Michele Leggott Michele Leggott
Photo by Sally Tagg

Elizabeth Smither Elizabeth Smither
Photo by Denise Burt

Essays & articles

Michele Leggott and Elizabeth Smither

As Far As I Can See, by Michele Leggott
(Auckland University Press, 1999)

The Lark Quartet, by Elizabeth Smither
(Auckland University Press, 1999)

Reviewed by Andrew Johnston
Landfall 199, March 2000

We say ‘as far as I can see’ when we want to acknowledge the subjective limits of our perception, and of what we want to communicate — it’s a qualifier we offer so that what we say may seem better qualified, as it were, to stand in the world. But as the title of Michele Leggott’s fourth book of poetry the phrase has a darkly ironic twist. On the book’s back cover is a blurry image of Leggott in dark glasses, and a note in which the poet spells out the situation she finds herself in. ‘I am losing my eyesight to the condition called retinitis pigmentosa,’ she begins, adding: ‘Much of what is written here is an effort to remember seeing, something to put against the dark while I searched for ways of understanding where it has put me. This understanding is elusive, it vanishes most when I need it. It is the sound of words on darkness, and of words in light. But eyesight is not vision. The rest waits.’

Leggott’s reaction to this personal catastrophe — the grief of her loss, the courage of carrying on that is contained in the last words of that note — dominates the poems in ‘As Far As I Can See.’ It complicates and makes more audible the exploration of the lyric that is probably the principal strand or project of her ambitious, complex, highly theorised poetry — ‘taking the lyric and turning it inside / out’ as one of the poems in the book puts it, ‘because nothing will ever be the same.’

In her previous book, Dia, the main vehicle for that exploration was ‘Blue Irises,’ a sequence of 30 sonnets that specifically attempted to re-create the sonnet as love poem, an exuberantly musical collage that incorporated quotations from several New Zealand women poets, as well as allusions to love-poem traditions, while switching voices and persons: a virtuoso performance. Leggott’s deeply historical poetic consciousness, as many reviewers pointed out, reaches far back in order to create a contemporary feminist aesthetic in poetry; the poems succeed because her ear, her facility with language, especially her ability to counterpoint jewelled phrases, prevents them from seeming merely programmatic. The paradox of some contemporary poetry, driven by a self-conscious concern with poetics, is that avant-gardism replaces the avant-garde, as if the reader is meant to admire the poetry principally for the theory behind it. Such poetry frequently remains chained, tunelessly and without wit, to its own dogged earnestness. Leggott’s poetry largely escapes this fate because it is ‘lyrical’ — it takes pleasure in singing — even as it rewrites the possibilities for the lyric; in this respect it practises the respect for the reader that some other experimental poets only preach.

As Far As I Can See opens with five sequences each of five sonnets, in similar register to ‘Blue Irises’ — a form that has become Leggott’s signature — and incorporating once again the words of earlier poets — here mostly lines from Robin Hyde’s manuscripts. In these new sequences the urgency of Leggott’s need to write about the loss of her eyesight — whether in coded or in more straightforward ways — is immediately apparent: ‘Heal with a star / her eyes it said and loss spread out / a dozen blankets against the purple wind’ (‘thoroughfares await them’); ‘I see what’s strange to you / transformation’s gift taking place before my eyes / she holds a snake a white stick she gives / into my hand and I go tapping into the world’ (‘limen amabile’). Leaping from third to first to second person, working in quotations, playing word association with favourite or resonant words, Leggott builds her poems in layers. Whether or not this is Leggott’s intention, what I find particularly interesting about these poems is the way they successfully dissolve the opposition between language as construction and as expression: the articulate artifice of these poems turns up the volume on both. The poet is making the poems, the poems are doing the talking. Alongside the difficulty of seeing and not seeing, they talk about being a mother (‘...I need them / they prevent my disappearance from the world’), a lover (‘we cannot fall / asleep or in love until you see me through / the unsapphirine unsilvered mirror of where I am’) and a daughter, especially in the prose poems that largely make up the rest of the book: ‘In the capitals of my mother’s hand LOVELY gives way to LONELY as she loses ground to what should have been only grief.’

These prose poems are organised in three sequences. The titles of the first, ‘a woman, a rose, and what has it to do with her or they with one another,’ and the second, ‘rain | blood | snow | ice | stone,’ carry strong echoes of the poetry of Dinah Hawken, the New Zealand writer whose project (or poetics) in many ways most closely resembles Leggott’s; the third sequence is called ‘the book of tears.’ All three contain powerful writing, in more conventional syntax this time — paying attention to the sentence and the paragraph rather than the line or the breath as units of organisation — but seldom less energetic, or enigmatic, in their juxtapositions of narrative fragments. The first part of the first sequence, a partially coded account of losing her sight, illustrates the kind of high-wire act that Leggott dares and gets away with:

Do you see me? I am falling out of a blue sky where my days were as dancers in a maze, sure-footed and smiling . . .
Then a pair of taxis went head to head in a distant country so suddenly I didn’t see the difference but it was a wide white threshold. When I couldn’t thread a needle, when I could no longer see the faces of my children or trim their nails, when the colour of money disappeared (and I bare-headed in the midday sun) then falling began and I cried out against it. . .
. . . There is a way, I said, but this is only the first gate. I give what is left of the light of my eyes, I have fallen out of a clear sky.

There is much else in these prose poems, as in the rest of the book, that is eloquent, adventurous and affecting. The heightened language Leggott uses here is almost biblical in its incantatory rhythms. Reading this section of the book, I was struck by the entirely unexpected resemblance of Leggott’s tone, in places, to that of Gregory O’Brien. It’s possible that neither might thank me for this observation, as each has arrived at this point via a very different route. But I think the comparison is worth making because it reveals their common point of departure — the ’20s and ’30s Modernism of such experimental writers as Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes and Mina Loy — as a surprisingly rich source for contemporary New Zealand poetry.

Such an aesthetic has risks, of course. In reaching for the ‘vision’ she alludes to in her back cover note, Leggott does manage to go ‘further than she can see,’ and this is one of her book’s triumphs. But some readers may balk at how ‘visionary’ some passages are, especially in the book’s final pages, whose allusions to ritual and fable have a faux-Blakean, New Age-ish flavour. ‘There is indeed the inexpressible,’ Wittgenstein said. ‘This shows itself; it is the mystical.’ But the mystical can be a treacherous zone for poets to wander in. When she steers clear of its dangers — and avoids the kind of adjectival pile-up that can sometimes become cloying in her work — Leggott succeeds in enlarging the limits of her world and ours by lending the language new shapes and fresh music.

Elizabeth Smither doesn’t try to turn the lyric inside out, though she might write a poem about wondering what it would look like to do that. Her deft, quick poems leap sideways from the observations or occasions announced in their titles — ‘Eating oranges,’ ‘Stars through tree crowns,’ ‘Hearing the approach of rain,’ ‘Cycle race’ — in order to catch the ordinary unawares, to show how strange things can seem when shown in the ludic light of the imagination. She investigates the lyric too, but in a quieter, less ambitious way, setting things spinning then stepping back to share with us her bemusement and her pleasure at the beauty of unexpected contingencies.

Many of the poems in The Lark Quartet are grouped into duos or trios — with an occasional quartet — which adds a sense of sequence. A list of their starting points creates a kind of portrait of the poems’ eclectic universe: lipstick, voices (a radio item and a phone call), stars, trees, rain, stormy seas, conversations with women friends, paintings, music — in each case the poem’s ostensible subject opening a space into which all sorts of other things wander.

One of my favourites is ‘ A poem for Roseanne’ which begins:

Roseanne who cuts my hair
every six weeks and asks
How’s your hair been?
as if hair was my life

What is striking about these elegant miniatures is how often the occasions of the poems are shared. Seldom are these lyric poems in the sense of a solitary voice expressing solitary thoughts: Smither is interested above all in how the things she observes, the things that occur to her, might function as units of exchange — between her and the other people present in the poems, between writer and reader — and how the exchange achieves a kind of grace:

Two pages turn. The eyes scan down.
A heroine in a bus proceeds
like an angel above machinery.

(‘A woman on a bus reading a poem’)

Reviewers customarily label Smither’s poetry as idiosyncratic, as if poetry shouldn’t be. There’s little doubt that her grammar is peculiar: the line-endings, bereft of punctuation, sometimes function as commas and sometimes not, which builds in a certain amount of ambiguity and fluidness but can work against her, as in the otherwise wonderful ending of ‘A stone armadillo’, where (it seems to me) a crucial comma is missing at the end of the penultimate line:

And on its stone ridges leaves will catch
rain stain, and, like travel, evaporate again.

Distrustful of large gestures, Smither is much more interested in curiosity than in knowledge; in this and several other respects she has strong affinities with poets such as Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Josephine Miles, aiming for a nonchalant artfulness that is deceptively difficult to achieve. For some critics, such work amounts to a kind of studied inconsequentiality, but I think they’re missing the point: it is because of, rather than in spite of, the small ambitions of such poems that they succeed in achieving so much. Elizabeth Bishop is the ultimate example; it’s telling that Bishop’s body of work continues to grow in influence as the star of Robert Lowell, her contemporary, wanes.

But there’s a crucial difference between Smither’s practice and Bishop’s, and I was reminded of it each time I re-read The Lark Quartet. Poems that stay close to ideas or observations, as Smither’s (and Bishop’s) often do, run the risk of resting at that level and not entering the realm where language’s resistance might generate something more complex. Some of the poems in The Lark Quartet, awash in explanation, can only strain after the kind of resonant image that gives such mystery and power to Smither’s best work. Take ‘Marker ribbon in a book’ for example:

How fingering it as it lies
in a channel between two pages
snow white pages with crows
gathered into paragraphs

makes the pleasure deeper
of seeing the crows scatter
into meaning. How releasing
the ribbon to fall celebrates it.

Instead of letting the images do the work — and the images themselves are conventional and hardly surprising — Smither has burdened them with ‘How . . .’ and ‘meaning’ and with too many verbs. This poem reads like the paraphrase of a haiku.

Sometimes the problem is that the occasion or picture announced in the title comes to fence in the poem. ‘Eating oranges,’ for example, the first poem in the book, begins with:

Soft-skinned pipless oranges
whose peel makes small dishes
of clotted cream and under-glow

and continues via ‘eating one or two is enough to conjure a treeful [. . .] and a life of not merely fruit’ to conclude:

as if opening is all treasure
on some supporting ground:
a table, a chair with shawl.

The conclusion just doesn’t live up to the promise of that wonderful opening image. Instead of turning corners — or going anywhere in particular — the poem just sort of sits down and has a breather. (After I had re-read this book many times, it was the first three lines of this poem that stuck in my mind and I couldn’t for the life of me remember what the rest of the poem did.) In these new poems Smither deviates little from the minimalist tone set by her titles; I find it significant that by contrast ‘A Cortge of Daughters,’ the Smither poem par excellence (from A Pattern of Marching), is named for the fulcrum of the poem, the very point at which the poem’s weight is effortlessly shifted from its occasion (a ‘quite ordinary funeral’) to its arresting final image of a ‘dark lake,’ ‘sometimes surrounded by irises.’ There are too few such transformations, there is too little of that magic, in this new book.

Elizabeth Bishop knew that her type of poem was hard to do well, and she published sparingly. Elizabeth Smither, by comparison, publishes prolifically. In each book there are some very good poems, the kind that you rediscover later with delight. But many of the poems in The Lark Quartet, as much as we can see where they want to go, don’t quite make it. I wished they had been left longer and worked harder so that their quickness and lightness at the level of ideas could ripen into something more lasting in language.

© Andrew Johnston