On Poetry: Elizabeth Smither is the witness of a mystery

Elizabeth Smither has contributed this piece as the first in an occasional series (On Poetry) from New Zealand writers. Elizabeth has written numerous collections of poetry, the most recent of which, The Blue Coat, I have just reviewed in the Herald. This collection shows Elizabeth at her very best — in the way she opens little doors onto tiny corners of the world and in the way she makes those corners hum and shimmer and shine. Elizabeth’s poems reflect craft, attention and an infectious engagement with the world. These skills are also at work in her fiction writing. I was particularly taken with her novel, Lola.

Night horse…. how a poem comes into being

My daughter-in-law, Kate has brought her horse, Alice, from Melbourne. Alice, who in Melbourne was stabled with other horses, made the solo journey with great nonchalance. The sea did not trouble her, the stable where she was quarantined, the new field where she was on her own with a glimpse of cows in the distance. The strangers bringing her carrots.

But one night when I had been visiting and was turning my car to drive home I saw a secret Alice. A mist was rising from the grass and Alice in her crusader’s coat with its hem that flared out like the stiffened band of a dress was moving in it. The car lights lit her for a moment but she did not look up. She was moving to a mysterious purpose, her eyes circled by light like a tournament horse in a mask. She had her secret life and I had the drive home.

I also had the poem which can never be a substitute for something that is seen – Alice goes on – and if she was still at sea she would be the horse breasting the prow of the Titanic on a night with no icebergs. All I had was a glimpse as the car turned and I raised the beam to full for the pitch-black country road – on Alice I had the good sense to have them dipped. I like to think that I was the witness of a mystery.


Night horse

In the field by the driveway

as I turn the car a horse

is stepping in the moonlight.


Its canvas coat shines, incandescent.

Around its eyes a mask

a Sienese horse might wear.


No banners stir the air, but mystery

in the way it is stepping

as if no human should see


the night horse going about its business.

The soft grass bowing to the silent hooves

the head alert, tending where


the moonlight glows and communes

in descending sweeps that fall

through the air like ribbons


as if the horse moves in a trance

so compelling, so other-worldly

it doesn’t see the car lights.

The own life of others, human, animal or plant, how mysterious it is. We go towards it – perhaps if I hadn’t been so astonished I should have parked the car, got out and had the temerity to enter the field (the open field of poetry) and investigate further. The wonderful thing is that this mysterious world which we are hardly capable of penetrating or understanding – but whenever has that stopped a poem from making the attempt?  – comes towards us too.  The Sienese horses came to me not because Alice is a speedster but because of their daring and the light, falling in sweeping circles put me in mind of a cheering crowd. Ultimately images may be nothing more than an attempt at homage.

I’ve never caught Alice in this mystery again but I still hope to, to see something more unfold. I’ve watched her roll and a friend told me she once fell over a horse sleeping in a field in the dark and they both cried out in shock.

Mysterious Alice: thank you for letting me witness a little of your secret life.

Elizabeth Smither

New Zealand Book Council author page

University of Auckland author file

Auckland University Press author page

Hamesh Wyatt review of The Blue Coat

Caitlin Sinclair review of The Blue Coat

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