Marty Smith, Horse with a Hat, Victoria University Press, 2014
Marty Smith’s debut collection, Horse with a Hat, is a gorgeous book. The lush and evocative collages by Bendan O’Brien draw you in close, in a way that is both haunting and intimate. His cover collage replicates the way a poem can lead you to a wider picture (the ocean and its lure of voyage) and the catching detail (the pattern on a shell, the way a horse holds its head in anticipation). Heavenly!
The book itself is equally captivating. Horse with a Hat revels in poetry as a way of tracking a life, of harnessing an anecdote. The poems delve into relationships, previous generations, magical moments, pockets of history and, while they exude warmth and joy, Marty is unafraid of darker things, earthier things (violence, the threat of violence, grease and oil, bad tempers, men at war).
Marty was raised on a remote hill country farm between Pahiatua and the ocean so ‘bands of wild horses moving like wind patterns’ is as familiar to her as putting ‘the bloody thing [the lamb] out of its misery.’ Having learnt to ride, read and love horses from an early age, the animal is lovingly tended in the poems. Early on, the autobiographical and poetic motif is set when the father teaches the daughter how to ride bareback (‘Dad’s horses’). The emotional ripples—of a young girl trying to hold on tight with knees or keep up with the distant dot of her father—are poignant. So too is the poem’s lyrical beginning:
darken out the sun
I am at their knees looking up
at the lode star of the stirrup
and my four-storey father.
Horses are a nostalgic and potent link back to the author’s past, but they also connect the reader to the exhilarating movement of the poems (as though you are riding them bareback, wind in your hair so to speak). Poems are both reined in (diligently crafted) and set free (open to intuitive turns).
There is a sweet lyricism at work in these poems—from exquisite musical phrasing to biblical overtones to the pleasure of plain language in the service of narrative to gutsy dialogue. Here are some of my favourites:
‘I hide in the chook shed/ under a tin cold sky, thin bitter wind.’
‘It’s a demon—no it’s Dad, down in the dark/ sparks arcing off the grinder’
‘who flatten, who scatter’
‘I lived in the library. I was a child outside/ and I did not look up.’
‘He stays home with the slow slouch of cows’
There is terrific detail that adds vibrant life (yes, these poems are lived in!):
‘There are wasps all over the jam/ in the kitchen.’
‘the radio static fizzy, and raspberry biscuits.’
‘a heavy blur of rice’
And finally there are tropes that catch your eye:
‘My grandmother wore God like a glove/ to church’
‘the planes of light in the room’
‘bright flowers surprised to a standstill’
Marty’s collection takes you back to the child, to mother and father, and to country life, and in doing so you travel through sumptuous lines and layers. This is no rose-tinted memoir—you get grit and you get open views, you get life’s awkwardness and you get empathy. It is a fine debut.
Marty Smith teaches at Taradale High School, but she has also worked as a track-work rider in New Zealand and in England.
Thanks to Victoria University Press, I have a copy of Horse and Hat for someone who likes or comments on this post.
Marty Smith’s website
Victoria University Press page
Blackmail Press multimedia performance and the stunning poem ‘Radar’
Marty Smith on Modern Lettuce