Subtle conversation, Michael Sharkey

The Victims of Lightning
Bill Manhire
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 0780864736222

When this commission came, I’d recently re-read Manhire’s poetry from Malady to Lifted and his prose – the clever fables of The New Land, somehow redolent of Diderot’s splendid This is Not a Story – and the Doubtful Sounds miscellany. What luck then to now see where that earlier work has tended. In Lifted, the latest collection I’d read before The Victims of Lightning, I found what had given me pause in older travels in the poetry: the wit and playfulness (“Two Literals”, “An Inspector Calls”, and “OE”) masking plangency that has full voice in poems like “Opoutere” and the marvellous “Still Life with Wind in the Trees”: “So much of the planet is fragile: …. I mean: abrupt, conditional,/and, as usual, brief”. This could be eco-lament, but the tone is more like that of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, until its surprising conclusion: “And what’s joy?/Even a pencil will point to it”.

That pencil is versatile in Manhire’s hands. In the fourth section of The Victims of Lightning, a poem called “The Lid Slides Back” recaptures the joy of creating an image. It’s worth quoting the whole:

Let me open
my pencil-case made of native woods.
It is light and dark in bits and pieces.
The lid slides back.

The seven pencils are there, called Lakeland.
I could draw a sunset.
I could draw the stars.
I could draw this quiet tree beside the water.


This carries the hallmarks of so many of Manhire’s poems: the understated opening, with its invitation to intimacy, hinting of avowal or a shared find. The words are plain as can be, the demotic of a child possessed of what John Keats called a snail-horn perception of things as they are. The pencil case is made of “native” woods: at once assurance of regionality and belonging, and the marvel of those “bits and pieces” of whole forests tessellated in the architecture of the box. The evocativeness of the brand name and the suggestion of what could be done with the tools at hand makes the artist-poet into a magician whose understated anaphora, “I could draw …” is simultaneously tentative and magisterial, a Prospero speaking in the “I do this, I do that” tone of a poet of the city asserting the reality of the imagination.

The self-consciousness and autobiographical elaborations that merge in earlier collections are present in each of the five sections of The Victims of Lightning. They may appear more fleetingly concerned with personal matters in the third section, a set of rhyming bluesy lyrics composed with specific performers in mind. I say “appear” so because variations on long-familiar themes that will resurface emerge in “Rarotonga Sunset”, with its insistence that “There’s thunder in the human heart/That’s aching for relief”, and in “Pacific Raft” with its geopolitical refrain:

Water rising, water rising
you have to look to see
water rising, water rising,
Pacific Raft will rescue me.


Such lines as these recall the gaze on world affairs in poems like “For President Johnson on the Shores of America”, “Loosening Up Poem”, “Hirohito” and “Entering America”, scattered through earlier collections. Manhire’s political acuity is evident beyond his sometime stances of word-game player, urbane citizen or flaneur.

The new lyrical ballads take chances. “Buddhist Rain” with its Dylanesque persona “pouring out my misery/In the Buddhist rain” strikes me as pushing credibility as to emotional engagement to the limit. More startlingly inventive and attractive are “Crime Scene” (“I’m just a phase you’re going through”) and “Warehouse Curtains”, a ballad about the separateness of partners that is anything but corny; so, too the final song, “Across the Water”, which should delight authentic traditionalists with its echo of the sentiment and forms of the simplest early love songs in the language.

Manhire’s traditionalism slyly buttresses much of the poetry that some reviewers have found wilfully obscure. As far back as Malady and “Declining the Naked Horse”, Manhire’s edgy takes on language have proved worrisome to those who appear to want words to stay still and to say only what the reader prefers. The Victims of Lightning is hardly likely to rekindle a “Wingatui” kerfuffle. Rather, the poems on language and misprision contain clues that point to depths that even the cussedest critic might find accessible. Thus, “The Cave”, the first poem in the book, opens a section that spans poetry’s origins and applications. Like Adrian Mitchell’s “The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry”, “The Cave” charts the emergence of writing from speech. Marks on the cave wall in Manhire’s version are made by humans who frighten big creatures who “see we have thoughts”, and “Always these words come out of our heads”. The turns of phrase are fetchingly fresh in this foretaste of the whole collection’s fascination with language. A little later, a poem called “The School” displays a teacher “writing speech”, so children see “Inside chalk … also a river”.

Poems on children and generations state further themes for development. Sharp, taut poems on childhood recollected in tranquillity or agitation conclude the first section of the book. The catalogue poem “1950s” is a rhythmic, funny tour de force that follows poems on evening and bedtime mood from a child’s perspective, while the “Song with a Chorus” displays concern for a sick child in a way that briskly restrains sentimentalism. The effect is somewhere between Betjeman’s rhythmic “A Child Ill” and Creeley’s pared-down meditations on mortality.

If there is a motif in the first section it could be the evanescence of things, including words. The title poem declares, “Nature is full of mystery: ephemeral realm/with permanent effects”. In “Little Elegy”, Manhire writes “Nothing comes back without something sad”. In “A Round”, he rearranges the order of lines of the first stanza to make another that displays the shiftingness of purport according to context. “Yadasi Clips”, an extended reflection on alienation, language and becoming, imagines the experience of a refugee engaging with officialdom and neighbours in New Zealand: perspective shifts from first to second person, as the character Yadasi seeks his bearings. “Frolic” is precisely what its title offers, sport with the way words sound.

This sort of experimentation is far from obscure or meaningless: it is a poet’s stock-in-trade, a way of escaping repetitiveness, expanding the reach of words and engaging the reader in co-creation. Conventional irony can do this too: “A Married Man’s Story” has the following neat encapsulation of a relationship: “ ‘Do you think I never think?’/She said this cheerfully, certainly –/with dark, distrustful eyes”. The immigrant Yadasi might observe that “A load of ladders went by on a lorry./So many people needing to climb”, but Manhire undercuts this possibility with “Life went by/but he could not see it”.

There’s a zen-like quality to such distillations as the lines about the ladder that recall the earlier ladder poem, in Lifted: “The ladder lies on its side …. And, as you can see, it is rotten./Nevertheless, it longs to be lifted’. The everyday is made amazing again, as it is in “Visiting Europe” from the fourth section of The Victims of Lightning. Manhire asks his son what he thinks the Mona Lisa is thinking about: “Money, he says, money”. The denouement of an Antarctic story is similarly told slant in the poem “Captain Scott”. Four lines suffice to convey the pathos and the matter-of-fact sequence of events at Oamaru where the explorer’s body’s is brought ashore. The fifth and last line is a gift.

As to longueurs, occasional lines may push contrivance awkwardly to some readers’ minds, but any such moments as I might designate are so few as to be inconsequential in the face of so much that appeals, including the many lines that clearly flaunt their audacity. The fourth section of the book contains some dutiful or commissioned pieces that play to particular rhetorical audiences. These play to broad appeal and are situated among some of the book’s more memorable turns, such as the ballad “Poem beginning with a Line by Ralph Hotere”, in which the initial three-line stanza grows an extra line in each succeeding stanza, interspersed with a rhyming refrain. The fourth section also contains the astringent apologia, “The Things I Did”, a tribute to Picasso, Lorca, Creeley and other makers. Manhire has paid tribute to Creeley in his note on the poetic line in Doubtful Sounds, and the acknowledgement to Picasso and Lorca is among the clues that elucidate the curves and angles, and the intensity of thought and feeling that distinguish Manhire’s work.

“The Carpe Diem Poem” that initiates the final section of the book sets the tone of the profundity that follows: the book concludes with a treasure-house of superb inventions. Reading the names and final illnesses of people in a graveyard, Manhire states “I thought you had a life to live./I thought you had those other things to do”. Tenderness is open, hedged with awareness of the oddity of speaking to the dead. A poem for his mother recaptures the slipperiness of words, and the strange appropriateness of even those that are misheard. In similar balancing acts, poems on teaching (“The Workshop”) and the fruits of scholarship (“The Ruin”) convey sympathy for those who strive for some perfection of their craft. I consider “The Ruin” a masterpiece of sophisticated conveyance of the value of the past, a value endorsed by a further poem on the oral tradition, and the final, splendid autobiographical poem that finds the child Manhire “lost in a book” so far that he vanishes from sight.

Manhire’s view of the world of childhood is enriched by the discoveries that parenting brings. Like Randall Jarrell’s, his remembrances of infancy appear to be full of wonders. Images are made of common words performing unexpected twists and leaps. Concurrent with this realm, the world of work and wars and great catastrophes is never far but hardly ever dwelt on in such detail as, say Jarrell showed, of the drudgery, the misery and blood. Manhire’s lyricism has some thing of the ancient Scots and English minstrelsy, but Langston Hughes’s too, that sets before us common lives with their everydayness, doggedness and now and then their joy. The earlier rhetorical features, too, are here. The asterisks, the spaces readers must fill, and the rich allusions that will please the erudite, remain, with the sense that this is conversation of a subtle, most considerate, friendly kind.


Michael Sharkey teaches in the School of Arts at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia.


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