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Jacket 16 — March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   | to New Zealand Contents list     

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

Photo of 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.
      I was reminded of this little episode in the protracted history of English philistinism by Gregory O’Brien’s cover design for the poet’s Collected Poems, ‘Bill Manhire rides Phar Lap at Wingatui’ — a title concisely alluding to two of the poet’s works, his homage to the famous winner ‘Phar Lap’ and his five-line lyric set at the Wingatui race course:

Sit in the car with the headlights off.
Look out there now
where the yellow moon floats silks across the birdcage.
You might have touched that sky you lost.
You might have split that azure violin in two.

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.
      Yet even this leap seems far from senseless with a moment’s reflection: a ‘birdcage’ would secondarily but undeniably also be a place where singing birds are kept, and it’s not a far leap, or lap, to associate that with the sky where you find birds flying free, or to take the metaphor of the yellow moon and late afternoon azure sky as competing jockeys, or to see the wires of the birdcage or the race track, or telephone lines overhead, for instance, as the strings of an instrument that produces a high and often sad-sounding tremulous note, a blue note that you might have thought to banish from your life if you’d come home with some long-odds winnings on a horse with a name like, who knows, ‘azure violin’.
      In ‘Mutes & Earthquakes’, a piece on his creative writing course at Victoria University, Wellington, collected in Doubtful Sounds, Manhire speaks up for ‘cranky constraints’ like writing ‘a haiku using only the words you can find on the racing page of the Evening Post’. ‘Wingatui’ is a haunting air on a loser’s feeling of what ‘might have’ happened if all had gone differently during a day at the races — and it’s a resonant metaphor for more general feelings of disappointment in life.
      Thus, unlike the Ern Malley Affair (see Jacket 17), which had immediately serious repercussions for Max Harris and at the very least equivocal ones for a decade or two of Australian literature, the Wingatui Incident makes the metropolitan satirists look ignorant about the English spoken in a Commonwealth country, ill-equipped to take on trust a hardly taxing imagistic lyric, and presumptuously quick to rush to judgement.
      What’s more, things seem to have worked out in this way because the non-hoax poem appears manifestly embedded in, and arising out of, possible experience, so that the presumption of ‘nonsense’ looks demonstrably wrong, and because equally the incident could be taken up by its apparent targets (Manhire and his poet colleagues) as a form of vindication — hence O’Brien’s cover painting, or the remarks about what happened in The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1985) edited by Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen.
      Commenting on the author’s ‘Statement’ to his first book, The Elaboration, which he reprints in the note to his Collected Poems, Manhire now thinks it ‘impossibly mannered’ but is ‘pleased to find’ himself ‘still comfortable with the sentiments’. The poems, as their writer put it in 1972,

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?
      So the passage seems likely to default back to the terms of that fact-fiction contrast — a pair of false opposites disarmed by noting, for instance, the many kinds of fact and innumerable degrees of fiction that there are in the world.
      The hopeful idea seems to be that the ‘arbitrary’ is valuable, not least because it appears to grant the poems the power to make their own way into the particular worlds of other people. Though this is one of the ways writers have commonly talked about their works, it is revealed to be a conventional formula by the fact that the people have ‘cared to read them’  — for in practice this doesn’t tend to mean citizens just happened to have given the things a moment, but people who care enough to put some effort into finding the books and devoting time to them. The poems don’t make their own way, they are found a way by being cared about, and usually because their arbitrariness (if that’s what it is) turns out to have meanings which can be appreciated by people not in particular worlds but in the one world where ‘birdcage’ can be understood to mean ‘paddock’ and ‘paddock’ can mean ‘field’.
      Then again, if the truth of the fiction derives from the elaboration of the poem out of the situation, shouldn’t this imply that the created fact is nothing like arbitrary, but complexly conditioned by its imaginative origins? The ways that ‘Wingatui’ can be understood, or pointedly not understood, might lead to such a conclusion.
      To my ear, Manhire’s poetry takes a great leap forward in the middle of his third book, Good Looks (1982). ‘Loosen up chum’ is how one poem around there begins, and no sooner said than the sequential reader encounters a run of longer, more situated poems, the most immediately attractive of which is ‘Wellington’. There’s still the characteristic lightness of touch, but the matter is harsher and the jokes, if that’s what they are, pointedly not that funny:

and the boys from Muldoon Real Estate
are breaking someone’s arm.
They don’t mean harm, really, it’s
nobody’s business, mainly free
instructive entertainment,
especially if you don’t get close
but keep well back like
all the distant figures in the crowd.

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.’
      There’s a new urgency and a thematic concentration to the poems, and the syntax is often sustained with a great fluency over long periods. The poems start to group themselves into pairs, or runs of pieces with similar concerns (the poem after ‘The Voyeur...’ is called ‘The Late Victorian Girl’).
      Manhire himself notes that something was happening about that time when talking to Gregory O’Brien about his collaborations with Ralph Hotere:

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.
      ‘Children’, for instance, opens: ‘The likelihood is / the children will die / without you to help them do it.’ It’s a thought that seems to haunt Manhire. The last poem in the book, a commissioned millennium poem called ‘The Next Thousand’, includes the lines: ‘No one will remember our old blue shed. / Both of my children will be dead.’ Yet so will his great-great grandchildren, and so will his great-grandparents, and so will he, and you and me. But it’s the children his poem worries over, and you can’t help liking him for it.
      From here on Manhire is in his element. The next two full collections, Milky Way Bar (1991) and My Sunshine (1996), are his finest to date. In an interview with Iain Sharp, Manhire suggests that his early reading and the early poems with their imagistic oddities had been driven by the need to add mystery and complexity to an over-determined ordinary life:

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
lead to where the ground is level
at the foot of the cross

and here we are on our knees
inspecting the world of loss...

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’.
      Thus Manhire’s concern with the themes of distance and loss speaks beyond anything that could be called an especially New Zealand experience. In the collection’s last poem, ‘Moonlight’, an elegy for ‘occasional Kate’ Gray (1975–1991), the elements come together:

I hear myself saying
please and please and please;
I want to go back
to the start of the nineties.

Sleepless night, big almond eyes,
and a hand rocks a pram in the passage;
from somewhere a long way
outside our houses

the moon sends its light to this page.

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.
      Beginning to write during the decade whose opening had been marked by the publication of Allen Curnow’s controversial The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960) with an introduction that rubbed various of the contributors up the wrong way, it’s hardly surprising that Manhire’s early collections should steer clear of the sorts of nation-founding themes that had exercised his seniors. Yet the other thing that starts to happen mid-career, especially in the new poems section from his Zoetropes: Poems 1972–1982 (1984), is that he starts to draw upon his family background and its relation to his country.
      Reviewing The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982) at about this time, Manhire notes that, in an anthology out to promote the Martian metaphor school of ‘ludic’ writing, ‘Jeffrey Wainwright...seems to have history, as a poetic territory, almost entirely to himself.’ Manhire was simultaneously finding ways of combining his lightly playful touch with the painful matter of history — as in ‘The Scottish Bride’:

You cannot imagine, halfway
across the world, her father wrote,
the sorrow of the undersigned. Was that her mother

then, who made those numbers on a slate?
Were those her children, almost finished eating,
blowing upon their faces in the spoons?

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
smoke at anchor, drifting above
Antarctica’s white flower,

tied by a thin red line
(5000 miles) to Valparaiso.

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.
      Some readers may prefer poems to be working with loss, not just putting you through it in ways which make dismissal the characteristic note, and which seem to imply that the experience of loss is the price of the small bright pleasure. It sounds uncommonly like a means of mass-producing aesthetic intensities of the sort hymned at the close of Pater’s Renaissance. After all, when you really lose people and important things, sadness is likely not to be quite the feeling. But then again, what this goes to show is not only Manhire’s acute critical sense (his comments were published in 1984) but also his tact and generosity.
      One of the poems that inspires his insightful passage is Raine’s ‘Flying to Belfast’. Still, if you compare it with Manhire’s classic OE poem about the disorientations of long-haul flights, ‘Breakfast’, you can see how he ranges further in his methods for rendering losses, and how his liking for punctuational asterisks and spaces, far from producing discrete units, works both to disrupt and to reach across, composing stubbornly tenuous links. The poem is made up of nine passages, each separated from its neighbour by one of his signature asterisks, and yet in not a single case is there a coincidence of asterisk and completed syntactical unit. With one exception, the parts are also written in triplet units, yet here again, no three-line stanza ends with a full-stop. The poem touches on loss, and has its own moody tinge, but an unmitigated sadness is not the effect. Though it’s difficult to sample a poem so jointed across is disjunctions, here’s the last leg:

everything’s a possibility, or
so thinks the mind that’s (mind
that’s not yet quite


at home — either we are the journey
or just the place through which
the journey passes. Goodbye

London! goodbye Europe! somewhere
between Sydney and Wellington,
somewhere above the Tasman,


breakfast is served again (breakfast


is served again by
Flight Steward François

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.
      Like so much of Manhire’s poetry, his Pseuds Corner poem ‘Wingatui’ is imprinted with distance and loss. You could even see it ramifying in the loss of meaning that ‘birdcage’ underwent when translated to the London literary scene. The distance in the poem is there in the size of the race course, the lengths of the races and the winning margins, and, most overtly, the distance from the car with its headlights switched off all the way up to the rising moon. The loss is there emblematically in what might have been for the betting man at the races. Conveying all this, the poet’s work goes the distance, counts the loss, and, in so doing, finds a series of curious links by way of compensation. If Bill Manhire’s poems have split that azure violin in two, he’s equally gone a long way to sticking it right back together again.

You can read more about Bill Manhire on this New Zealand Book Council Web Site:

And you can read his strange hypertext choose-your-own-adventure story, The Brain of Katherine Mansfield, illustrated by Gregory O'Brien with hypertext version by Richard Easther and Jolisa Gracewood, here:

There is a photo, a bio note and links to dozens of pieces of writing by Peter Robinson on his Jacket Author Notes page.

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