How to keep your secret, Ken Arvidson

What to call your child
Bill Manhire
Godwit, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86962 044 5

This attractive volume marks the end of Bill Manhire’s two-year term as the Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate. Because he has lived the role out so popularly as to become identified as the New Zealand Poet Laureate, it might be as well to begin by reproducing the endnote describing this distinction:

The Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate award was established in 1997, with the twin aims of honouring the work of New Zealand’s foremost poets and raising the profile of poetry in the community. After the conclusion of each Laureate’s term, a volume of their recent poetry will be published. It is intended that this series of books will represent the quality and diversity of New Zealand poetry as well as the vitality of the Laureateship.

This is a remarkably generous private gesture of support for poetry. It is also a shrewd investment for Te Mata, given Bill Manhire’s very high profile as Laureate, not only through his own poetry but also through the exceptional media skills with which he has carried poetry into households nationwide.

The new volume is quite a package. In an upper corner of the cover an elegant logo reads “Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate 01”, and Marti Friedlander’s portrait of the poet is neatly offset in the centre, a photo in the apotheosising style she uses for poets and artists, representing them as luminously benign and quite safe to be with. Another portrait appears facing the title page, Ralph Hotere’s 1972 “Drawing of Bill Manhire”, recalling indirectly Manhire’s Malady period and by association linking him with the recent spectacularly successful Out the Black Window Hotere exhibition. Like many of Manhire’s poems, the volume itself resonates with cultural registers.

The epigraph to the volume is Marge Simpson’s “Out of my way, Nature!” This is a very neat and characteristic piece of wit from Manhire, serving to align his work with the world of popular, rather zany entertainment, while at the same time invoking something of an art-for-art’s-sake aestheticism. There has not been a declared Aesthetic Movement at the end of the 20th Century as there was at the end of the 19th, though because of its conviction of art’s inconsequentiality, the postmodernism of the last fifteen years is rather like one.

Manhire’s poetry does not evolve out of a principle of anarchy like dyed-in-the-wool postmodernist work, but it does have a kind of commitment to inconsequentiality, or at any rate to the view that poetry must be musical rather than sententiously meaningful. Mac Jackson, in an Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature essay on Manhire unlikely to be bettered, notes how his poems “refuse to tread a straight path, but get from starting to finishing point with the aid of gracefully executed sidesteps of register, image, or narrative. They depend on a kind of wit, linguistic playfulness, quirks of fancy, mild shocks of surprise, readjustments of focus, a touch of whimsy.” He also sees their elliptical, enigmatic nature. A hundred years ago, Arthur Symons would have felt quite at home with this kind of poetry. Writing of Mallarmé in The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) he describes his manner of writing as “starting with an enigma and then withdrawing the key to the enigma.” Until very recently, that has been the nature of Manhire’s best work. In an extremely interesting interview with Andrew Johnston, printed as an Afterword in the new collection of his critical essays Doubtful Sounds, Manhire says at one point: “People talk a lot about clarity as one of the goals of poetry – but if writers aren’t finding their way into mystery, even as they try to clarify something for themselves, then they might as well forget the whole deal.”

Those and other characteristics of Manhire’s poetry are elaborated further in a very good recent Listener interview with Steve Braunias. In the course of the interview, Manhire recalls with approval John Newton’s opinion that “I write poems that operate as screens, or deflections, or defence systems …When I write a poem, it’s a way of putting something between me and the reader, rather than producing a straight channel.” Symons would recognise this impulse too. Again from his essay on Mallarmé:

The oracles have always had the wisdom to hide their secrets in the obscurity of many meanings, or of what has seemed meaningless; and might it not, after all, be the finest epitaph for a self-respecting man of letters to be able to say, even after the writing of many books: I have kept my secret, I have not betrayed myself to the multitude?

Part 1 of What to call your child contains eleven lyrical fictions of the kind one first thinks of when Manhire comes to mind, romantic glimpses like miniatures in pastel or water-colour, usually with a rather sad diminuendo in them, as though they are pervaded by something like Eliot’s “The notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing.” They are not poems in which one seeks hidden depths. They are mobile poems in which it is hard enough to keep the hidden surfaces in focus.

The title poem, with its title that looks like a piece of advice but isn’t (like “How to take off your clothes at a picnic”), traces the feelings of rejection experienced by Troy whose sister Veronica doesn’t requite his love for her. Other names in the poem are Grace and Olive; but the only actual naming in the poem belongs to Veronica, who “knows the quietest name / of the wind, and says it but he does not hear.” Everything is at a tangent in this quite intense world of small anguish. An account of its genesis, typically in a language experience rather than in a life experience, appears in the Braunias interview.

The expression “the quietest name of the wind” is related to the quite extensive romantic vocabulary Manhire uses, as Mac Jackson observes: “moon, water, snow, clouds, stones, wind, birds, trees.” He might have added “forest” as well, which occurs twice in this volume, and the ubiquitous “light”. “Picnic at Woodhaugh”, perhaps the most haunting of the new poems, begins: “In the half light of the Early Settlers Museum”, an 1863 Dunedin scene in a photograph or tableau, and imaginatively re-enters the past “where the light has been”. The final figure to be characterised is a young woman,

holding aloft her parasol

which like her, she thinks, is pretty but unexpected

a fresh flower of the forest,
a wee bit smaller than her head.

Like so much in Manhire, the large effect is surprising given the economy of the linguistic means employed. The hint of mortality in the echo of the elegiac “the flowers of the forest are all weyed away”, so appropriate to the Scottish settlement of Dunedin, is a factor in the effect of course.

Other attractive poems in Part 1 are “Landscape with Bride” and the three poems after Pushkin, that most quintessential of romantic poets, “Inesilla”, “Grapes”, and “The Album”. The versions of Pushkin were commissioned by the Folio Society to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth. “Antarctic Stone” too is a nicely turned image, of the stone as a summary of Antarctic earth, bone, wind, ice, dissolving “at last in light / in quiet line, horizon.” Why this poem and “The Polar Explorer’s Love Song” from Part 3 are not included in Part 2, “Antarctic Field Notes”, is a mystery. They were written there, and originally published together.

The poems of “Antarctic Field Notes” break with the familiar style of the Part 1 poems. In his literary autobiography “Breaking the Line”, reproduced in Doubtful Sounds, Manhire recalls how the discovery of American poets in the 1960s led him and others of the Young New Zealand Poets (1973) to break with the English-dominated canonical hierarchy and language of the time and go democratic – with what good effects we are all familiar. Manhire more than any of the other “young poets” actually went on to replace the old decorum with a new one, his own, which by a process of grafting and almost of cloning has produced a Manhire species of poetry, to which he himself of course is still the main genetic contributor.

The occasion for the “Antarctic Field Notes”, he tells us, was the two-week period he spent in Antarctica as a member of the first group to visit in the recently established “Artists in Antarctica” programme. Also present were Nigel Brown and Chris Orsman, and the three wrote the poems of Homelight (1998) while there. Manhire has brought four of his five poems in that collection forward into the new volume, but has placed only two of them in the Antarctic group. (Puzzle, puzzle.) Other Antarctic sequences have been written by Chris Orsman. His recreations of the “Heroic Era” of Antarctic exploration in South: An Antarctic Journey (1996) and Black South (1997) are more deeply imagined than Manhire’s somewhat diaristic “Field Notes”, and it seems probable that the Antarctic has provided Orsman with a correlative more compellingly psychically sought.

To take Antarctica as a subject or theme is on the face of it as problematical as taking the Nullarbor; but of course those who’ve tackled the Nullarbor, like William Hart-Smith and Ian Mudie, were spiritually impelled by a Jindyworobak land-mysticism. Manhire’s own commitment to Antarctica is surprising in a way, considering the rather un-Manhire-like monochromatic realism of the poetic style it provokes him to. He is preparing both an anthology and a bibliography of Antarctic writings. Doubtful Sounds sheds more light on this interest, including Manhire’s response to a query from Andrew Johnston, “Antarctica is the world’s last absolutely pure place, and hence quite a challenge to the impurer impulses of the imagination.”

The poems of Part 3 return to more familiar Manhire territory. “Luck: A Villanelle” is a friendly, occasional poem for Peter Dunkerly’s generous contribution to Alan Duff’s “Books in Homes” scheme. “Riddle” is a version of an Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book, and marks a return to a field dear to Manhire’s heart and a very significant influence on his own work. The creature in the poem, we are told, is probably an ox. Would that the enigmas in his own poems could be conjectured as confidently! “Domestic”, a nice piece of psychological crisis, is a reminder of how large a space domesticity has occupied in the world of his poetry, not in a personal way – although he tells us he has written poems about his own children now and then – but as a familiar spectrum of relationships and emotions.

Few of the poems in Part 3 however are as memorable as the best in Part 1, pleasant though they may be. “Colin”, a poem on the sale of McCahon’s donated painting Storm Warning by Victoria University, is actually rather bizarre, having been written by Manhire “as one of several collaborative poems with Jenny Bornholdt, Dinah Hawken and Gregory O’Brien using the computing facilities of Victoria University’s Decision Support Centre.” The process is described in Landfall 197. Gregory O’Brien has also written independently on this scandalous piece of utilitarianism by the university. The collaborative poem, produced by such an impressive line-up of poets, perplexes because it has by definition no personality at its heart. It is one thing to keep one’s self out of the picture like Mallarmé, or to want to escape from personality like Eliot, but readers will always prefer a poem by a person to one by Thomas Huxley’s monkey with a typewriter or a computer program. “Colin” is undoubtedly the final version of a real dialogue, but it has only one voice, and one without a name. A collaborative poem is surely the ultimate in cloning. Edwin Morgan should write a poem about this.

Much to please, much to puzzle. Much thanks to Te Mata and Bill Manhire.

Ken Arvidson is Professor in the English Department at Waikato University.

Doubtful Sounds will be reviewed in our next issue.

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