Spareness and generosity, Bill Sewell

Milky Way Bar
Bill Manhire,
Victoria University Press, 1991, $16.95

Short Back and Sideways: Poems and Prose
Hone Tuwhare,
Godwit, 1992, $19.95

It would be hard to imagine two poets as different as Bill Manhire and Hone Tuwhare. Both are firmly established in the New Zealand literary canon, but there the similarity seems to end.

The quality associated with Manhire’s poetry is spareness, an extreme parsimony with words, pinched into short lines and stolidly resisting resonance. Tuwhare’s poems on the other hand are all generosity, the lines let off the leash and the poet reluctant to whistle them back, full of detail, colour and warmth.

Both approaches have their drawbacks: the careless reader might find a Manhire poem bloodless:

Poor boy. Here he is,/ home from Bible Class/ He closes the door./
He lifts the mattress/ and takes out the book with dog-eared pages.
(‘Masturbating’)

By contrast, Tuwhare’s writing sometimes strays into being overwrought, cluttered with adjectives and abstractions: ‘… releasing a blue mythology of embalmed energy – ‘ (‘A view from a house in Rue Balguerie’). And yet at the heart of the art of both is the same fascination for and delight in language, its conflicting levels, its quirks, its enormous power.

Manhire gives very little away, but there are two statements in Milky Way Bar which are seminal: ‘I am learning a language’ (‘Magasin’), and ‘I love the unimportant thing’ (‘Milky Way Bar’). It is not so much French as his own language which Manhire is learning, and which he strips down to essentials in order to discover its workings. And it is out of ‘The unimportant thing’ that Manhire will make poems, or rather anti-poems, which set out to deflate the reader’s expectations.

His poems are discoveries in more ways than one, whether of a meaning – ‘Well doggone,’ said someone,/  and it’s true, the dog was gone’ (‘Out West’) – or whether lifted out of an unlikely context such as a set of instructions for a child’s toy (‘Life with Madam Rosa’).

It would be wrong, though, to think that Milky Way Bar is confined to wordplay. The collection covers a wide range, from the highly evocative ‘A Winter Christmas’ which documents a vicarious experience of the natural world beyond London; to an ironic potted biography of the Emperor Hirohito; to a series of vignettes revolving around the theme of Brazil (‘Brazil’).

This last poem, long by Manhire standards, seems to be an arrangement of images, anecdotes and text fragments from the poet’s reading and musing. ‘Brazil’ has the exotic and nightmarish flavour of Marquez and Llosa:

The secret tribe knew a secret tribe/ but would not say. “Do you mean deeper/
in the jungle?” he demanded, beginning to get angry./ But they would not say.

and the seediness of Graham Greene:

You sat in a chair while the man there/ told you his problems: no village,/
no machinery, no available women.

 

In much of Short Back and Sideways Tuwhare’s delight in language expresses itself in the calculated mixing of registers, from an earthy vernacular to a high-flown lyrical style. Perhaps the contrast is more marked between rather than within poems, and nowhere more so than between ‘Grand-daughter Polly Peaches’ and ‘Shadow’. Both poems show not so much a preoccupation with mortality, as a recognition of it. Where the one uses the device of an exchange with a grand-daughter:

Now, be a good child and piss off, will ya?/ Pith off, y’thelf, Gwun-dud.

the other makes a literary allusion – to Lorca’s duende.

 

Mortality, though recognised, is kept very much at bay by Tuwhare’s enormous vitality. This is apparent in the many references to food, but is at its most insistent in his love poems, which unabashedly celebrate sex:

Now as you gurgle your joy we drown in violent scrummage/ and squirm of bodies…
(‘Well-I-never’)

 

But this vitality also reveals itself in Tuwhare’s polyglot celebration of language. Some of these poems derive from the poet’s stay in Berlin during 1985, from which resulted at least three love affairs: with Berlin itself, with German women, and with the German language. This last is carried to the extent that he incorporates it into his work, juxtaposing it with both English and Maori:

Tena koe. Kei te pehea koe? japonica asks, with an indrawn/
hiss of nipponese perfection. I bow, clap bare my heels/
together returning the Maori words of greeting in precise/
deutschen Akzent ‑ alle Vokale aargenau ‑ all the vowel/
sounds are bang on …
(‘Smiles like flowers come and go’)

 

Manhire has recently won a New Zealand Book Award for Milky Way Bar, and the volume exhibits both continuity with his earlier work and something of a new direction with the richer, incantatory, haunting style of ‘Brazil’. Short Back and Sideways shows that Tuwhare is content to remain in the vein of the newer work in Mihi: Collected Poems (1987). But with its humour, its lyricism, its roguish vulgarity – who can begrudge him that?

 

Bill Sewell is a Wellington poet and the current President of the New Zealand Poetry Society.

 

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