An accomplished collection of poems, A Pattern of Marching brings us messages of cool precision and accuracy from Elizabeth Smither. Restrained elegance, fine craft and wit characterise the verses. This is, in the words of the last line of the title poem, 'A skilled performance anyone could share'.
|Publisher:||Auckland University Press|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||124 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A Pattern of Marching
By Elizabeth Smither
Auckland University PressCopyright © 1989 Elizabeth Smither
All rights reserved.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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,