Elizabeth Smither

My American Chair

(Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2022). ISBN: 9781869409609. RRP: $24.99. 88pp.

Reading a new Elizabeth Smither collection is always a source of anticipation and relish. My American Chair is her eighteenth poetry collection and marks her as an international poet unfettered by geographical or thematic borders.

Smither’s great achievement is her ability to transform quotidian moments into monumental events. She has a talent for acute observation, piquant reflections and the guile to make the seemingly inconsequential imminent and alive with possibility. In this collection, there are picaresque anecdotes fashioned from the mundane, traveller’s tales casting her light on what it means to be a traveller, and the continued reification of the domestic, which elevates the text to points of reflection and wonder. Poems like ‘Chimney Smoke’ (p.5), ‘Overgrown Rockery’ (p.13), ‘The Little Girl’ (p.25) are emblematic of this approach, which is well encapsulated in ‘Brushing a Child’s Hair’ (p.31):

thinking of the first tentative stroke from
hairline to the neck, the beginning of anything.

How pure it is, like any journey:
the first turn of the wheel, the raising of a
blind, the first sleep-swathed morning kiss.

Smither’s impact resides in her uncanny ability to make observations about the strangeness and quirkiness of human existence and to elevate these for the delectation of her readers. Her use of counterpoint and contrast compels readers to re-examine these scenes with fresh eyes. Characteristically, it is imbued with warmth, panache, finesse and striking imagery.

Partisanship and parochialism can be a trap for New Zealand poets, but it’s one that Smither deftly avoids. This collection reaffirms we are people of the world, and our voices have something profound to say in the international arena. Often this is rendering domestic encounters with a kind of universal truth which are offered as a gift to the dedicated reader. Her poem, ‘American Grass’ (p.36) captures her ability to find the magical and memorable in the familiar and the ordinary:

It can touch the ankles of a barefoot child
you can lie on it and have some shelter
not a fortress but a caress.

Smither is renowned for her epistolic skill, and this treasury interweaves that with iconic imagery and a funny, poignant and personal voice. Her vision remains undimmed, and her capacity to lift the ordinary and otherwise invisible into our sight line is a major achievement of this volume. The volume traverses Paris, London, the United States and Taranaki too, with equal aplomb.  My American Chair traverses neighbourhood, emotional terrains and landscapes like a buffet of splendid poetical writing. What lingers is the elevation of the simple acts, exchanges, and encounters which enrich our lives, and Smither assiduously captures these and invites us to reflect further upon them. The imbrication of story, emotion, image and elan which thread throughout the work makes for a very memorable read indeed. Take for example, ‘Hip Replacement Surgery’ (p.70):

Something like a door handle or a runcible spoon
shines bright as a solid ghost on the screen
while flesh, the little that surrounds becomes a blur.
How much I prefer my silver joint.

Elizabeth Smither’s poetry lingers in the imagination because it is both rich and yet economical. She combines telling insights with a dexterity and seeming simplicity that encourages readers to savour the lines as morsels, rather than running onward into the next line. Her poems are like origami – they often appear simple and unbeguiling but are in fact fabricated so cleverly they demand lingering reflections.

She glides gracefully from moment to experience, from past to present, with the curiosity of a scientist. A number of poems sing songs of encomium to friends and family, sometimes as moving eulogies, sometimes drawing a family member closer. To me this is amongst her strongest writing, such as in ‘Little Boy on the Lower Bunk’ (p.26):

I see the windowsill with its figurines and toys.
She the dark sky and the stars and moon.
I hear the rain, she sees the silver spears.

This is a book for lazy afternoon meditations, and as it proved for me, the perfect companion on long haul travel. Those who delve in and dwell in its pages can expect a most pleasurable dividend.

Trevor Landers


Trevor M Landers published his first poem at age five. These days he is the editor of Mātātuhi Taranaki: A regional
bilingual journal of literature for Taranaki and the diaspora from the province.

Works Published