Wednesday, June 9, 2010


A Cortege 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 sitters like sheep and goats.

But by some prior determination a row
of daughters and daughters-in-law rose
to act as pall-bearers 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 flowed silk, the corpse
had become a man before he reached the porch
so loved he had his own dark barge
which their slow moving footsteps rowed
as a dark lake is sometimes surrounded by irises.’

Elizabeth Smither

As far as I know no poet has written so movingly about an actual funeral. Eulogies yes, there have been some great ones. But this miniaturist one describes an actual service; dare we say that it also a ‘performance’. Conducted in that professional manner in which the deceased was not known personally. Those assembled, not a close-knit bunch, sheep and goats, followers and lively ones, faithful types and unbelievers, a very typical modern funeral. Beautiful, strikingly dressed young women - striking word 'queenliness' - moving in unison, carrying the coffin down the aisle, through the porch and out into the world. The barge –my mind conjures up the splendour of Cleopatra’s barge summoned into existence by Shakespeare’s skill. An affirmation that life exists amidst death

I’ved use the words ‘gentle steel’ to describe Smither’s poetry. Ideas and images are her forte. These carry over into her prose. I enjoy her short stories and really loved ‘The Sea Between Us’ her 2003 novel. In the 21st century we tend to forget the earlier interflow between the Australian colonies/states and New Zealand. Several of my forbears tried their hand at farming across the Tasman. Some stayed, some returned. Now, the flow is increasingly one-way.

Smither’s novel did much more than describe that interflow. She explores the nature of family relationships and that elusive emotion called love, as young women grow and mature, tossed around by the ebb and flow of romantic and adulterous cross-currents. Death, as always, is ever lurking as a possibility. Above all, to this male reader, it was women’s voices presenting that desired sense of a common humanity. The same world, but a different perspective - outward ordinary life, underneath a seething swirl of urges and reflections – on the human lot.

I’m reading Smither’s latest novel ‘Lola’. I deferred reading it because the reviews tended to be critical. They did not blame indifference, rather their claim was lack of narrative and development. I was wrong to wait. I am only about a quarter of the way into it. I accept the narrative is not gripping. But scenes, ideas and images are. I’ve not had that much to do with funeral parlours – probably another reason why I delayed starting the read.  Right from the start, however, Smither had me hooked.

Beattie’s Book Blog has a quote from a recent book, ‘The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains’ by Nicholas Carr. ‘The Net is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now, I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.’

Lola’s sea of words recalls me to that delight of the sea of words. It’s still there. Carr's correct.  Smither sweeps me into a credible world. I understand why Lola finds it the parlour life claustraphobic; why she wants out. But the events that trapped her into the profession in the first place are cogent and possible. Husband, Sam, is not the first man to be forced into a career not of his choice.

Lola’s friendship with crippled Alice and her relationship with her own son Adam, and his unhappy wife are an unlikely seedbed for reflective thoughts Her discontent is stealthily introduced. How it will develop is the force that drives me to turn to the next page. One thing I do know, Smither always has a capacity to surprise. I look forward to the next few days reading.

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