New Zealand feature
Distance, Loss, Links
Peter Robinson reviews Bill Manhire
Bill Manhire, Collected Poems (Wellington: Victoria University Press; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2001), pp. 303. NZ$49.95 and £12.95.
Bill Manhire, Doubtful Sounds: Essays and Interviews (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2000), pp. 295. NZ$34.95.
This piece is 3,400 words or about seven printed pages long
Photo: Bill Manhire
Though superficially similar in their pitting a self-appointed cultural ‘common sense’ against the supposed ‘nonsense’ of the then current experimental poetry, the ‘Wingatui’ Incident and the Ern Malley Affair had consequences which point in different directions. The ultimate target for the authors of Ern Malley’s hoax oeuvre may have been Herbert Read and the poetic climate in London during the previous decade. (Did J. G. MacLeod’s The Ecliptic, published by Faber in 1930, help Ern to his title The Darkening Ecliptic thirteen years later?) Yet McAuley and Stewart’s sights were set to strike nearer home, on Max Harris and his magazine Angry Penguins. The immediate target of the Pseud’s Corner’s compiler will more likely have been the choices made by the then poetry editor of the Times Literary Supplement than the New Zealand poet who happened to have perpetrated that ‘bit of surrealistic waffle’ (Bill Manhire’s own words for what his poem ‘Wingatui’ must have been thought) which was awarded Private Eye’s ultimate accolade.
Sit in the car with the headlights off.
Hard to believe anyone would have any trouble with this poem as far as the verb ‘floats’ in line three, but it’s the second half of this third line that put the cultural cat among the pigeons, for a New Zealand reader would probably have known that ‘the birdcage’ is the place called ‘the paddock’ in the British Isles where the horses are paraded and viewed by the betting punters before the race. So ‘birdcage’ is not surreal at all, but the local name for an ordinary place, and in that context neither are those ‘silks’ which will be the colours of the jockeys. Nor is it difficult to see the point of the word ‘lost’ at the end of line four, or to catch the nuance of feeling in that ‘might have’ tense — the tense whose anaphoric repetition ties the final line with its more mysterious ‘azure violin’ to the rest of the lyric.
seem, more and more, to be fictions, elaborated out of the truth of this or that situation. At some point, hopefully, the elaboration ends and they come to be arbitrary facts, making their own way into the particular worlds of those people who cared to read them.
If this account might loosely fit a poem like ‘Wingatui’, it nevertheless (as is usually the case with poets’ brief statements) leaves a number of issues far from decided and far from unequivocally articulated too. Does the elaborated fiction carry the truth of the situation with it so that the poem is both true and fictitious, or does elaborated ‘out of’ also mean ‘away from’, so that truth becomes fiction? What weight are you to give to the arbitrariness of the ‘fact’ that the poem hopefully becomes?
and the boys from Muldoon Real Estate
The word ‘distance’ makes its first appearance in the third of the poems collected here, and, from then on, it, and its cognates, are never far away. The ‘you’ experiencing this poem then pretends to be interested in the real estate in the estate agent’s display, and this occasions the poem’s closing lines: ‘You haven’t even got a window / and his is full of houses.’ Hardly have you come out of this watching while someone gets beaten up, than you’re into ‘The Voyeur: An Imitation’ and considering ‘how pale the late Victorian girl is, sleeping / in her bed.’
The kind of poems I’d wanted to write had shifted a lot and I don’t think they suited Ralph. They were busier, more aggressive poems...making a great noise about themselves...The series was going to be called ‘Loss of the Forest’ — and indeed there is a poem in Good Looks called that. Some of the titles of those poems would turn up later in Ralph’s paintings, although I don’t think any of the poems themselves made it. I think Ralph needs room to move that those poems simply don’t allow.
I wouldn’t, myself, be inclined to call the poems in that book ‘busier...more aggressive...making a great noise...’ They just seem to be more sure of themselves, their directions, and their purposes in existing. One of the biographical things that might have effected this change is that Manhire had evidently by this stage become a father. The last eight poems in the book are all either poems about children, or for them, or they respond to the thoughts of aging and obsolescence that becoming a parent can produce as one of its by-products.
The American poets I read with most interest somehow used words to make the world a little more mysterious. I liked the enigmatic quality, to use your word. Living in Dunedin in the early sixties, which was really still the late fifties, you needed a bit of mystery in your life... I lived in a fairly predictable, secure world, and I was very happy in general to be there, but somewhere inside my head I also wanted a sense of mystery.
Yet the fairly recent, longish poem ‘An Amazing Week in New Zealand’, about attending a Billy Graham religious rally when a boy, fends off one kind of mystery with consummate skill:
One thousand miles of miracle
By this stage the poet can address that daily existence so as both to pay it a tribute (‘broken twigs, a hair, / a scrap of food’), to express a resistance (‘Lord, I am / not going forward’), and to transform it with technique (‘the pangka-bongka of the banjo / the zhing-sching of the cymbals’) — paying homage to Denis Glover’s poem ‘The Magpies’ (‘And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle / The magpies said’) even as he does: ‘whow-zeedle oodle-ee / whay-whonga / whaw... Lord’. The difference between Allen Curnow’s post-Christianity and Manhire’s would seem to be that while the earlier poet experienced it as an impinging personal abandonment, the later takes it as read: ‘But God is not here, / not in sunshine, not / in God’s open air’.
I hear myself saying
There is, perhaps, just a trace of a risk that because his poems are so taken with effects of sadness such as this, and that they are sometimes conveyed with a mild oddity that can be whimsical, moments of really irreplaceable loss are sentimentalized. But poems have to take all kinds of risks, and I find the directness, simplicity, and understatement of ‘Moonlight’, with its acceptance and measured recognition of the sentimental as one way people do manage grief, prevents it from succumbing to the pitfalls it knows are there and steers itself around.
You cannot imagine, halfway
He addresses the question of what it is to be a Kiwi in ‘Zoetropes’ (written in London, England), a poem which offers the most overt of cultural explanations for the poet’s obsessions with distance and loss. ‘Words which begin / with Z alarm the heart’ not least because
The land itself is only
That loss should be one of Manhire’s key concerns also shows in his delicate account of how poems by the gimmicky Craig Raine work:
the source of his sadness, it seems to me, has to do with the way in which each new piece of a poem effectively abandons the piece before it. That’s to say, his poems build displacement into their structures: they move forward in discrete couplet and triplet units, they offer small bright pleasures and ask us to pass on quickly. Simile and metaphor insist on the links between things, but in a Raine poem the sheer number of them leaves you feeling that individual images have been brought into line only to be dismissed. It is a disconcerting effect for the reader, who is made to undergo a concentrated, slightly mannered, experience of loss.
What’s so fair about this passage is that it takes note of precisely what can only too easily get up your nose about Raine’s manner, and what can leave you with the sense that a poem had better be doing rather more. After all, living an ordinary life only too commonly feels like undergoing a concentrated experience of loss. What’s more, the fact that Raine is putting you through this in ‘slightly mannered’ fashion may do no more than rub salt in the wound.
everything’s a possibility, or
This ending comes off so well partly because ‘goodbye Europe!’ — which looks like one of those slightly mannered losses which the poet admires in Raine — turns out to be not goodbye at all, but hello once more to breakfast and a memory of the continent left behind in that Flight Steward’s Franco-Italian name.
You can read more about Bill Manhire on this New Zealand Book Council Web Site:
Jacket 16 — March 2002
This material is copyright © Peter Robinson
and Jacket magazine 2002