Victoria University Press, $24.95,
Bill Manhire’s marvellous new collection of poems opens, as Creation reportedly did, in an amorphous state, awaiting the shaping of the Author. “Without Form”, taking its title from Genesis 1.2, declares: “It is noisiest here in this middle place”. Now what middle place would that be? The next line, “cries of despair and those of praise”, points to both hell and heaven as neighbouring locations, which makes this place of ours purgatory, surely? The hope that glimmers in the third line is a sleepwalking, hesitant thing: “yet you might close your eyes and begin to walk forward.”
The second of the poem’s two brief tercets shifts the focus: “This must be how the first god did it.” What exactly the first god did, in conferring upon his creation light, firmament, waters, and creatures to people it, remains mysterious as the poem continues: “It was back at the beginning, and he began to sing,/though the light – which was there – showed nothing.” Singing creation into form rather than saying it may point away from the the Old Testament to other creation myths, but it also points to the poet’s task in making (singing) a creation of words ex nihil. The light that shows nothing is also the banal desk light as the writer confronts the usual blank sheet of paper. And lo, given a little perseverance the result is a book of poems.
It’s a book that might as aptly be called Uncle Bill’s Bumper Book of Death. Between that preamble poem, with its old chestnut of the Author as God and its reminder that we all come from the void, and the valedictory poem, “Kevin”, with its speculation that “where the dead go” is “into the dark furniture of the radio”, the volume is obsessively occupied with mortality. “Each night at six we all go live to death” – this is our daily experience, made punctual, programmed, predictable, in “The News”. The kind of death we might encounter in a TV report is narrated in “An Inspector Calls”, which tiptoes its way to a farcically horrible last line: “The bathtub was simply full of the victim.” Death as a newsworthy commodity, death as appalling public property, appears in various guises in this collection, from the war and dying and Timor and Darfur and Dachau of “Hotel Emergencies” to the dead in an air crash that still haunts New Zealand memory, in “Erebus Voices”. Scarcely a page in this collection struggles free of the shadow of death. There are two elegies; there is a poem that relentlessly relates the killing of exhausted dogs on Amundsen’s Antarctic expedition (and their speedy devouring by the surviving dogs), and even in Brooklyn, walking with his daughter to see the bridge, the narrator passes down “the street where they still make coffins” and, walking on, still hears “a faint noise of hammering”.
The cumulative effect is powerful, to the point that it’s almost difficult to breathe. In another poem, “Still Life with Wind in the Trees”, Manhire sees “mortality/in the grey scribble/of a boy holding an apple”. And then there’s the last poem but one, “Hunky-dory”, standing on the threshold of departure:
I like the reassuring calm of the jetty,
the way it makes the water easy.
That’s the story.
Wooden steps go down into the water.
Then you’re beside the boat which offers
that off-shore view of the mainland.
I wished they would wait but they wouldn’t.
No, indeed they wouldn’t. “Frequent sailings from where we live”, as Allen Curnow put it in “A Busy Port”. It is the age-old idea, the crossing from life to death expressed in the image of crossing water, and Bill Manhire puts it with classic simplicity, though without resisting his trademark wry irony at the close:
All aboard for the off-shore view!
Here are the words: Cast off. Stand by. Heave
Step onto the boat which waits on the water.
All aboard the Hunky-dory!
If I say that in Lifted Bill Manhire begins in Genesis, is much possessed by death, and wears a classic air in treating an ancient image, a whisperer at my shoulder can’t help but ask: is this still the Bill Manhire of old who loved to undercut the canon with sarcastic images of Matthew Arnold’s silver lips puffing out tiny stars, or with a poem of his own titled “The Mutability Cantos”? The same Bill Manhire who declared the world to be weary, stale, flat, unprofitable, and had Allen Curnow meet Judge Dredd? The same Bill Manhire who as recently as his last collection used an epigraph from Marge Simpson? For that matter, the same Bill Manhire who wrote “The naked horse would of come into the room/again if we hadn’t of stopped it”?
Of course the answer is a resounding yes. Bill Manhire has always played the games of the postmodern moment in the happy, protective spirit of a daddy inventing stories at bedtime. His is postmodernism with a human face. The hieratic wing of the current international avant-garde recycles the language of the tribe with an undisguised contempt for the slouchy ways of the hoi-polloi, but when Bill Manhire in this new book begins a poem with “One day when our father had gone/to cut wood”, he intends the forest as wholeheartedly as he would if he told the children a fairytale. And when, in his poem in memory of Charles Causley, he writes
Who knocks at Cyprus Well?
Who knocks again, again?
“I think it is the visitor
We must not name.”
the borrowed ballad form and atmosphere (dear to Causley as well) remind us that pastiche, that darling of the age, can overcome its own irony to achieve sincerity. Manhire has always shared the scepticism of the times when confronted with that elusive commodity, authenticity: “Father goes/for a run in the car/looking for what’s authentic”, a poem in Good Looks (1982) sardonically noted. But the paradox is that the man who writes the poems, however adept their quicksand ironies, is still the man who’s a husband and father, a former Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton, a man noting misprints or eavesdropping the talk of mediaevalists, a vexed veteran of US immigration, a man of political morals troubled by the abuse in our time of “freedom”, “security”, “just and necessary war”, and other words we feel should not be stripped of meaning – and, above all, a human being trying to make his own sense of our too brief tenure here. That is authenticity. And on that rock, even the wiliest wit is built.
And, finally, almost hidden among greater riches in this book, there’s a self-effacing little poem in the five pseudo-ghazal free verse couplets that Andrew Johnston (who learnt so much from Manhire) has made a trademark. (A poem in What To Call Your Child was dedicated to Johnston and his wife, and in Lifted Manhire titles one of his own French poems “Birds of Europe”, a nod to Johnston’s 2000 collection.) The poem is called “The Ladder”:
Too short to reach the roof,
too short to threaten important windows,
the ladder lies on its side
behind the house, out of sight.
The ladder lies in the grass,
a different grain in each of its rungs
(and wings on each rung
so where can you place your feet?).
And, as you can see, it is rotten.
Nevertheless, it longs to be lifted.
No reaching up to the heavens, then, if it’s too short to reach the roof. No threatening the established order, either, if it won’t even knock out an important pane or two. So much depends upon this ladder – or, rather, so little. Like its cousin the red wheelbarrow, it simply is. Humbled, meaningless, past its best, it is a ladder we might give up on, and leave to lie till it is one with the earth.
Ah, but then again, Manhire has moral designs upon us with his verb “lifted”. In “Erebus Voices”, the dead incant, “We fell./Yet we were loved and we are lifted.” And in the final poem, “Kevin”, a childhood image of awakening after sleep – “then someone lifts him/and it’s some terrible breakfast show” – is followed by an emphatic use of the same verb, in what must be the closest an agnostic mind will come to imaging forth the resurrection:
There are mothers and fathers, Kevin, whom we
They lift us. Eventually we all shall go
into the dark furniture of the radio.
Bill Manhire likes his games still, and can be as sly, mock-ingenuous and deft as ever, but in Lifted he shows he has matured sturdily, and grown to an impressive height, and put down roots so tenacious in their grip on the world that it’ll take the devil of a wind to topple him.
Michael Hulse, whose Empires and Holy Lands: Poems 1976-2000 was published by Salt in 2002, is a judge for the Günter Grass Foundation’s Albatross Prize.