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March 6, 2006 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

The Violinist in Spring

It takes either a novice or a poet who knows what she’s about to rhyme “slime” with “time” and “octopi”. Smaill is certainly the latter. In her astonishingly confident first collection, she is unfazed by grammatical rules and poetic conventions and often ignores them in pursuit of what sounds and looks right. This took time to get used to. In ‘Home’, the opening poem, the line “flying with no threat of break” tripped me. Perhaps if there hadn’t been an endorsement from Bill Manhire on the book’s cover praising this very idiosyncrasy, I would never have become used to it, but I like to think something so interesting would have grown on me naturally. The other unique aspect of Smaill’s writing is her use of metaphor. Good metaphors and similes please me immensely, and I think it was when Smaill compared a bunch of hyacinths, which she was carrying along a busy street, to “a candle or a baby” that I was properly sold.

The only truly conventional part of The Violinist in Spring is its subject. Like many first collections of poetry, Smaill has divided the book into five sections, each of which focuses on a different time, place or concern of her life. There are memories of childhood, meetings with a lover, meditations on the act of writing and descriptions of her current setting. She is in her late 20s, has been living in New Zealand and Japan, and writing and music are large areas of her life. She is easy to identify with and naturally I found her at least partially autobiographical writing interesting.

But surely this is good beyond its subject, I thought, mulling over the final section (also titled ‘The Violinist in Spring). It won’t just appeal to poets and women in their twenties will it? I conducted a small experiment to find out. I opened the book at my favourite poem ‘The Teacher’, and gave it to my boyfriend, who is certainly a reader, but is reasonably reluctant about New Zealand poetry. He read it slowly, a face like the one he used when I gave him eggplant for the first time. And what was his verdict? I like it, he said, with no quantifiers, I do like it.

In the middle of the final poem, which shares its title with the collection, Smaill writes “The gist of all my meaning/ is kept here…” to describe her musician’s hands and the clarity she feels on a good day. On a second read-through, I again let myself linger in the pleasant certainty of those words, realising how relevant they could be to the whole book – to its measured exposition of ideas, its unique rhythm, and its musical confidence.

It’s a tough business, choosing a book of poetry published by VUP. If you go into Vic Books, you’ll see a whole shelf packed with slim, attractive volumes by new poets who have done the M.A. in creative writing and are, hopefully, on their way to bigger things. If I didn’t get a free review copy, I’d be very tempted to buy one and all I can say, in relation to this review, is not to rule out Smaill because her name is unfamiliar.

Anna Smaill


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