A Pattern of Marching

A Pattern of Marching

by Elizabeth Smither

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781775580058
Publisher: Auckland University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 46
File size: 124 KB

About the Author

Taranaki writer Elizabeth Smither has written four novels, four books of short stories and fourteen books of poetry. She has twice won the major award for New Zealand poetry and was the 2002 Te Mata Poet Laureate. She was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit and was awarded an honorary DLitt from The University of Auckland for her contributions to literature.

Read an Excerpt

A Pattern of Marching

By Elizabeth Smither

Auckland University Press

Copyright © 1989 Elizabeth Smither
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77558-005-8


    Farm life

    A white house in green fields
    Set the way farm houses are
    At the end of a long peroration
    A drive leading up to a new exegesis.

    Enclosed in white fences like —
    Though nothing here is like, just is —
    A paper cone cleanly wrapped
    Around well-boiled wholesome sweets.

    And an image — if it is necessary
    To begin at the drive's end
    With a hint of assimilated theory —
    A white cat bounds after a boy from milking.

    Stubble fields

       for Ian Reid

    In some stubble fields an indentation
    Perhaps a small swamp dried in summer
    Traces a faint black imperfect sowing
    Like a panda's eye.

    Fields that contain these small infelicities
    Are more beautiful than the perfect
    Skinhead fields they emulate
    More individual, with a love-bite.

    Soil section

    Where the concrete path rested
    For forty years on the topsoil
    The earth was growing dark like whisky

    And rootless — no kind of root, even
    The finest hair grew there
    Just pure brain cells, a Galileo

    Of the deep invisible milky ways
    On which when they met the world lay
    In perfect communing openness.

    This dark encyclopaedic soil meets stars
    No more complex than its thought
    And in an equal doubting soil.

    Rain runs over it, the bank
    Weeps and shows the path of tears
    As the sky looses falling stars.

    Underground video of a mouse's embalming

    My sons have watched a video of embalming
    Made for the trade, not pornographic.
    They cut off the top of the head and take out the brain'
    And something about a flap of skin that falls back
    Over their handiwork above the hairline. 'It's disgusting.
    I want to keep my body intact. Close the lid.
    Who wants to view a skinful of sawdust and chemicals?'

    I remember my own father's hair when I had thought
    Him already in some other region showing above the rim
    Of his coffin in the viewing room. The look of surprise
    Could it be ecstasy — I regarded it like a journalist—
    That in spite of sawdust and incision had swept up from his feet
    His beautiful full smooth eyelids, perhaps the eyes were gone
    His still soft chest on which I left my ring.

    This morning planting a white chrysanthemum in a pot
    Into a corner of the garden I came on maggots
    In a small herd and then a crawling mouse skin
    Into which they pressed and waved like Pentecostals.
    There are no videos yet of underground but here
    Were two flaps of skin: the same route, the same soul gone.

    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.

    Miriam's wedding dress

    Walking about the house while flatmates slept
    In her cut but not sewn wedding gown
    Pinned at waist, shoulder and hem
    With gaping wounds like St Sebastian
    One girlfriend woke and saw her in the door
    Practising her altar walk and screamed.

    Is this the gown of after or before
    The final state, like sloughing off a skin
    The ultimate dress to undress in
    She wears for pleasure now, half-pinned:
    The image of herself she cannot see
    But feels in waking up the dead?

    My mother's black dogs

    Calmly she tells me about them
    And calmly the doctor assures me
    Is the way she takes them: the black dogs
    My mother sees as part of her illness.

    A small fusing or a lining growing narrow
    The build-up of something like tannin in a teapot
    He stands sketching by the nurses' station
    Less calm than she who receives its image.

    This suburb, street, cul-de-sac that deals in
    Black dogs: a friend's child (another suburb)
    Saw monsters eating her arm and screamed.
    My mother dislikes the dogs she walks among

    Knee-deep and sinister and the pitted ground
    As though with lead raindrops, the moving walls
    That seem the dogs' natural surroundings.
    Most of all she dislikes their expressions

    Which I save her from by sitting with her.
    There is no compliment that pleases me more
    Than to reduce these hunting hounds of heaven.
    Today they are shrinking, are as small as lap-dogs.

    Violets and camellias

    Pushing camellias into the young woman's hands
    And violets into mine, I quickly said
    Crossing the bouquets like a conjurer
    Violets are for young girls, Parisiennes
    Older women need, desire, camellias.

    A little shocked my hostess gave way
    The young woman concurred, instinctively
    Seeing these clinging parma faces in a glass
    While I knew the camellias would by morning
    Release that instinctive last touch petal

    Parisiennes cannot pay for but which echoes
    Old peeling stucco or drains endured
    By dining well, with good conversation
    And a picture on the wall, a look
    Which time cannot tell is backward or forward.

    A book of Louisiana plantation houses

    From a friend who brought home huge books
    And left them open on a table
    And daily turned the plates
    Or balanced one on a sideboard:
    An artist's lithographs, an expressionist
    Or a book of Louisiana plantations

    I have learned it is the turning of the page
    In summer, or in winter above the ash
    In the fireplace, the waiting logs standing
    Like Doric columns on Bonnie Burn or Chrétien Point:
    Having a new house each day to contemplate
    To imagine oneself into, a whole history.

    Most extravagant plates have some text
    But each day, propping or turning the page
    Diminishes it: a general drift checked out
    In the case of the Louisiana plantation houses
    Showed a Southern belle could guess
    Life's pattern as well as the slave quarters

    Shown in a small inset and at some distance:
    An image which persists in entering the imagination
    With a beaten quality of landscape, a frailty
    The mansion strove to capture in some rooms.
    But interiors are not the purpose of such books
    Or more than one representative biography:

    A huge love house, absurd unless
    Flirtation was an art hemmed in crinolines
    And this wide prey needed plenty of support
    And could never walk unobserved about a lawn.
    Quite often these heroic men were lost
    In paddle boats or war; the stucco peeled

    The house was requisitioned or left alone
    For some romantic timid descendant
    To labour and bequeath it to an institution.
    All this may be glimpsed in the grounds:
    The marker by the slave cabin or the outhouses
    Leaving the mansion, splendid still, alone.

    This habit has something of punishment
    Beyond its alertness. I often noticed
    With pleasure the propped page had changed
    While the ashes from the last page still remained.
    In the case of the Louisiana plantation houses
    It is not enough that some are still triumphant
    When three verandah-sides of column flake.

    Saints' names

    Each letter from my friend is headed
    With a saint's name. For December
    She elects between St John Damascene
    St Jane Frances, St Thomas Beckett.

    A vast dictionary, I imagine, sits before her
    With no vacant feast days. Sometimes
    She strikes an obligation marked in red:
    All the Fridays in Lent, the Assumption of the B.V.M.

    But most pleasing are the obscure saints
    With odd spellings: St Bernadette Soubirous
    St Fidelis of Sigmaringa, Sts Charles Lwanga & Companions
    And an especial favourite: St Polycarp.

    What have they in common: St Peter Chrysologus
    St Ignatius of Loyola: two she will never use
    In the same year since they sit side by side
    As even St Teresa of Avila took mass only on Sundays.

    I think it is euphony. Or a comment.
    What small trials today compare to St Xystus II?
    Or pictures: Sts Pontian & Hippolytus
    A holy hippopotamus under a bridge

    Or being noticeably well-mannered
    For such elect company where simplicity
    Might have been expected, even nicknames:
    St Maximillian Kolbe, St John Chrysostom.

    Verses from a conference

    First the bus trip and the absent-minded professor
    A compliment being met and being taken
    To meet two other professors, one from India
    And another who will deliver a surprising paper.
    But first we are settled in a dormitory.

    The dormitories are identical. One night
      (But this comes later) I will lose
    My way and climb another staircase
    Just like in Kidnapped and walk around a ledge
    Find an identical room, empty of poems.

    First there is showering to master
    And breakfast. The Indian professor,
    Who is elderly and athletic with gentle eyes
    Tells me his wife is sympathetic and green-fingered,
    Cleans his teeth in a cloud of Ipana.

    We cross a surreal landscape of man-
    Made hills, dotted with long prefabs
    Devoted, we think, to Food Technology.
    Coming and going we imagine them measuring
    A steak preparatory to frying it.

    The scrambled egg is peculiar: set like jelly
    In wide pans. The kitchen staff
    Cut it in slices like madeira cake.
    Fearful of the contents of unknown papers
    We eat hungrily, call it brain food.

    For morning and afternoon tea we show our cards
    And line up in two queues. For lunch
    We go to the staff club where a gardener
    (Surely his work's a guise, he's deconstructing)
    Picks roses for the prettiest academics.

    Two papers and two papers: the morning.
    Ditto the afternoon. In the evening
    Four poets read with an interval
    Ostensibly to stretch but really for digestion.
    This whole conference's theme is physiology

    Though disguised as the Indian novel: Naipaul
    And Narayan; Images of flight in the works of

    The symbolic Commonwealth; some Jewish-American
    Parallels to Pakistan. The questions are learnèd
    And subvert the theme. Four New Zealand novels

    Loosely linked by canons of feminism.
    We need the scrambled eggs which change
    Some days to hard to stand
    The efforts we are making with our brains
    To be abreast of such new old-fashioned things

    Of how what we read is to be read
    Of how the egg ... A languorous Australian
    Professor far too long in the leg
    Speaks softly of Soyinka and admits
    There may or may not be a zombie in it.

    A seeing-dog in harness with her master
    Applauds with her tail, her name is Ida
    And she features in photos of the department
    Amazing first year homesick students
    Grateful that they're quartered on the campus.

    Two days, two breakfasts, two varieties of egg
    And the landscape which we tramp upon
    Settles in our heads as home
    In a cell settles on prisoners.
    What are these trees?' an Australian asks. 'Gums.'

    But nothing is to be puzzled at. Our rooms
    Resist our imprints and our yellow towels
    Hang outside our windows. We share pegs
    And consult each other about the washing machine.
    The clever answer is: to use shampoo.

    At a party held at Ida's home
    We lean over a balcony and descry
    The night city lying at our feet
    No paper may construct but perhaps
    We are an extra-concentrated light.

    The dog farewells us, harness-less
    We walk the path in gum leaves to our dorm
    Undo our cells with their separate keys
    Compose to sleep like student clones
    Then wake to reach the shower first.

    A charming paper on Les Murray is attacked by
    Two Australian academics who would divide
    The poet into a fat man and a thin man
    And have left over enough guile
    To run the man for premier of Queensland.

    It's said affectionately. A country so wide
    (The Australians are the largest contingent) can spare
    To share a laugh about a monument
    And speak in soft accents which surprise
    The harsh meanings of the words they use.

    Some nights in the cell of Smithyman
    The only poet who appreciates the mattress
    On which one cannot turn or dream
    The whisky's emptied and the smoke rises
    As from a factory of the obdurate image

    Across the prolix beds of foliage
    And into the trees beyond the clotheslines
    Where the hardiest participants are seen jogging
    In the late afternoon and others (peg-less)
    Lay their smalls upon the grass.

    One night earmarked for dinner we fill
    A bar and process to the dining room.
    Too many places set, too many shrimps
    In cocktail glasses are whisked away.
    We circle a table with the second course

    And then pavlova — Manhire's lines
    Of the ballerina falling on her face
    This time accompanied by raspberries
    And cream and coffee in a little ante-room.
    Outside the lawn, bereft of gardener

    Grows dark and accentuates the yews.
    Roses and yews in the same bed are strange:
    A message from the underworld and air
    Together, one diving down, one climbing
    Like a thorny dissertation.

    The most vigorous and debated lecture
    By a Welsh expert on deconstruction is
    Curtailed by half the audience taking a bus
    To a bird sanctuary where they tramp
    Slowly in the heat from cage to cage

    And find a badly painted takahe
    (A paper full of holes but full of meat)
    And a preacher bird who sings a line
    Of opera — someone mentions this
    In the discussion of Witi Ihimaera.

    On the last night a professor is
    Accosted on the moonlit path by a guard
    And checked for prowling. He finds it hard
    To reprimand such endearing security
    In a landscape so lobotomised.

    The End! is the last brochure page
    In the folder. Near the top
    It leaves the afternoon for us to go
    Hinted at by asterisks. Papers and landscape now
    Are so close, the path between the hills.

    A sight of maples

    Overheard in a London street:
    Look, a girl with high colour
    In her cheeks: must be Irish.

    Or Canadian maples. A thousand
    White-barked birch and ash
    And this cheek-flaming grouping.

    What was in the street a nucleus
    Hoping, I think, to be swallowed
    Here is a ring of sword-swallowers.

    The race meeting

    Across the golden fields we saw
    Arriving too late to bet on the fifth race
    The liquid start of trotters behind the gate
    Which ambushed them, then ran off.

    A liquefaction more beautiful than a dress
    Of flowing manes, sulkies and hooves
    The drivers leaning and the whip
    To conduct some light untouching air.

    We bet a little after that. But mainly
    Watched that moment and how they passed
    The finish line, were photographed and held
    At liquid's finish in a final bowl.

    The seventh race overthrew all that.
    A horse called Premier Bromac, no. 13
    Stumbled in its leggings: the vet was called
    And around the victim rose the screens.

    Another liquid start went on, another.
    Finally behind the screens a dray was brought
    Attached to a tractor: Premier Bromac's tail
    Touched the golden field it circled like a hand.

    Until the sun went down and the last race was called
    I watched the liquid passing grace with fear
    Held my breath among sulkies and fetlocks
    Marvelled that it ran just like a poem.

    A small seascape in oils

    Instead of fruit, furniture or flesh
    Squall, cloudburst and stain
    Are the seascape accoutrements.

    Squall is a window, cloudburst the action
    In still life seen in wrung-neck fowls
    Or limp rabbits hung up by their feet.

    Stain and shadow are the flesh tints
    Waves wear to delineate their form
    The way nudes bend to pick up their shoes.

    7 little poems about Canada

    Little Canadian houses

    Stoically, white-foreheaded, thin-lipped
    They resist the plain, although they're in a street
    Their moral figures that never grew thick
    Their locket at the throat embellishments
    Would press out such a style you'd think
    Into prose and verse and sweep the leaves.

    A garland of sweet grass from the Indian reservation

    Nestled in the box of brutal gifts
    Shiny brochures, plans and culture bids
    When on the walls you're forced into our dress
    Waistcoated chiefs, even your wedding dress
    This plaited ring, waist-size or noose
    Crosses the earth on silent moccasins.

    Niagara Falls

    If Keats's Grecian urn had to pour
    In solemn stillness, one-less-large
    Than spirit which is small
    This would be the next gradation:
    Silent watchers at a huge waterfall.


    What is punctuating the leaves
    With phrasing, accents aigus and graves
    And writing underneath the notes
    Of joining quick first drafts with strokes
    That connect the grammar to the tail?

    Why do colonial voices rise on the last word?

    A disbelief that rushes to believe
    That you will disbelieve we believe
    And that we should be doubtful in belief
    Does not unsettle belief underneath.

    Walking in maple leaves

    All the books we left open
    Or fell into sleep reading
    We are punished by walking over and remembering.

    The lost pages spread out for our eyes.
    Sometimes they are buried in drifts
    Or move a little, with the effort of waiting.

    Toronto colours

    Brick and blue Toronto colours
    In a haze that clears by night
    On such Presbyterian labour.

    Paleness always sweeping towards
    A dark doorway, a blue silo
    The clearness that money makes, emphasised.

    The whole city, Jo Bird's Café, reminiscent of
    Braque who always knew where to place black
    Knew it was the mark of a master.


Excerpted from A Pattern of Marching by Elizabeth Smither. Copyright © 1989 Elizabeth Smither. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Farm life,
Stubble fields,
Soil section,
Underground video of a mouse's embalming,
A cortège of daughters,
Miriam's wedding dress,
My mother's black dogs,
Violets and camellias,
A book of Louisiana plantation houses,
Saints' names,
Verses from a conference,
A sight of maples,
The race meeting,
A small seascape in oils,
7 little poems about Canada,
Nine postcards on a wall,
Error on a quiz programme,
The French translation,
A medley of popular classics,
Listening to Handel's Water Music,
A pattern of marching,
Return visit to a cemetery,
Two medieval recipes,
A week of physiotherapy,
To Joseph, in hospital,
Two useful inventions,
The forecast for night,
A midnight slater,
My cat's scarface,
The muse (for women poets),
By the Same Author,

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