You cannot forget it, Tom Beard

Sheet Music: Poems 1967-1982  
Bill Manhire
Victoria University Press, $24.95
ISBN 086473 3003

My Sunshine
Bill Manhire
Victoria University Press, $19.95
ISBN 086473 2953

Touching on song
The iconography of song has always been important in Manhire’s poetry and it is surprising that this has been little mentioned until recently. The titles of both Sheet Music and My Sunshine, and the guitar on the cover of the latter, make this connection explicit, and songs appear throughout My Sunshine, particularly in its third section.

But how does Manhire sing? Certainly not in the form of rhymed ballads, except in My Sunshine’s title poem, where the predictable rhymes fall clunkily off the beat to illustrate the boy singer being led astray by their romantic lure:

He sings you are My Sunshine
and the skies are grey, she tries
to make him happy, things
just turn out that way.

The songs that I hear in Manhire’s poetry, especially his earlier work, are the songs that one sings to oneself; that one hums, whistles or prays under one’s breath; or that one whispers to a lover, “lacking an audience, / but blessing the air”. Perhaps this explains their “hermetic” quality: they are from a private, not a public, space. Andrew Johnston has argued persuasively that lyric poems exist in a social space “that exists between or among people who are in a certain state of alertness, between readers, or listeners”, but until recently Manhire’s poetry has shied away from this space. To the reader, the words no longer mean what they did in the poet’s private space but the poems retain a fierce energy, enabling them to colonise the reader, who may be unable to explain them. The version of “The White Pebble” that lives in my head may be different from anyone else’s, but that may be why I find it so powerful – it has become my poem.

This is my lyrical foliage
The usual definition of lyricism as song might emphasise the sound of the words (in the way that Dinah Hawken refers to “the word / hope with its wide-eyed unbroken o”), but I don’t think that Manhire’s lyricism works primarily in this way. His distinctive vocabulary is quietly lyrical in a way that would be recognised in translation when any sound effects would be lost.

Water is an important part of his “lyrical foliage”, as emphasised by the alchemical “Aqua” image on the cover of Sheet Music, but it is the same for many New Zealand writers (such as Greg O’Brien in Days beside Water and Dinah Hawken in Water, Leaves, Stones). A link between water and lyric poetry is made explicit by both Manhire (“The music of water”) and Hawken (“a lyric is like water”), but water imagery can be expected in a country where most of our ancestors arrived by sea (although those of us who arrived by 747 might evolve a different poetic) and where drowning was the national death.

Snow is a more distinctive icon for Manhire (perhaps a result of his southern heritage), especially in How to Take Off Your Clothes at the Picnic. As with water, clouds, earth and feathers, snow is a covering: somewhere to hide, or something that smothers. John Newton has pointed out that “something is always screening something. Something which seems to resemble language” and when Manhire writes of “these lines … just risking the surface”, one can read his small lines as an attempt to shrink the poem until nothing is left but snow. It’s intriguing that snow makes a big comeback in My Sunshine, though often in the form of simulacra: the blizzard that “repeats itself / every twelve minutes” in “Hoosh”, the “Palace scene in a snowy landscape” on a Japanese screen in “Some Screens”, and repeating the trope of screens, the “wide, white screen” in “Doctor Zhivago”. Snow as a screen, snow on the screen: a screen is a way of hiding, a means of display, a device for filtering and dividing; and these ideas can enrich the already complex iconography of his early snow poems.

And language is stealing something again 
Newton also refers to “the well-worn theme that Manhire is language-centred and tricky”, but these collections present a Manhire who is far from the usual canon of language-centred writing (Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, or New Zealanders like Michele Leggott and Tony Green).

A collection that included works such as Malady and “The Asterisk Machine” might have shown a Manhire much more open to avant-garde techniques than his Langpo detractors maintain. Some language poets like to think that they have a monopoly on language-awareness but, although Manhire is not about to abandon reference, he has never taken reference for granted. Iain Sharp put it well in Landfall 154: “Has ever a poet trusted language less or been more sceptical about the worth of received knowledge and conventional wisdom?”. Manhire is not seduced by clarity, but he doesn’t use opacity as an assault on readers’ assumptions and sensibilities.

I’m not sure how useful such optical comparisons are but Manhire’s poetry has seemed to me a poetry of refraction, diffusion and reflection – like mirrors in mist – where one is never sure whether the words refer to themselves or to physical and emotional realities (“the tongue leaves / its voice and taste to the snow”). This is their magic.

However, from the beginning of Milky Way Bar (“Magasin”, “Jalopy”) through to My Sunshine (“Isabella Notes”) there is a tendency for the separation to become clearer: these are definitely poems about words. They feel like party pieces: playful, but lacking the indeterminacy and strange loops of the earlier poems.

You bring on all your / effects
Manhire’s inimitable (but much imitated) tone has been compared (by Sharp) to Buster Keaton or Herzog’s Caspar Hauser: I’m also reminded of J Alfred Prufrock, with a hint of Hugh Grant. Little vacillations and mumbles (the phrases like “I suppose” and “more or less” that Sharp catalogues) go a long way towards establishing character. The hesitation that conquers him could be read as a post-modern distrust of certainty, or more simply as a painful shyness, the speaker apologising for his lapses into lyricism:

Let’s just reject
discussion, the safety of
numbers

and go to
sleep in a
serious fashion. Dancing

on God’s
veiny wrist, for instance, leaping
the veins: I mean, we

could manage that more
often. How do
you do how

do you
do? I am fine thank
you.

“The Importance of Personal Relationships”

The last five lines beautifully capture two lovers’ delighted but bashful discovery of one another, and re-invest social clichés with real meaning.

Manhire also uses awkwardness of tone to emulate the sinisterly stilted diction of secret police (“Come along with us, they say / There are one or two questions / We should like to ask you”) or to satirise hidebound conventional thought (“Not to the animals, as you might / understandably think”), but he is at his most moving when, like the frogs in “Your Room”, he “make[s] tender / choking noises, which pass / for sorrow”.

At the other extreme, he can have his irony and eat it too. “Oh star, you are wounded, / oh little pain” or “Oh passages of cloud & sky!” can be read as a deflation of Romanticism, but they cannot avoid being read at face value as well, thus sneaking in more emotionalism than he would otherwise get away with.

Poets, I want to follow them all
In his Poetry File column for Quote Unquote, Manhire cites a bewildering range of poets – from Emily Dickinson to Edwin Morgan, from Thomas Hardy to Dinah Hawken – but it would be naive to take this as a field of influences. Robert Creeley is an obvious starting place, especially the Creeley of the late ’50s. In terms of lineation, take “La Noche”:

In the court-
yard at midnight, at

midnight. The moon is
locked in itself, to

a man a
familiar thing.

Manhire has written that a Creeley poem appears to be “thinking itself into existence as it goes along”, a quality exemplified by this poem, and many early Manhire poems. Also, compare the syncopated repetition (“at midnight, at / midnight”) with the end of “The Importance of Personal Relationships”.

Manhire’s experience of short-lined Americans like Creeley and William Carlos Williams has given him a mastery of the line break that he uses to devastating effect in a poem like “The Proposition”:

…would you

care to be more
precise about whatever
it is you are
saying, I said

but he departs from them in his vocabulary and subject matter. Early Manhire can sound European, and often has a surrealist touch (“The house was in the mountains, / perched on the moon’s wrist”, “scarred like a / rainbow, no doubt, / kissing the visible bone”) that sometimes gets a little overheated (“This lantern was designed / for my fashionable wrist movements”). To my ear this sometimes sounds like ’20s Eliot and sometimes like Craig Raine, especially in riddle-poems( “I am well elevated. I grow tall / in a bed. Somewhere below / I am shaggy”). Superficially, this can resemble what Viktor Shklovsky called ‘“ostranenie”, the “making strange” of experience, but it arises from a dislocation of emotional response rather than elaborate conceits about light bulbs.

Remember, though, that it is not only writers that influence a poet: personal experiences can also affect their use of imagery. Manhire’s famous wrists and throats, apart from their associations with pulse, tenderness and vulnerability, may carry special significance for him: there’s no way for a reader to know what that may be, but their repeated use gives them an added emotional charge.

Influences on his recent poetry are harder to identify. The “opening out” from taut lyric to informal narrative that can be seen over the last 10 years or so may in fact be influenced by his own followers.

We vie with each other in politeness
Borges wrote that “every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past”. We can view Manhire’s followers as an influence upon him, literally as well in the sense that they construct a “Bill Manhire” that we read through their lens.

Some detractors say that 20 years ago, no-one wrote like Manhire; now no-one writes differently — an exaggeration, but they have a point. He has influenced and encouraged many fine writers, but the world is full of bad Bill Manhire imitations (and I should know, I’ve written hundreds) — these poems have the characteristic deadpan tone, politeness and deft line breaks, but they are terminally bland. I find Manhire’s early poems powerful because strong passions are barely inhibited by his taut line and diction (“I make fists at the air / and long to weaken”) but his imitators are all inhibition and no passion.

The work of the Manhire school colours our reading of Manhire himself, and this seems especially true of his later work. It seems easier to read Milky Way Bar or poems like “The English Teacher” and “In the Studio” (both from My Sunshine) in the context of Chris Orsman, Jenny Bornholdt or Andrew Johnston than beside The Elaboration or How to Take Off Your Clothes at the Picnic. There is a kind of feedback loop here and I’m not sure that it is producing more exciting writing.

“Hell, another masterpiece”
In the years when the 1980s were turning into the 1990s, Manhire turned from poetry towards prose fiction, resulting in The New Land (1990). The disillusionment seemed not so much with poetry, as with the thought of writing “another Bill Manhire poem”.

In the two books of poetry (Milky Way Bar and My Sunshine) since then, there is a turning away from the intense, private lyricism of his earlier work towards a more open, public voice, with narrative to the fore. Which is not to say that narrative was previously absent, but in “Your Room”, for example, the narrative is more a narrative of images than of characters or events (I am reminded of films by Vincent Ward or Jeunet et Caro), whereas poems like “The English Teacher” or “In the Studio” are more like condensed prose stories.

Perhaps we could read this as a response to a “failure” of lyricism: “and if he were a blackbird / he would whistle and sing / and he’d something / something something something”. Although Manhire has avoided the role of oracle or bard that Baxter may have claimed, in the public’s mind lyric poetry is still associated with these clichés, and perhaps he felt that he had to escape a role that had chosen him:

Sing something, she said, and he made these bubbles of sound. In another life he had been a king or a
conjuror, just going around
and around in these circles…

I am / not going forward
The narratives in My Sunshine are not always straightforward and linear: “Hoosh” and “An Amazing Week in New Zealand” offer a complex interweaving of viewpoints and tones. “Hoosh” entangles various Antarctic narratives so that Scott’s exclamation “Great God! This / is an awful place” attaches itself to an Antarctic simulacrum (possibly at Kelly Tarlton’s), just a “ten-minute trip / from the middle of town”. “An Amazing Week” may choose what seems an easy target for satire (evangelist Billy Graham), but I get the feeling that the poem finds Graham’s message more than a little seductive:

…like the roar

of an excited crowd, the sound
of winter skaters, a choir singing
as the folk go forward, one

by one, now come, you come

Newton writes of Manhire’s exploration of the space between “I” and “you”: Manhire (like Creeley) also investigates the border between “I” and “it”, the relation between self and world. This is where I would locate “the edge of the universe” from Milky Way Bar: “I live at the edge of the universe, / like everybody else”. The dilemma for each of us is to map the universe while being unable to enter it except through the unreliable proxies of language and our senses – so the curious cub scout of “An Amazing Week” wonders “how to read Nature’s secrets … / The feathers and fur on the ground, / a rabbit lying there like a glove … // What is it evidence of?”.

One attempt to map the universe is christianity and, while I know nothing of Manhire’s religious beliefs, from his earliest poems there seems to have been a thwarted yearning after religious certainty. How, then, should we read “An Amazing Week”, in particular its last lines: “Lord // Lord, I am / not going forward.”? Connecting these with “The Prayer” (from The Elaboration): “Lord, Lord/ / in my favourite religion / You would have to be / a succession of dreams.”, one could take them as a final, defiant rejection of Graham’s “Come forward”. But other maps are being scrutinised here.

The budding semiotician (“big sign and small sign, let / nothing escape you”) dreams of becoming “the boy as … / chorister or scientist, / the boy as magician” – cartographers all. Manhire has previously investigated the received western maps: in “The Calendar” where “We are waving at history, then, / we are waving // at what makes sense to happen”, and in “The Afterlife” where he tracks the loss of certainty, the death of language: “We … found our language suffering / from deep concussion // in its deepest structures.” Religion is not the only structure that fails to give either comfort or direction, which may be why I read a deep sadness into those last lines.

So, is Manhire’s movement from lyric to narrative a way of going forward? I must declare my prejudices – I’m addicted to the intensity of his early lyrics, and am allergic to narrative, even in novels – so I’m predisposed to see it as a step backward.

But the subtle weaving in “Hoosh” and “An Amazing Week” show what can be achieved in this mode, and evocative new lyrics like “Doctor Zhivago” take the early poems and strip them clean. So, I’ll call this a sideways step – some readers will prefer the new mode, while others will be disappointed. Personally, I like to apply the Guardian’s comment on Creeley (“His tiny but intricate compositions read like charms or incantations that need to be repeated over and over again”) to Manhire’s early poems. Their resonant strangeness has made them a part of my emotional landscape, in a way that I’m not sure even the best poems in My Sunshine will do.

Tom Beard is an Auckland poet and critic.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review
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