Tell Me My Name
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
Some Things to Place in a Coffin
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
It is often a revealing act. To translate, to imitate, to inhabit in some way a distant genre, is to offer a unique window. We have a glimpse of what the author is drawn to, but also how he differs from it, what he brings to a tradition and what it brings to him, what he takes from it and what he does not.
Of course, the riddle genre is not so very distant from Bill Manhire. His poetry has always thrived on obliquity, play, mystification of the ordinary. In the postscript to Tell Me My Name, he remarks that every culture has riddles. They live most continuously in the common stock of nursery rhymes, a heritage to which he lays claim, and there is a deal of childhood in Some Things to Place in a Coffin. These are two books that, in their different ways, reach back towards the same place. The former, though, aligns itself with a genuinely distant genre, the Anglo-Saxon riddles of the Exeter Book, adopting and playing with some of their conventions, in keeping with Manhire’s longstanding interest in early medieval poetry. Set to music by Norman Meehan, his 13 riddles become songs, presented on the CD that accompanies the book, in an echo of this ancient tradition.
The Exeter Book riddles, anthologised in 10th-century England, are in large measure the offspring of a self-consciously ornate and scribal Anglo-Latin monastic culture. Part of the perennial fascination of Anglo-Saxon England is the extraordinary ways in which that culture fused with another, quite different one: a pre-literate oral poetry, memorised and improvised by professional bards and commoners alike, communal to its very core and transmitting the folklore of spells, maxims and riddles as well as the grand aristocratic epics. We moderns have tended to read the Exeter poems as fruits of the latter; indeed, much of their charm for us lies in a sense that they speak directly out of an originary popular culture, that they are somehow “the real thing”. However much more complicated the reality may be, this at least is certain: like many Old English poems, the Exeter riddles have a superlative thingness, a relish for physical objects and creatures that shines through the sometimes startling mystifications of process by which they are described.
Any true poet shares a passion for getting the physical heft of things into words. Or vice versa. Riddles are an open invitation to do just that, and Tell Me My Name takes a gentle pleasure in accepting. Whether the rambunctious bagpipes (“I’m a belly on the big man’s shoulder”) or the diminutive wen (“lessened like coal on the hearth, burning / like mud on the wall”), part of the play in these poems lies, so to speak, in picking things up and handling them, which is the most basic kind there is. Nursery rhyme prosody sings through the book in confirmation of this impulse.
No one, however, would describe Bill Manhire as a cunning naïf, and such pleasures remain subdued here. Nursery rhymes and Old English poems alike are communal in form and spirit, made to be spoken and sung, qualities at some remove from the white-page rhetoric of which Manhire is an adept and which, despite our poetry readings and writers’ festivals and other remedial jollies, is fundamentally solitary. We never really forget this reading Tell Me My Name, nor, I think, does he quite wish us to. Movement, not things, is at the heart of the book, as the framing poem declares:
The road goes by the house
the wind sings in the tree
we sing the travelling worlds
we sing quietly
(we sing quietly)
And in those cool parentheses, the auteur picks up the riddle and handles it. Nursery rhymes, of course, have a way of opening the door to death and sorrow, posing a lifelong riddle in the process. One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so. There is a persistent solitude in this work, a lonely wondering journey: “Tell me my name while you can see / tell me my name before you flee / tell me my destiny.” Despite the foray into the realm of song, the riddles are never quite of the landscape they pass through, and in the end this works to their advantage.
That may be one reason why the texts benefit little from the musical settings, but is not the only one. The songs roll along smoothly enough with overtones of folk and jazz and a pervading and slightly bathetic flavour of lounge music. Rarely do they suggest anything rich and strange. Partial exceptions to this are “Ice”, “Wen” and “The Road Goes By the House”, which rise to a degree of enigma.
The Exeter Book famously contains, besides the riddles, a collection of great Old English elegies. Manhire is probably mindful of that fact in bringing out his riddles together with Some Things to Place in a Coffin, a volume titled for his elegy to Ralph Hotere and containing also a longer poem sequence commemorating the Battle of the Somme. The rhyming of Tell Me My Name carries over occasionally – “Not all of me is here inside. / I built Turk Lane before I died” – in keeping with the common source of enigma that both elegy and riddle may work back to.
“Some Things to Place in a Coffin” is the book’s most unequivocal success. Here it is things that indeed take pride of place:
Hardboard and canvas, some leadhead nails.
A blowtorch, a spray-gun, a grinder.
A glass of pinot noir.
A boat with a motor, a boat with sails, a boat
France and Spain.
Some Lorca, some lacquer.
They are things, though, that invoke the dynamics of a lifetime. The capturing of those dynamics in stasis adds up to more than the stasis of death: it becomes a balance, a repose, a calm abundance. Movement infiltrates the poem towards the end:
Nailed down with iron against the rain.
Nailed down with rain.
With an old window-frame.
Which nails it perfectly. Life and the weather go on without him, but Hotere has left us some windows onto the world that will endure. The sheer apparent simplicity of the additive list invites us, paradoxically, to see the poem as a kind of unanswerable riddle: such simples, such complexity …
Not for nothing does Manhire place memory at the forefront of the volume:
Come over here
we say to the days that disappear.
No, over here.
Memories of early years seem to dominate the collection, perhaps more than one would expect from their actual frequency within it. There is no escaping the impression that the author has been taking his own peek at old mortality and is roaming back to childhood in response. “The Beautiful World” makes the point clearly enough:
Then where are the birds going?
Where is the helicopter going?
Where is the sky going, with all its clouds?
Over here! we call. Over here!
This long sequence is, I think, the foundation of the book. Its meticulously crafted, apparently simple declarative sentences evoke a naïve perspective across a poignant distance.
But the cold kept on rising.
We shivered and could not talk about it.
It was in the wings of angels
in the graveyard where we walked.
It rose around my sister’s empty bed.
It rose around my father, who seemed lost.
It rose around my mother, who was gone.
Those wings of angels lift the verse into an image of fine intensity. Such moments are not profusely distributed through Manhire’s writing, but they are worth waiting for.
The commemorative sequence “Known Unto God” is a series of fleetingly heard voices of the Great War’s victims. Ventriloquism it is not – there is no real individuation of the voices and we are always very much aware of Manhire’s tones – which is a point in favour of its integrity. He does not attempt to collapse the gap between poet and subject. It is, thankfully, sympathy not empathy, and at times rises into a vivid impersonality:
Once I was small bones
in my mother’s body
just taking a nap.
Now my feet can’t find the sap.
There is a ghost of a question in these lines and again we are not far from the riddle genre. Its meditation on death goes beyond the Somme. Manhire’s characteristic swerves of the imagination emerge in places:
Somewhere between Colombo and Cairo,
the ocean seemed to dip. I thought I could hear
the stamping of horses coming from it.
And they are perhaps all the more effective for the restraint and clarity imposed by the context of the sequence. Commissioned poems have a tendency to be born flat-footed, but this is a genuine exception and the poet has made it thoroughly his own.
The most grudging of critics would find it difficult to point to anything in the rest of the book that is not subtly wrought and at least moderately interesting. “20 Stanzas in the Haunted House”, for instance, is as wryly charming as we have come to expect of a Manhire poem, which seems as good a reason as most for a poem to exist. “The Enemy” proceeds in his established rhetorical vein, with just a flicker of ignition – “Soon enough the enemy will come, / limping out of a place that will not heal” – but it is enough. And so on. What really stands out, though, at the heart of the collection, “The Beautiful World” and the elegy to Hotere, is a sustained fullness of feeling that renders rhetoric a mere vessel. This is not quite the norm in Manhire’s poetry, nor is there any reason why it should necessarily be so, but I cannot help regarding that fact a little wistfully. Probably I am not the only reader who will feel that wistfulness compounded a degree or two by the poems that stand out in this volume.
Damian Love is a Wellington editor and publisher.