Paula Harris

Night Horse by Elizabeth Smither

(Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017). ISBN 9781869408701. RRP: $25. Paperback. 72 pages.

Poetry doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Books in general don’t. Words definitely don’t. I occasionally see people write that they just want to live in poetry 24/7, forever and ever and ever and ever. Erm, no thanks. Poetry is cool, but there are other things.

Which is how it is that I found myself in heavy flirtation mode with a guy via Tinder while reading Elizabeth Smither’s Night Horse (by the time I got to the end of the book, there was another contender in the mix, but his lack of decent grammar saw him quickly side-lined).

What a book!! What. A. Book. Really what I want to say is ‘just go out and buy/read it’ and leave it at that. But that’s not much of a review.

This is a gentle book. Gentle as in this-isn’t-Hera-and-you-won’t-get-punched-repeatedly-in-the-face-with-that-big-brain-slamming-imagery. No. This is gentle as in look-over-there-at-that-beautiful-sunset-and-whomp!-here’s-a-left-hook-while-you-weren’t-looking.

These are poems about life, and life is rarely gentle.

One of my favourites in this collection is “A gift of spotted tights”, which is a beautifully drawn portrait of a fantasy world while choosing a gift for a friend. It’s funny. It’s a bit sexy (while also using the word ‘putrescent’).

but you, who have no one to dress you, will sit
demurely on the side of your bed and point
your big toe first, then your heel, calf, knee
and thigh..
(“A gift of spotted tights”)

That’s one of the key things with Elizabeth’s poems. They are beautifully drawn.

For your wedding we hired a 1926 Nash
in deep forest green, straight sides
like corsets pressed in and then some more
(“Wedding car”)

And the beautiful things come from simple things, such as

sucking the green into their bodies
and leaving flat shadows, grass
afraid to rise.
(“Lying in the long grass between two black Labradors”)

There are funny, recognisable moments that made me nod and think, ‘yes!’ and that I, too, want to write someone’s name on a slip of paper and pop it into my freezer:

…Nothing too serious

would happen. Perhaps he’d lose his job
or his dog would need taking to the vet.

The dog would recover, the bill be huge.
His wife might flirt with someone at a party
and be noticed: notice was a big part of it.
(“The name in the freezer”)

Often these poems have signs of getting older. Because, shhhh, getting older is what we all do. So while Tinder guy was suggesting ways in which he could pleasure me, Elizabeth was telling me about gastroscopies and conferences in Spain, and decrepit knees, and hospitals and dressing gowns and slippers. And in one single line, she made me contemplate buying and planting tulips: ‘Plant them carelessly. The earth straightens them’ (“Spring bulbs”). I even went so far as to start filling out the order form for tulips, before realising I’d missed the ‘must order by’ date.

My favourite of these poems is “Picasso’s tenderness” — and while, yes, I admit this is in part because I adore Picasso, it also does the magical thing of getting me to stop and look back and wonder if Picasso’s contorted painted bodies were actually a sign of tenderness. Were they?

Could we arrange our faces this way
how clear it would be. Misery, misery
and from it, as it dissolves and weeps,
beauty, beauty.
(“Picasso’s tenderness”)

The Tinder guy never showed up for our date. But that’s okay, I could still curl up on the couch with Elizabeth and Picasso and discuss tenderness and beautifully drawn things, and the tulips I nearly bought.

First published in a fine line (New Zealand Poetry Society magazine) (2018)

Paula Harris

About Paula

Paula Harris lives in Aotearoa/New Zealand, where she writes and sleeps a lot, because that's what depression makes you do. She won the 2018 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize and the 2017 Lilian Ida Smith Award, and was a semi-finalist for the 2020 92Y Discovery Poetry Prize. She was the recipient of a Vermont Studio Center writing residency in 2018.

Her poetry has been published in various journals, including Passages North, Barren, New Ohio Review, SWWIM, Gulf Coast, The Spinoff, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook and Aotearotica. Her essays have been published in The Sun, Passages North, The Spinoff and Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety (Victoria University Press).

She is extremely fond of dark chocolate, shoes and hoarding fabric.