Collected Poems 1967-1999
Victoria University Press,
ISBN 086473411 (paperback), $34.95
ISBN 0864734212 (hardback) $49.95
In this Collected Poems, the private universe of Bill Manhire is made readily available to his ever-increasing audience. But it may take years and many readings (and misreadings) of his poems, with their buried elements of biography, their tricks up their respective sleeves, their fantastical conundrums, for them to fully reveal themselves. These are poems with their own circulation systems, their own organic centres, their own energy-generators.
Collected Poems gathers the work the poet wishes to preserve from his nine or so collections thus far (the last, Antarctic Field Notes, is published here as a unit for the first time), plus the commissioned millennium poem “The Next Thousand” (which first appeared in a Sunday Star-Times supplement). This last poem, a rhymed weave of heart-warming affirmations, exactly fulfils our expectations of a poet laureate. Manhire was of course the inaugural Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate. But “The Next Thousand” does more than meet laureate obligations. It also confirms just how gregarious, how sociable, how much in harmony Manhire’s poetry is with the mood of contemporary New Zealand. This balance between what, by general critical and popular consensus, we want poems to do and what Manhire’s poems in particular are doing has been arrived at gradually, and more by instinct than by design.
If we look at the poems in Manhire’s first collection, The Elaboration (1972), what was then seen as hermetic – delicate sequences of fugitive images – has developed resonance. Here is heard the prelude of one continuous act of poetic orchestration over the thirty-odd years of Bill Manhire’s career. His dance to the music of time is made of words, but of words revisited, re-tuned, and re-voiced in ever-varying tonal registers. The process resembles that of trial and error, but Manhire’s ear has very good pitch – if his pitch isn’t perfect, that is because of the vagaries of the New Zealand language: a difficult substance to coax into elaboration.
An analogy for this process would be the one quoted by Manhire in his 1986 essay “Breaking the Line”, where an early role-model poet, R A K Mason, imagines himself marching with measured exactitude in the wake of the mighty bards of the English canon – and carefully putting one word after the other. An even better analogy would be Manhire’s own: the poet imagines himself placing “stone upon / stone” to build a dwelling. A “word may be … a stone, / on which the poet sits, … saying ‘Hell, another masterpiece.’” (“Summer 5”) In the first instance, Manhire is a poet of the simple obsessive word: each a talisman, mantra or Zen-like koan which appears and reappears in poem after poem, year after year. These words are the simple truths or perhaps truisms of the poetic vocabulary – smoke, night, stars, lips, moon, cave (deep), birds (small) – which, by re-using them, Manhire keeps alive. Used by a less careful practitioner they would end up as collateral damage in the war against cliché.
Consider the word “stone”. In an early poem (“Watching Alison in Winter”) there are “pale stones / Deep stars of the river” – eternal presences. Ten years on, in the poem “Last Things”, published in Good Looks (1982), “kids throw stones” into a creek until each stone sinks and becomes “obsolete”. (Taken too far, this could become sentimental: proto-Spielbergian cinema. Manhire knows when to stop.) In the final poem in Antarctic Field Notes, Manhire describes a picked-up “antarctic stone” as having “the spine of a hill / inside the stone”. So an enigmatic stone – emblem of time – is at last rediscovered where it has always lain, confirming the reassurance of endurance. Manhire does this kind of thing again and again: in a sense turning “the stone” over and over in his hand as he discovers its different meanings, its different representations. Alert enough to the passing moment to find music even in the most casual sentence – “Listen, Nigel …” – he also shows that he can brood an age before committing an image to paper (that white void): “When we touch, / forests enter our bodies” (“Poem” – c1970).
The “forest” is heraldic: an emblem of mystery, an emblem of the mysterious unknowable, an emblem of a state of being – “her father sits deep in the forest” (“Moonlight”). But it’s difficult sometimes to see the Manhire oeuvre straight for all the media brouhaha that now attends his name: the rise and rise of entrepreneurial merchandising synergies creating their own flurries, so that there’s a flow-on perception of Manhire’s work as all-arch-knowingness or light-hearted jokiness like some strategically-placed fig-leaf over tired old word-games. That perception – that poems like, say, the computer spell-check poem “Isabella’s Notes” are nothing but in-house poetic conceits, as at least one reviewer complained when the collection My Sunshine was published in 1996 – is perhaps understandable if you haven’t followed Manhire’s progress from early days.
Collected Poems shows that in fact Manhire sticks to a few themes, which he uses as melodic keys on which endless variations are played – and one of these themes is a deep scepticism about language. He’s a consummate comic ironist – the archetypal Prufrockian; a diligent student of both T S Eliot and James Joyce – who knows that nowadays when a poet speaks a phrase it rebounds to the ear via a postmodernist echo-chamber. The “truth” of any word is a relative one and images, too, are enigmatic, deceptive: like, say, duck decoys they try to attract the real thing, that transcendence we choose to call “nature”.
The slipperiness of language for Manhire is best conveyed through his select image-bank – vaporous mist, the trickle of water, the feathery insubstantiality of cloud. That is why the final section of Collected Poems is a kind of apotheosis. Antarctica might be Manhire’s ideal landscape, a true objective correlative for the Imagination: constantly shifting beneath plumes of snow or disorientating angles of sunlight, it remains solid, obdurate underneath – a mysterious Otherworld. And there’s the wind like some disembodied Orphic voice whispering: a philosophical muse prompting chamber music.
But to return to the idea of the poetic conceit: go to the landscape/travel poem “South Island Companion” and examine the concluding stanza: “hear / how the city Dunedin // seems to fail … note / after note after note / of the Richter scale.” In this image, which we might characterise as pure Manhire, with its panoply of poetic devices (the emphasis on melodic word-sounds, on tiny fragments of phrasing, on repetition of individual words, on linked interior and end rhymes, and so on), the picturesque conceit expressed reveals Manhire as a superb mannerist. Cavalier-like, he’s saying that, unlike other cities, Dunedin never changes: seismic upheaval of all kinds (architectural, social) passes her by. The cadence is not Miltonic, but the sentiment may be. For Manhire – and this thread runs through various discourses – Dunedin is the Presbyterian stronghold still: they also serve who only stand and wait. Thus the canon echoes on from as far away as Wellington.
So this is a rich and complex collection, not easily summed up. Again and again in this book Manhire shows himself to be a creator of amazing images that are often a synthesis or hybrid of cultural images derived from his own experience and transmuted or otherwise distorted and altered. Take the now-notorious poem “Wingatui”. Informed by sentiments we don’t need to know about but which we can guess at – Manhire’s father was a great race-goer – we can read this poem, not as guilty of pretentiousness by imported standards, but as one of the great New Zealand poems of valediction, drenched in a melancholy sweetness, as mellow as it gets.
Nearly 25 years on, it emerges as a burnished prize plum of a poem – but Collected Poems, you’ll discover, is full of such plums. Poems sound out to other poems, confirming the book’s internal thematic coherence, and meanwhile the music of “Wingatui” lingers on, a past-master’s fully-rehearsed conjuring trick of language:
the yellow moon floats silks across the birdcage.
You might have touched that sky you lost.
You might have split that azure violin in two.
David Eggleton is a Dunedin poet and reviewer. He has recently published a new collection, Rhyming Planet.