Night Horse by Elizabeth Smither.
Auckland: AUP (2017).
RRP: $24.99. Pb, 80pp.
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie.
Elizabeth Smither stands high among Aotearoa’s most loved, most respected poets. Among the many honours she has received are the Te Mata Poet Laureateship (2001-2003), Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (2004) and the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement (2008).
Night Horse is her eighteenth poetry collection and, continuing the pattern, received the prize for Best Book of Poetry at the 2018 Ockham NZ Book Awards. Indeed, some of the poems included were part of a submission which won the 2016 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize judged by esteemed Irish poet, Paul Muldoon. And yet all these grand accolades are in some ways, beside the point. Smither’s poems themselves seem to suggest this, valuing as they do the small and the unassuming. The contrast underlines the quiet integrity of this poet’s gaze.
Evident throughout the collection is Smither’s acute attentiveness. What her words seek is summed up for me in the marvellous first poem, “My mother’s house” (p 1):
It was all those unseen moments we do not see
the best of a friend, the best of a mother …
… to take a minute, to exist inside it
as still as the minute was to itself …
In this poem, Smither also celebrates her mother’s ‘pleasure at her own competence’. It’s a theme that recurs: pleasure in the often overlooked competencies of women, whether ironing shirts, making beds or filling and emptying hot-water bottles.
From “The Filipina maid makes the bed” (p 60):
I was over beds until she showed me
how carelessly and with what brio it can be done.
This is no passive domesticity. The maid’s method involves:
… seizing the bedding by the throat
and giving it a shake of grace.
It’s grace that Smither finds within the ordinary moment, where it transforms the moment, the detail. She draws the reader’s attention to the unseen, to what is wonderful within the gaps. In “Ruby and the Labradors” (p 24) she describes the way two black dogs protect a child:
This morning they become her guardians of light
by emphasising its outline around her
no other darkness can get close.
The rational mind listens quietly to the intuitive mind, and the dreaming mind. The luminescent figures of the cover, animals, plants, float on a background that is night-sky dark. In the centre is the night horse of the title. It is white, ethereal, the opposite of a nightmare. In the poem “Night Horse” (p 20), we see:
in the way it is stepping
as if no human should see …
I love the way these poems interweave, dip in and out of one another. The animals, the children pop up again. So do Selectric typewriters. While there’s a playfulness about this, it also feels like the meanderings of a richly meditative conversation. The poet’s eye ranges widely, over art, travel, mortality and the human body, the natural world. “Tenderness” (p 44) describes a tree in the centre of a corn field:
… where the tree
delivers a blessing.
The crop has been planted to allow room ‘for this lovely grace’.
Tenderness. Lovely grace. They colour this truly lovely collection. The vital importance of what’s in the gaps could not be more clear than in the final poem “The heart heals itself between beats” (pp 69-70) where the words of the title repeat in rhythmic refrain:
… and all that accompanies the emptying and filling
of chambers where silence must be an unknown
but still love sluices and cleans and restarts …
The heart heals itself between beats.
Surely that’s a description of what poetry at its best can do. In Night Horse, Elizabeth Smither gives us poetry at its best.
1] Paul Muldoon has published over thirty collections and won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the T S Eliot Prize.
 Muldoon has published over thirty collections and won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the T S Eliot Prize.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. She has had published: The Unquiet, a children’s novel, (Dunedin: Longacre Press: 2006); Albatross, a short story collection (e-publisher Rosa Mira Books: 2014), and Bones in the Octagon, a poetry collection (Makāro Press: 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.