Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"A Cortege of Daughters"

I haven’t been reading much poetry lately, and have instead immersed myself completely in dry, heavy but very thought-provoking literary criticism and philosophical treatise for my Masters research, so putting up this write-up is sort of a welcome break and relief.

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 the sitters like sheep and goats.

But by some prior determination a row
of daughters and daughters-in-law rose
to act as pallbearers instead of men
all of even height and beautiful.
One wore in her hair a black and white stripped bow.

And in the midst of their queenliness
one in dark flowered silk, the corpse
had become a man before they reached the porch
so loved he had his own dark barge
which their slow moving steps rowed
as a dark lake is sometimes surrounded by irises.

by Elizabeth Smither

New Zealand poet Elizabeth Smither visited Malaysia for the KL Lit Fest earlier this year, and I was very fortunate to have sat in on her session together with Nic and Machinist. We were actually a little late that day, but the reading, having moved to the cosier and more intimate book room at Silverfish, helped us settle in easily. The crowd was small, as all poetry readings are, but it was quite lively, with a number of questions being posed. I made a remark them, of how the poems she read, evince a kind of lightness of touch, yet pa controlled measure. Indeed, this is evident in the poem today.

The poem starts out simply, describing the scene of a funeral in a church. The usual rites of the funeral performed, with the reading of a favourite passage from the Bible, and eulogies by friends, and people being led in prayer (as indicated by kneelers), but the quiet respectfulness or (perhaps) grief in the poem is disturbed by the starkness of the word “corpse” (instead of the name of the deceased) sticking out quite uncomfortably at the end of the first line. This cold distance of the funeral is also signalled by the priest not knowing the deceased personally, the awkward “serious” reading by businessmen, one of whom stumbled at the pew. The mention of kneelers and sitters suggests a further emotional or spiritual separation among those gathered there; those who are Catholics praying and participating, and those who are just attending the funeral. (The sheep and goats is a biblical reference to a similar condition.) All in all, the whole funeral seem rather ‘empty’ in a way, ritualistically lifeless as the person lying in the coffin.

But…. this first word of second paragraph, marks a change in the funeral. Daughters and daughters-in-law of the deceased form the procession of pallbearers, with their dear father and father-in-laws’ weight upon their shoulders, carrying and accompanying him in love and respect down the aisle of the church. Traditionally, it is the men who are bound to shoulder this duty, which makes this gesture all the more beautiful. The unobvious ‘rose’ as verb in the seconf line refers to the roses these women form as a part of his cortege,

One may feel the soft rhythm and smoother flow of the run-ons in the lines of this secondd paragraph, compared to the shorter, staccato-like (?) lines with caesura breaks (breaks in the middle of lines) in the first. Moreover, the gentle and unobtrusive rhyme of ‘row’ and ‘bow’ in the first and last line also completes it aesthetically, just as the third and last paragraph completes a beautiful turn in the funeral.

With his ladies-of-honour accompanying him, “the corpse/ had become a man”, no longer just a dead body, but a person and a man whose life is being cherished for all that he was. Indeed, I think I won’t explicate more, but ask you to re-read and appreciate the beauty of the final imagery that humanises death and makes it beautiful and meaningful.

Elizabeth Smither is New Zealand's Te Mata Poet Laureate. She has published thirteen collections of poems: Here Come the Clouds (1975); You’re Very Seductive William Carlos Williams (1978); The Sarah Train (1980); The Legend of Marcello Mastroianni’s wife (1981); Casanova’s Ankle (1981); Shakespeare Virgins (1983); Professor Musgrove’s Canary (1986); Gorilla/ Guerilla (1986); Animaux (1988); A Pattern of Marching (1989); A Cortège of Daughters (1993); The Tudor Style: Poems New and Selected (1993); The Lark Quartet (1999)..There have also been four novels, First Blood (1983) , Brother-love Sister-love (1986), The Sea Between us (2002), Different Kinds of Pleasure (2006); three collections of short stories, Nights at the Embassy (1990), Mr Fish (1994), The Mathematics of Jane Austen (1997); a book for children, Tug Brothers (1983); an edition of her journals, The Journal Box (1996); and co-edited with David Hill The Seventies Connection (1987)

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Blogger Leon Wing said...

Yes, u're right there, the 'corpse' sticks out so patently at the end of the line, so that the next one makes it such a powerful run-on. And it recurs in the last stanza, and this time the 'corpse' becomes a man, one known and loved by his all-female pallbearers, like flowers on a lake.

'Row' in 2nd stanza also plays like 'corpse', placed also at the end of line and also as a run-on. It also recurs, as 'rowed', at end of line. It echoes and hilight the motif of non-movement (including death) to movement.

The 1st stanza has practically no movement, as there are no verbs, except for 'tripped', inside a group qualifying one of the businessmen. And even this action never really gets completed.

The last stanza contrasts with the first by having movements now: slow moving steps, rowing.

A very accomplished piece.

8:57 AM, August 06, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Glad you liked it, though I like another one better. It would have been great if you had been there that day with us, if not for work commitments.

I have been thinking of getting a copy or two of her poetry. though I think, it's still not available here yet. She suggested contacting the publisher to see if they could sell a copy or two, but I haven't got myself to do that just yet.

4:13 PM, August 06, 2007  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Actually you can order from Kino. They won't ask for any deposit. I sometimes do that when I happen to find out some book is already out in the UK.

8:31 AM, August 07, 2007  
Blogger sneexe said...

Heyas Leon, Reza!

Just logged, great blog you've got going here.

I'm not accessible from my comment nick link, but you can find me at sneexe.blogspot.com

Look forward to seeing you at the next Underground on Feb 2!

3:08 PM, January 14, 2008  
Blogger juno said...

i love this site !! cool !!!

if you let me to know me... my name is juno from indonesia. i also write poem and essay, but mostly in bahasa. you can check at : htp://junosreflection.blogspot.com .


3:10 PM, February 07, 2008  

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