shop doorways.
But I know the way as Orpheus did
past the market where chickens are roasting
and chestnuts and around the corner
and here is the rue Dauphine and here the Pont Neuf
and I believe I hear her say Voilà
and Merci, madame, merci.
Au revoir. Au revoir, mademoiselle
and I glow under my umbrella like a peony.
This memory still makes me smile. The young woman didn’t really believe I knew the way and we stopped several times in the downpour to exchange a glance. But she kept following and at the end she seized both my hands. I walked away glowing under my umbrella.
The sea question
The sea asks ‘How is your life now?’
It does so obliquely, changing colour.
It is never the same on any two visits.
It is never the same in any particular
only in generalities: tide and such matters
wave height and suction, pebbles that rattle.
It doesn’t presume to wear a white coat
but it questions you like a psychologist
as you walk beside it on its long couch.
Someone has written that the sea is a psychologist and to walk beside it is to clear your head. This must make the beach a couch.
Leaf flurry tram
On Dandenong Road the white tram
throws up the autumn leaves
to not-quite window height.
Those inside are unaware
of what beauty follows them –
leaves from the track dancing up
in the passing current of air
and staying suspended
until the eddy moves on
and fresh (dried) leaves take their turn
to levitate for this great wizard
the East Brighton tram
on its way to University
white as a bride
with a veil billowing
in the speed of passage
the tracks that lead to
a bliss not in front of us
but behind, a double
blessing made more beautiful
because we don’t see it.
I’m in love with Melbourne trams. But particularly this one with its unseen bridal veil of rising and falling autumn leaves.
Days of storm when no one walks in the formal garden
or cuts a section of the high yew hedge
with plumb line and hand clippers, a labour
like painting the tall sides of a green ship
when the wind with a passion to join the river
(or first overflow the fountain’s basin)
dashes the water away from the faces
of Tritons and cherubs, rearing horses
so the fountain can contribute to the flood
rising now in the sodden grass
the secret streamlet slipping through the walk
between the hedges and the parterre
to reach the water meadow and the pleasure lake
to join with stream and rivulet and river
so when the grass is drained and hills bring back
their towel-dried long tresses
all the fountain’s statuary joins in: the fishes
blowing water through their mouth, Atlas
holding up his concrete globe, pouring water
from his beard and thighs, every drop
a contribution. All this pouring
through the peaceful summer when the rim
was never breached, crowds dipped their hands,
finds its purpose in the scheme of water.
The fountain at Castle Howard. It interests me that the great formal gardens are designed to
encompass extremes of weather without losing their composure.
Amy brings the thesaurus
Midwinter night. Amy strides across
the zebra crossing, a bulging bag of books
in each hand. Head bowed against the rain.
It’s our night for conversation and eating prawns.
The Szechuan chef in the open kitchen
bends over his wok while a line of ducks
is growing redder with each ladle
wielded by the sous-chef. Our little table
beside the window seems cast in street light
from the rain-drenched lamp post opposite.
‘I’ve brought…’ and Amy opens
thesaurus, dictionary, Fowler’s Modern Usage
pushing the bamboo steamer of pork rolls aside
and taking up her chopsticks like pencils.
It is the gesture that overwhelms, not
the heavy compendiums I will return
to each of her bags and thence her arms
though I will hold an umbrella over her
for her pristine devotion to scholarship
for her seeing in the heat of careless writing
a parallel longing for a jewelled fact
a beauty based on solids. And now comes
the procession of dishes: the Bang Bang Chicken
the Mapo Tofu and the luscious pink prawns.
Amy Reigle Newland, a distinguished scholar of Japanese woodblock art, used to meet me on Tuesdays to feast on prawns. Her scholarship and my carelessness: what might they not make together?
The nurses are coming
2.55 p.m. and a swing door opens
and five nurses in dark blue
mid-calf-length slacks and V-necked
tops adorned with silver watches
each with a chart in her hand
detailing the last vital recordings
the progression of signs which they
assess at a glance. In Room 5
all but one line is being taken out
and the morphine is two-hourly.
A head sinks into a little folded towel
deep in a pillow, like a snow angel
and the nurses walk, bunched together
down the polished linoleum, past
the open door of the dire, not looking
just coming on
the way stars come out, flicker
and gleam: We are here, we are arriving.
My friend Jean was dying but this little group of nurses, coming on for their shift, offered a strange consolation. A bit like Hildegard of Bingen: All shall be well, all shall be well…
Engageantes = detachable sleeves
Why put such work by rush or candlelight
into tucks and pleats and slits that open like flowers
when the important shoulders inside fall to dust?
Through thin wavering panes comes
a light divided into little parcels
while the sleeves lie on a bench like mutton
or a long white swan for dressing.
Over the sleeves the dressmakers are bending
working inside them, preparing the battlements
and suspending, on the outside, cascading jewels and ribbons
so the wearer is protected from indifference or too close
an approach. (They forbid intimacy, these engageantes
though admiration is their sense of breathing.)
Inside the shoulders stiffen a little, then relax.
It is dual crowns they are wearing, that will come off
like heads upon a spike, by a bridge or tower.
The sleeves will be plucked (by thinnest threads
after all this effort) and then stored flat.
In Lancashire I saw the weavers’ windows on the upper floor of houses, to catch the last light. Somehow this connected with the way in which elaborate sleeves were lightly tacked to the shoulders of tunics and dresses and could be transferred to another garment. Then it is natural to think of the frailer flesh inside.
Two adorable things about Mozart
First: he’s straight into it. No preamble
ever, as if he’s saying: there’s plenty more
where that came from. You can bank on it.
And secondly: how he drags something
like heavy fabric, like a train behind him
up stone stairs to a window with a view of graves.
You can’t use the word ‘adorable’ an editor said to me but I argued my case – Mozart is adorable – and won. His prodigality – he never keeps you waiting for a melody as some composers do – even death, the cloak he drags behind him – is covered in glorious sound.
Walking behind them in the narrow passageway
I see their hands join while their heads stay high
and I think: equal energies, equal affinities.
Down their sleeves (his jacket, her blouse)
run currents the early evening stars detect
and whose meaning is held in great museums.
A poem from the file for the next collection. It’s very simple really, apart from museums which hold the treasures on which we have been able to impress our identity. The touch of a hand, the impress of love, has the same importance.