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This review is taken from PN Review 60, Volume 14 Number 4, March - April 1988.

DARING THE DIRECT Elizabeth Smither, Professor Musgrove's Canary (Auckland University Press)

Elizabeth Smither's characteristic poems are tiny aperçus whose meaning often depends upon the reader's knowing the story to which her titles refer. In The Legend of Marcello Mastroianni's Wife (1981), her titles tapped legends as apparently diverse as St Teresa, Casanova, and the Princess and the Pea. What united these references was exemplified in that knowing title, the title of the first poem in that collection: she often sidles up to sexuality, depending for her effects upon the reader's complicity in her silences. She suggests links, even conversations, by the arrangement of the poems within the book, so that the whole implies more than the sum of the parts, and her short, delicate individual poems take on strengths from their position in a book that they could not have had in isolation. Though Smither's poetry has been praised as ironic, 'knowing' seems a more accurate label. Her characters observe. She says nothing, though an air of superiority arises: The Legend contains a sequence called 'from "an English Notebook"' which implies a journey, a traveller, a knowing eye exploiting the landscape, its history, and the people met there. Who is doing the meeting is left implicit.

In the main, her latest collection, Professor Musgrove's Canary, continues in the same vein, though she is now perhaps more aware of the limitations of her stance. This book contains a long poem, which she was dared to write by its dedicatee; it is a verse epistle, of sorts, playfully referring to ...


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