Poetry Shelf review: Elizabeth Smither’s My American Chair

My American Chair, Elizabeth Smither, Auckland University Press, 2022

Before I reached the end – slices of life cut through
by each now knife-edged page – a calm
(it might have been the page of The Scream)

dissolved the bed and the chicken, your fine
conversation which calmed everything, and the book
on my lap was reverently shut again

while outside, when darkness fell and stars
like the numbered pages came to glow
the peace of a wild book descends.

from ‘A wild book’

Elizabeth Smither’s poetry has been part of my life for a long time. I have carried its richness and its economy, its insight and its litheness, with me as both reader and writer. When you read a poem from Elizabeth’s new collection, you cannot immediately move onto the next, you need to stall and savour, and let it unfold in a sequence of aftertastes and absorbtions.

We all have different modes of writing, along with diverse reading attachments. When I read My American Chair, poetry becomes glade, it invigorates as clearing, it relishes quietness and there is simply no need for haste.

Under Elizabeth’s travelling eye and ear, the world is poetry, both the world at hand and the world at a distance. She gathers in moments, experience, fascinations, from past and present. We eavesdrop upon details that have caught her eye and heart. Yes! Because this nuanced poetry is testimony to the ability of each day, the every day, to beguile. We might move from a worn-down step to white lies to surgery to a granddaughter to a row of doctors’ receptionists all wearing leopard-spot blouses to poets disappearing between sheets on the washing line. Or the occasion of winning a national book award, when a precious ring is lost.

In the poem clearing, I move from grief to delight to familial love to wit to laugh-out-loud humour. A holidaymaker in France accidentally calls the fire brigade to hire a “a vehicle for six / with room for quantities of luggage”. The fire brigade offers to send “one of our smaller fire engines / but perhaps the ladder truck would be more suitable” (‘The joke of Sapeurs-Pompiers’).

Elizabeth’s poetry is marked by tenderness. In a wry poem, Elizabeth identifies herself and Cilla McQueen as the shortest Poet Laureates. She concludes the poem with a pocket portrait of Cilla:

Her neck grows warm, her neat head bends
over the page, she stretches her arms
and seems to frown and squint.

It is words, you clowns, the other laureate thinks
not sun in her eyes not pain of thought
but heart and pen at work again.

from ‘Cilla, writing’

There is the captivation of poetry as shifting perspective. In ‘At Saint-Chapelle’, the poet stretches out on the floor next to a young man to get a different view of the ceiling. I feel like I am doing this as I reread the collection: stretching out on the floor of the poem to view the ceiling, windows and skylights from different vantage points.

I think our being supine made a prayer
the way scouts cross themselves
for none of us could understand
how we stayed in place, anchored there.

An object might offer a mode of transportation. A pair of bath sheets and a hand towel hanging in the frost, sun, wind and showers for several days:

What does a towel matter in the great
scheme? Would it like to see the stars
or the stars debate what signal it is sending?

from ‘Towels’

A number of poems sing of friends and family, sometimes as moving eulogies, sometimes drawing a family member closer.

I see the windowsill with its figurines and toys.
She the dark sky and the stars and moon.
I hear the rain, she sees the silver spears.

from ‘Little boy on the lower bunk’

My American Chair is prismatic. I am grateful for an extended sojourn in the poems. The rewards are multiple. The freshness tangible. The music sweet harmonies. The travel nourishing. This is a book of intricate and satisfying contemplation.

Elizabeth Smither has written six novels, six collections of short stories and eighteen poetry collections. She has twice won the major award for New Zealand poetry and was the 2001–2003 Te Mata Poet Laureate. In 2004, she was awarded an honorary LittD from the University of Auckland for her contribution to literature and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. She received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2008. Her most recent book, Night Horse (Auckland University Press, 2017), won the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry.

Auckland University Press page

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