My American Chair

Two clerks sat facing half my desk
(someone sliced through it and sold it twice)
an heirloom from another century

that found two clerks with lowered heads
over an expanse of wood and leather
and for both clerks this splendid American chair.

I forgot it was designed for someone with legs
like Honest Abe when he lifted his pen
to write a declaration or sign a law

his back didn't ache as he bent forward
he sent its wondrous curled spring whirling
when a slave was freed, a plantation owner

converted from such prissy genteel manners
that made women dolls, secretly imbibing,
but my legs are shorter, my back sore

after years of balancing on its rim
my arms out of position on the desk
too high for comfort but still

how I loved my American chair
and how sadly we parted.
I gave it to my gardener

who carried it like a giant crab
against his chest and suggested
(since I write, I sign it).

Elizabeth Smither has published 18 collections of poetry as well as novels, journals and short stories. She was Te Mata Poet Laureate (2001-3), was awarded an Hon D Litt from Auckland University in 2004 and the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2008. Prizes include the Sarah Broome Poetry Prize (2016) and the Ockham NZ Book Award for Poetry in 2018.

Smither comments: 'I fell in love with this big 19th century American desk chair in an antique shop and fought with an American woman who wanted it too. I already had a cut-in-half clerks’ desk, where two clerks sat opposite each other; the chair was perfect. Under the seat was a big spring so I could whirl around in a full circle. It was the sort of chair Abraham Lincoln might have sat in; in fact it bears quite a resemblance to the chair he was sitting in when he was shot.

'But last year I gave it away to my gardener. I realised I didn’t have Abraham Lincoln’s long legs and perching on the rim of the seat I was in danger of assuming the posture of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Mournfully I went to an office supplies warehouse and bought something ergonomic with levers and an adjustable backrest. I chose it in scarlet but didn’t feel consoled.

'I thought of a friend who had a Southern Carolina neighbour, a very old faded Southern belle, who would phone in the late afternoon and purr her invitation to cocktails. "Darling, I’m pouring." (You have to image "pouring" with vowels as long as a stretch limo.) That’s what I had lost and also the work of the clerks, Lincoln drafting a speech, and perhaps going for a twirl when he hit on the mot juste. I think I was twirling a bit when I wrote it.'

​Poem source details >


Academy of New Zealand Literature fellow page

Auckland University Press author page

Read NZ Te Pou Muramura writer file

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) author page

'The view from here VII', The New Zealand Poet Laureate Blog, April 22, 2020

Photographer credit: Jane Dove Juneau Photographer