Brigid Magner Reviews Michele Leggott’s Vanishing Points and Elizabeth Smither’s Night Horse

By | 15 May 2019

Vanishing Points is the third in a series of books in which Leggott reflects on her family history. Leggott notes that she has committed many photographs and artworks by her parents to a memory list. She describes an old family photo of her father as an infant, imagining what it felt like to be him in ‘Pisces standing on a chair’: ‘He is a picture. Little white shoes with ankle straps and cotton socks … He is remembering the downward tear of light diving into the waves.’ The book’s intriguing cover image, Edwin Harris’s 1860 painting ‘New Plymouth under Siege’, has a tenuous connection with Leggott’s family. The original painting has little holes in it which look like lights when illuminated from the other side. In her sequence ‘The Fascicles’ – which is the name for sewn-up booklets made by Emily Dickinson – Leggott has transformed a real but distant relative into a poet writing at the time of the New Zealand Wars in Taranaki. In accompanying notes Leggott explains that this relative – the sister of her great grandfather – ‘heard about war in places I knew as a child’.

After inventing this figure, she discovered traces of Emily Harris, a real Taranaki poet and botanist, daughter of Edwin Harris the painter, whose works are now being unearthed. ‘Emily and her Sisters,’ consists of portraits of her siblings which gesture towards the conditions of their nineteenth century lives. The last sister, Augusta, proves frustrating – she is a ‘dark archive’ – eluding the researcher who only searches through boxes but only finds ‘rain in the night’. This poem ends with the phrase ‘Look, holes’ which may refer to the tantalising gaps in the archive which have inspired these meditations or to Edwin Harris’ holey painting.

The two books feature unexpected calamities involving children – the fall of a toddler through an open window in Leggott’s and a dying child in Smither’s. These two poems reflect on the fragility of children’s lives and reveal stylistic differences between Leggott and Smither. A photo of a toddler (Leggott’s grandchild) with a halo of blonde curls and ice cream running down his naked chest relates to Leggott’s recollection of his fall through an open window the year after the photo was taken. It happened so quickly that all his mother saw was the ‘sharply focused heel of a red sneaker disappearing through a suddenly open window’. Leggott often switches between perspectives in her prose poems. She writes of the toddler’s fall from his mother’s point of view – first she thinks he’s dead then she discovers he is only winded, but the distress continues: ‘Little fish, little flying fish. There is no end to this terror.’ Many of Leggott’s prose poems contain quotation and coded word associations. The reader must read carefully, and work hard to gain a foothold, even with the poems that have overt historical underpinnings. The notes at the back of the book are a welcome inclusion for this reason.

Smither produces short, uncluttered poems, often in four-line stanzas which generally present one just impressionistic point of view. Smither writes of a pink, curved ukulele given to a girl ‘whose dying is unknown to her, adults presume’: ‘everything is pressing in, before it flees / (how unbearable to live this way forever) / and yet to live would be nothing fairer / with just the ukulele and the giver.’ Evoking the miasma of grief and intensity around the little girl who is dying, yet still practicing her ukulele with her teacher, Smither achieves less layering and complexity than Leggott but the emotional punch is undeniable. In a review of previous collections by Leggott and Smither published in Landfall 199 (2000), Andrew Johnston observes that Smither is ‘distrustful of large gestures’, and ‘much more interested in curiosity than in knowledge’. Her poems give the impression of being quickly dashed off although this may belie the crafting which has actually gone into them.

Smither has long harboured an interest in the relationship between Australia and New Zealand – her novel The Sea Between Us (2003) explores their many differences. Here again, Australia makes an appearance with at least two poems meditating on travels in Adelaide and Canberra, where she engages closely with the natural world: ‘the gums are unclothing themselves. Mainly beige / are their undergarments’. Leggott, too, writes about travel although the destinations are not so easy to discern in the poems themselves. She also makes some striking botanical observations, with flowers recurring throughout: ‘A pohutukawa in bloom is an old man on his knees, shooting out semen or blood.’ Even after decades of poetic practice, these writers are capable of shocking us with unexpected images and breathtaking turns of phrase. I came away from them feeling more aware of the precariousness of life and the unexpected flashes of insight that emerge from ordinary encounters.

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