Moving the world along, Mark Houlahan

These Rough Notes
Bill Manhire, Anne Noble, Norman Meehan, Hannah Griffin
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780864738318

Selected Poems
Bill Manhire
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780864737625

“In the future,” Bill Manhire predicts, while introducing his sweeping 2005 anthology of Antarctica writing The Wide White Page, “the literature of Antarctica is likely to be made by people who have been there, however briefly”, as opposed to those who set themselves to imagining what the place might be like, if only they could get there. Since his own trip to the southern ice in the late 1990s, Manhire has generated a steady stream of such texts, highlighted in both these books. The sponsoring of artists to the ice has generated fertile work in a number of fields: poetry; prose; painting (among the best of Nigel Brown’s and Dick Frizzell’s paintings, for example); photography.

These Rough Notes is an Antarctica medley, a collaboration of works by Manhire, the photographer Anne Noble, illustrated musically with compositions by Norman Meehan, most of which are settings to words by Manhire, and sung by Hannah Griffin. This includes the first musical version I have heard of “Erebus Voices”, of which more later. The handsomely produced volume comes with an inset CD of the Meehan music and Griffin’s singing. The melancholy tone-poem approach wasn’t very appealing when listened to by itself, but makes a fine accompaniment to reading the book, especially on a hot summer’s day when thinking yourself onto the ice is a big reach. Exactly Manhire’s point, you might think, that it is the artist’s task to take us where it is likely most will never tread.

Both Manhire and Noble combine “original” material with found texts and objects. The title itself comes from Scott’s famous journal entry for 29 March 1912: “These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.” Here Manhire blends Scott’s piercing language with his own gift for the simple telling phrase. For her part Noble has re-shot some of the famous images from Scott’s camera, making the faces more distorted and spectral. Her own images avoid the up-tempo National-Geographic style we normally get (cheery scientists larking up on Christmas day etc), emphasising the sheer weirdness of the place. Noble’s Antarctica is bleached out, alien (even when shot in colour); through Noble’s eyes we have the sensation of appearing to visit another planet, and not the place just down the sea road from us. At the price this book is fantastic value.

The same goes for Victoria University Press’s new Manhire Selected Poems, though you’ll have to take my word that their publicist did not ask me to say so. This is a major retrospective, spanning his entire poetic career, from 1972 up to the present, with a coda of three “New Poems”, as if to reassure readers that he may have retired from teaching writing but that he is still here “outputting” poems. The quality of the final poems suggests there will be much more to come. In the meantime, here is a substantial selection (104 poems in all); sufficient to mark Manhire as a “major” poet.

There is no government-appointed poet laureate in New Zealand (as there has been in England since the time of John Dryden), but Manhire was the inaugural Te Mata laureate. In any case the quality of this volume as a physical object, with its thick creamy pages, and poems spaced generously so as to allow them to breathe, is a mark of the esteem in which Manhire is held and, I suppose, of the number of copies Victoria University Press might well expect to move. As with These Rough Notes the stellar production values seem an excellent way to combat the urge to make everything an e-book. Even when, in coming decades, all class texts might be read and analysed electronically, Victoria University Press makes an implicit argument for the kind of text you would be best to hold in the palm of your hand.

In Manhire’s case, the design then assists the effect his best poems achieve of making you stare hard at (and listen to) the words being used. Did you really mean to say that? And what in any case did you mean by meaning to say it in that way? At times this can look as though the poem has just become a self-referential language game, turning away from the world as well as the post-romantic goal of recollecting powerful emotions in tranquillity; and the poem’s take on the world seems innately deconstructive. Yet the restraint this engenders means that emotion, when evoked, is resonant. The last stanza of the first poem, “Love Poem’’, is an excellent example:

Your tongue, touching on song,
darkens all songs. Your touch
is almost a signature.

The touch here seems to be that of the love poem, seeking its effect in the world. Yet the love poem is given human form here, with a tongue, a touch, and earlier a spine and an eye. So what is suggested is the private erotic experience that underpins the love poem. This is far from being noisily autobiographical, but in its oblique way it is arresting.


There’s a nice link here to the last poem in the book, “Old Man Puzzled by His New Pyjamas”:

I am the baby who sleeps in the drawer.
Blue yesterday, and blue before ‒
and suddenly all these stripes.


This has a haiku-like simplicity, and makes a lovely place to close the book, not as anything like a conclusion (the point of the new poems being to show that Manhire’s is a work constantly in process), but as an invitation to consider more curiously. Is this the voice of the old man, or is it rather the voice of the pyjamas (the baby in the drawer could be either)? The puzzlement leads to radical change in the world: “and suddenly all these stripes”. The page below the three lines is then left clear where readers can wonder, or puzzle all by themselves. The task becomes “poetical” though, as often in Manhire, the language used is humblingly ordinary. Even the smallest, most banal units of language repay inspection. That’s a point made also in the exuberant “found” poem, “Visiting Mr Shackleton”:

Wow! History! Fantastic!
Wonderfully kept.
Shackleton’s the man!
Like going back in time.


Here all the words used are taken from comments in the visitors’ book in Shackleton’s hut. You would take these as parodic if you weren’t assured they were “real”. And yet their mere banality has a kind of force.

Wry, deftly turned irony is a Manhire trademark throughout, but poems from more recent collections show new notes and concerns emerging. There’s an increased tendency to look back at his Southland childhood; and a willingness to work poetry as an overtly moral or ethical form. If early Manhire staked its ethical ground on the saving grace of language itself as a good to be sought, the later poems can be more overt in wanting to make words move the world along in some way. You can hear this in the micro-epic “Hotel Emergencies”. This begins as a found prose poem: “The fire alarm sound: is given as a howling sound. Do not use the lifts.” The voice then invokes a whole series of 21st-century sounds: “a war sound: which is a torture sound and a watchtower sound and a firing sound.” These are taken up in a kind of blessing which folds human pain into the wider cosmos: “the sound of many weeping: which is given as an entirely familiar sound, a sound like no other, up there high in the smoke above the stars.”

Using poetry to acknowledge public grief and loss marks also the most celebrated of these late poems, “Erebus Voices”, which is printed also in These Rough Notes, and plangently sung by Griffin. Of all occasions for poetry, disaster seems the hardest to make poetic. Sincerity by itself is nowhere near enough, as we see in so many feeble post-9/11 poems and, locally, in post-quake poetry. Manhire’s advantage is in the long gap between the poem and the crash in 1979 of Flight 901. The voice of the mountain gives scope and compassionate detachment to the dreadful scene:

I am beauty and cloud, and I am sorrow;
I am tears which you will weep tomorrow.


The opening section’s rhyming couplets drive at us with stunning, melancholic force. If there is such a thing still as a great New Zealand poem, this surely is one. It is very satisfying to know the poem is now widely taught in schools, at least in those classrooms where words still matter.


Mark Houlahan teaches in the English programme at the University of Waikato. 


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