To Mai, a month after her death
Such stillness the undertaker achieved
as if we were to think no further
or only in one direction. Stilled
at the committal, the incense lingering
the reluctance to move, to take you further
surely that showed a reluctance of thinking?
The church has returned to its old bareness.
Sermons come and go, a child is baptised.
Other funerals follow yours through the wide doors.
Now it is as if you did something amazingly gallant
laying yourself down, getting wet, over a small stream bed
making yourself into an impetuous cloak-thrower
and then whirling in fire, melting at last into
your most beautiful expression, then, calmed
prepared to be scattered to the winds.
Elizabeth Smither has published 16 collections of poetry, including the prize-winning A pattern of marching (Auckland University Press, 1989) winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, 1990, and The Lark Quartet (Auckland University Press, 1999) winner of the Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, 2000.
She is the third and first woman Te Mata Poet Laureate and Red Shoes (Godwit, 2003) is the result of her two-year term (2001-2003).
A Question of Gravity: selected poems, edited by John Kinsella, will be published by Arc Publications (UK) in 2004.
Smither comments: ‘Mai Nguen, a beautiful young Vietnamese woman, died tragically of lung cancer. A local priest, Father Tom, asked me to take communion to her during her last months and I agreed, with trepidation. I knew Mai slightly as she had worked as a library shelver: at her funeral it became clear she was an adored teacher in Vietnam who, during Teacher’s Day, received more gifts than anyone else from her pupils. With Mai’s help I bungled and improvised my way through an increasingly shorter version of the Eucharist. From her I learnt the courage, when faced with an extreme situation, to be bold and loving. It was easy to wrap my arms around her or simply hold her hand. At her vigil prayers I stood beside her coffin and looked down on her serene face: she was dressed in a beautiful red and gold silk dress. And at the funeral, as if we did not wish to see her go, there was a significant pause before the procession moved off. In the poem I wanted to take that movement further, into the weeks and months that followed, and to imagine Mai, not lost, but in a more expansive beauty.’