Horse Playing the Accordion by Elizabeth Smither
(Ahadada Books, Tokyo & Toronto, 2009)
Reinventing the World in Smither’s Horse Playing the Accordion
Elizabeth Smither’s poetry book Horse Playing the Accordion is a lively exploration into the ordinary instances of life. Smither alternates between revealing life’s most sublime and solemn (in the case of her funeral poems) instances. We can only marvel as Smither gathers an array of moments, placing them before us to feast on. We find, with each poem, that Smither introduces us to cultural features of Europe that highlight its splendor. Smither also engages us through the richness of her knowledge of the arts, referencing real and fictitious figures alike in several of her poems. Likewise, we cannot help but rejoice as Smither unfurls moments that are life-affirming and celebratory, showcasing those elements of life that yield harvests of meaning for the soul.
The genius of the title poem, “Horse playing the accordion,” lies in its fantastical nature. This poem is wonderfully wrought with a description of a musical horse presented in all his finery. The speaker declares the horse to be “beautiful,” possessing a “head” that is “black.” What is odd or unique about this horse is that it has “hands” with which to play the accordion. The fact that the horse has “hands” gives him a humanlike quality. We gather, furthermore, that he is rather exotic—an impressive looking creature—since he is dressed in a “tunic” that is “dried blood red’ in color and wears stockings that are “white and red.” Perhaps most astonishing of all is the effect the horse has on the speaker. She strikes an ecstatic tone by the poem’s end: “I want to give everything in my purse / to the beautiful horse and his accordion.” At first, we may deem it an absurd idea for the speaker to sacrifice her belongings for a horse. But if we truly have listened to her, we will discover that we, too, have become mesmerized by this horse’s grandeur.
In the poem “Singing in the rain,” Smither borrows from pop culture, citing icons associated with Hollywood musicals. To do so is a tricky endeavor indeed, for we tend, as average citizens, to hold artists of the cinematographic persuasion in such high esteem that anyone who dares to commemorate them we automatically doom to failure. Yet, Smither effortlessly conjures Gene Kelly in his most defining role, creating a fresh impression for us of the landmark film Singin’ in the Rain. Alongside Gene Kelly, Smither invokes the incomparable Richard Rogers. Smither’s speaker confesses, “And then I remember hearing on the radio / it’s Richard Rodgers’ anniversary and begin / to hum . . . Younger than springtime, low and sweet.” Here, the speaker’s lilting tone is infectious, allowing us to vicariously experience the magic of this moment with her. The speaker helps us to rediscover a basic truth of everyday living—that it is the simplest moments of life we often value the most.
Perhaps inspired by the fact of how her predicament nearly parallels Gene Kelly’s, the speaker draws an allusion to a fictitious character: “My skirt looks like Eliza Bennet / crossing half of Hertfordshire.” With this statement, the speaker identifies herself with one of fiction’s boldest heroines ever. Many of us will recall Jane Austen’s character Elizabeth Bennet fondly, retrieving from our memories our recognition of how defiant Elizabeth was as illustrated through her actions. The speaker’s statement, taken within the context of Austen’s text, is hilarious. We may at first be incredulous that the speaker endures, in the rain, what Elizabeth endured by walking, but then we must consider what the speaker says, leading up to her statement. She claims the rain gets “[h]eavier and heavier.” She states further that she must “stand on tiptoe to escape the overflow.” Thus, we become persuaded by the ampleness of her evidence.
“My Paris room” is a poem that champions the idea that landscape has much to contribute to one’s well-being. The speaker makes her point quickly: “Everything I desire: a balcony / a French door: black wrought iron / two panels of taut white lace.” We can easily identify with the speaker’s tastes in home design as her description of her room’s features sounds like something out of the magazine Classic American Home. For many of us, though we may dwell in comfortable enough abodes, we would be more than willing to upgrade our homes by a substantial degree. Thus, the speaker’s desires, underscored by her use of the personal pronoun “I,” become our desires. Our satisfaction as readers occurs as a direct result of knowing the speaker has obtained what she desires. It is only through hearing the speaker voice her pleasure regarding these architectural and decorative features that we become in tune to our lack of these same features.
The speaker elaborates further on the grandness of her milieu, naming other features: “roof tops / a line of chimney pots on which a crow / settles at the same time Saint-Sulpice / is ringing . . .” The speaker sets an enchanting mood in these lines. We wonder at the unplanned synchronization of the crow and the chimes of Saint-Sulpice. We find ourselves astonished, overcome with a sense of awe at how nature plays its part in the orchestration of this seamless moment in time.
Ascribing aesthetic value to people or things is not the only matter of concern for Smither’s speaker. Besides admiring the beauty of the world, her speaker testifies to the importance of intellectual pursuit. In a reflective piece, “Grown-up son, reading,” the speaker muses over the apparently communal activity of reading:
He is reading a motorcycle manual. A Kawasaki.
While I have my head in an autobiography.
He reads of pistons and fine adjustments
while I read of incidents and suppositions.
There is truth for each of us. But how
companionable it feels. Two heads lowered—
The simple eloquence of the speaker’s statement, “There is truth for each of us,” is sure to resonate for her listeners, for we are all questing for the truth, or at least some version of the truth, whenever we hasten to pick up a book. The sense of the speaker’s industry comes through as she labors in her activity of reading. “I have my head in an autobiography,” she says. We may also note how the speaker clarifies for us the distinctions in the reading material when she declares, “He reads of pistons and fine adjustments / while I read of incidents and suppositions.” There is something almost mystical in the phrasing, “[t]wo heads lowered.” This wording suggests the possibility that the two readers possess the capacity to exchange ideas even as they remain engrossed in the two discrete texts.
The poem “The Oxford comma” critiques the inner circle of literati. It begins in a spectacular fashion—“A little knot of writers at a / prize-giving ceremony, standing / uncertainly, looking at the stage . . .” From the poem’s start, its language startles. The image, “[a] little knot of writers,” is an exquisite metaphor that points to the fragility and tenacity of this clique of writers. Smither’s use of the adverb “uncertainly” is precise. The word “uncertainly” is an apt way to describe the delicacy of some writers’ egos. More telling are the speaker’s words in the second and thirds stanzas: “we discuss / to show erudition and hide fear / the Oxford comma and the use of it.” Here, the speaker implies that the world of academia is based primarily on performance; that one thrives or, in certain cases, survives according to how well or how poorly she or he elucidates her or his ideas. We also understand, courtesy of the speaker, that the “fear” factor is highly prevalent within the confines of academia. Moreover, we gain the sense that performing for others in some ways masks these individuals’ insecurity. The speaker’s statement, “we discuss / to show erudition and hide fear” may remind us of Lacanian logic. Perhaps, frail humans that we are, we are doomed because we think so little of ourselves unless the Other comes along to exalt us. Certainly, a hint of self-consciousness on the academics’ part emerges in these two lines.
Reading Horse Playing the Accordion is a sheer delight. Through her poems, Smither offers us the chance to exult in every aspect of our existence. If we neglect to do so, we alone are culpable, for Smither has set the example for us of how to prize life. We need only follow her lead.
A former two-year college English instructor, poet Grace Ocasio lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, Edwin. The poem “Ars Poetica” is forthcoming in the summer 2009 issue of Rattle: Poetry for the Twenty-First Century literary journal. She is an active member of the Carolina African American Writers' Collective. Poetry of hers appeared in Black Magnolias Literary Journal, Drumvoices Revue, Court Green, The Cherry Blossom Review, Poetica: Reflections of Jewish Thought, Main Street Rag, and Aries. She is also a reviewer for the Web site, The Review Review. She received her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and her MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.