Poetry reviews of a new collection by Bill Manhire, and a greatest hits by James Brown
Harry Ricketts on Wow by Bill Manhire: There can be few local literary events more exciting than the appearance of a new collection of Bill Manhire’s poems. Wow is, I think, his 19th collection, if one includes various selected and collected volumes: a serious achievement. His work is unusual in that it is (for poetry) extremely popular, both here and overseas, and is at the same time accepted as ‘difficult’. (There has been a good deal written about his output over the years, but little that is really illuminating.) This terrific new collection will, I confidently expect, add to that popularity and may produce more enlightening discussions.
Some poets, as Seamus Heaney once noted, create in their work their own “emotional weather”. This handy metaphor can be extended to suggest the very distinctive worlds or countries we enter when we read particular poets. So, Audenland is littered with broken-down machinery and cryptic road signs, all observed from a great height by hawks and helmeted airmen. Eliotland is full of people with buried lives colliding in the fog. Larkinland is bleak and overcast, and someone pretty clever is just about to tell you that things are actually much bleaker than you thought. (Hardyland is the same, only things have already got even worse.)
So, what about Manhireland, of which Wow offers further intriguing snapshots and glimpses, sometimes half-familiar but never monotonous? Here the light mist over everything teases you with where you are and what’s what. Things constantly shift and change shape and being, even as you seem to have grasped them. There is no GPS in Manhireland; here you are on your own, finding your way, making your own discoveries, trying to decipher runes, which (should you compare notes) may well prove quite different to those of any of the other trampers.
In “Untitled” is that a book or a bird you were just holding; perhaps neither because it is also “purring” in your lap? Why should the smile (in “The Smile”) “hate the simile” and why exactly should the simile “steal” the smile’s “thunder”? And why, by the end of the poem, should the smile seem to have become “such a pussycat” that it “might enjoy a gentle kiss” and “a fireside nap” – “If we are like we think we are, / that is”?
Time in Manhireland is equally unstable. Outside in the observable world, the clock unforgivingly ticks, the sun or moon rises, seasons change, we are, as Lauris Edmond memorably put it, constantly subject to “the small events’ unmerciful momentum”.
But, in Manhireland, time is often now and also later than you think. In the opening poem, “Huia”, for instance, the bird was once alive and singing (“I sang to signal rain”), but also (“my song was now a warning”), and later again the bird, extinct, sings only on stamps and coins. In “Change Nothing”, the speaker used to
race up the mountain
and swim across the lake
the peak and shore [are] just out of reach
… and I tell you
once you’re tired you’re fucking exhausted.
In the title poem “Wow”, we start in something like slow time:
says also but the baby always says wow
though soon enough she too is saying also.
Then, “soon enough”, time starts to teleport us vertiginously through an ordinary life (“One thing after another”) to old age (“Also the nappies they make him wear!”), ricocheting between the words “also”, “wow”, “late” and “now”:
Listen hard now to how we all say goodbye
and maybe and wait-just-a-minute,
not hearing the world say back to us wow.
Manhireland is also a land of lost things or things on the point of being lost. “Polly” begins: “End of the day.” “Huia” presents the bird as “made of things that vanish / a feather on the ground”. In “South”, the heart is “lost on the streets / of K—-, a city I’ll never visit”. In “Warm Ocean”, “it’s all moonlight and shipwrecks these days”. The god in “The Angry God” says “his son is dead to him now / he says he never really had a son”. The female immigrant in “Letter from the New Place” sleeps “in a house that is not my house” and receives only “a few moments of understanding, / and always quickly lost”. In “The Kaffir Lime Is Having a Bad Day”, the lines “You learn not to trust people. / You want the whole thing to finish” are crossed out, but still clearly visible beneath the erasure.
Manhireland loves lists against oblivion. “Halls” is simply a litany of fourteen different kinds of hall from “The Memorial Hall” to “The Hall of Fame” to “The Hall of Shadows” with the speaker running “from one to another, calling out my news”. What that news might be, we naturally never discover. There is “a narrative button” (“Disconnected Product”) regularly pushed to tell us yarns and tales. But, although we are told in “the Armchair Traveller” that it is “Time now to let the story take its course”, what that course might be tends to dissolve into “the steady gaze of silence” (“To Be Concluded”) or break down and change shape, as in “The Deerculler’s Wife” where “this other poem I have just started” begins to behave like an attacking (or stricken?) deer “and yells and lows and lowers its antlers”, but also “has a yellow whistle to attract attention”.
The inclusion of that “yellow whistle” is a reminder of how playful Manhireland can be, playful and at the same time potentially distressed (both waving and drowning, to adapt Stevie Smith’s well-known line). Sometimes the effect is precariously mordant: Death in “Incidental” may be “searching for the one / who made the world”, but she is “the last terrible thing” and will “kiss” you coldly just the same, even if “someone else / will place you in her arms”. Sometimes the humour is more daffy and knockabout. “Noah”, a mischievous re-imagining of the Old Testament story of the Flood and the Ark, is mostly comic. It opens with one of the “desperate jokes” promised on the flyleaf: “I abandoned the bad band / and joined the good band: I thought / that we would flood the world with music.” Apparently what bothered this Noah was saving the instruments: “As for the animals, I never really knew. / Someone else did that. In the end we ate a few.”
As that last couplet reaffirms, Manhireland has always been friendly towards rhyme as well as wordplay. The preference here is for a mixture of true rhyme and ragged rhyme, for end-rhymes which refuses to arrive precisely on time (like that momentary, caesural pause before: “In the end we ate a few”).
Something altogether stranger and odder happens in “Polly”. This deliberately skewed sonnet performs a number of adroit arabesques, some of which blur into each other in the final line: “But the poetry is in the bird. And in the pretty.” (“Pretty” has earlier rhymed with “city”, “nitty” and “gritty”, and more recently, with splendid bathos, with “committee”.) The final line glances back both to line two of this poem (“The green bird was saying pretty pretty”) and to the huia in the opening poem of the collection. It also calls to mind, while neatly side-stepping, Wilfred Owen’s much-quoted claim that, in his war poems, “The poetry is in the pity”. This leaves the reader to think about where “the poetry” is for them. In song itself? In the “pretty” (perhaps, the aesthetic effect)? In the feelings the poem/song evokes?
“The Importance of Personal Relationships”, from Manhire’s 1977 collection How To Take Off Your Clothes at the Picnic, has long been a favourite of mine:
Let’s just reject
discussion, the safety of
and go to
sleep in a
serious fashion. Dancing
veiny wrist, for instance, leaping
the veins: I mean, we
could manage that more
often. How do
you do how
do? I am fine thank
This poem, too, is funny in its way, yet, as with these new poems, it is not at all easy to pin down quite what makes it funny or what it’s being funny about. Is it simply a little inventory of clichés and stock phrases which reflect different moments or situations conjured up by the expression personal relationships? It is that, of course, but not all the phrases are polite pleasantries. There’s nothing commonplace about “Dancing // on God’s / veiny wrist, for instance, leaping / the veins”. That image raises other, altogether trickier, riskier possibilities, which give the poem for all its apparently nonchalant conclusion the melancholy undertow that many of Manhire’s most memorable poems possess.
In an essay on the work of the American poet John Ashbery, the English critic John Bayley made the astute reflection: “the wordage trembles with a perpetual delicacy that suggests meaning without doing anything so banal as to seem to attempt it. Poetic syntax is constructed to express with a certain intensity a notion of the meaningful that does not convey meaning.”
Sometime in the 1980s, I scribbled in the margin of my copy of Bayley’s Selected Essays: “true of Bill’s poems?” Bayley’s comment still seems to me true about much of Ashbery’s work, but not, I think, of Manhire’s. Beneath the light mist in Manhireland, meaning (and feeling) continue to dance on God’s veiny wrist, and nowhere more poignantly than in the final lines of the final poem in Wow, “Little Prayers”, whose epigraph (“15 March 2019”) directly evokes the mass shootings at the Christchurch mosques:
May we sing once more for the first time
May the children be home by dinnertime
May the closing line be an opening line
Elizabeth Smither on Selected Poems by James Brown: Sometimes I think if I had to choose a favourite poem it would be “Snow” by Louis MacNeice. Simple images (roses and snow against a bay window while the poet spits tangerine pips into the fireplace) but endlessly profound about the variousness of the world. “Spiteful and gay” are the words MacNeice uses and they are perfectly balanced like panniers on a bicycle. Ridiculous as it is to think a collection could be stickered by a single image – it might be the fault of the cover – it is bicycling that constantly comes to mind when reading James Brown.
I found myself considering the narrowness of a bicycle tyre and the perils flung up on either side. Cars, stones, breath control, endless vigilance. “How could I forget to mention the bicycle is a good invention?” he asks in “Bicycle Song”. And such is the peril of looking sideways, ahead and down over those tyres, I began to imagine a sort of jousting between lines. Line one with an image that seems pedestrian followed by line two with a spill as wild as Chloe Dygert disappearing over the railings at the Imola World Championship.
We gazed into each other with flat-out gravity.
There was no room for lightness in the dark’s chowder.
(from “The Pleasure Principle”)
Despite hinting that prose might be better (“Stick with prose/and spread your investments”) and the difficulties of making a sale, Selected Poems, with extracts from six collections and a booklet, Instructions for Poetry Readings [editor’s note: this curious 2002 work was published by Braunias University Press] exhibits more faith than you might expect.
Tentativeness is a useful tool for a poet; softly or blandly can catch an audience. But similarity to prose can undermine, even while it seduces. It might increase the dependency on images to rattle or shock, that a lull is required to get up speed as if the reader in the bookshop, returning the poetry book to the shelf after perusing a couple of short poems, is being chided. Should there be more emphasis on mystery (snow and roses) and should it be spread to the boundaries? Can the whole poem be a surprise without a relapse?
You no longer peel me out of my wet day
and dry me off with your tongue
the way you used to of an afternoon.
Your eyes were puffballs, your compact body
– between whose symmetries I’d played so happily –
(from “Family Planning”)
Here ‘compact’ and ‘symmetries’ are as aligned as the handles of an amphora. “Instructions for Poetry Readings” is a mordant manual for handling the public reading. ‘Public’ might equal being able to count the audience on two hands. The poet must be adaptable. “Nobody wants to be eyeballed by a poet in full flight”. Children are discouraged but “controlled dogs” are acceptable. “The Audience” has its own set of instructions on when to clap or how to approach a book signing.
Less caution, more emotion, appears in the selection from “Year of the Bicycle”. which has a live cross to a bike ride: gear changes, bumps, gradients, strategy and a fair amount of sadism. It is almost a relief to share the tears of an estranged father and his two sons at the end of a weekend or the poet wryly attempting to get a discount on his own book in a second-hand bookshop.
“Wickedness” fuels a biker rage:
On your bike you weave and spit
a throaty, viral gob over the windscreen
of a SUV that won’t give way
There is a rare appearance of music, in “The Bike Lesson”:
As violins are singing trees, a bicycle
is an orchestra of the body
“No Rest” is a litany for a modern missal:
Coincide with boss.
Smile through clenched bottom.
Draft dazzling letter of resignation.
The connection between emotion and voice – easier if the inclination is not for evasion or a mask – is crucial in poetry. And going deeper, as a friend overheard the surgeon say when he was having a suspicious mole removed. “I need to go deeper”. At the end of “No Rest” to find the torch: “Try to make light of day./ Try to make light of darkness”. I think James Brown could dig the scalpel deeper.
There is also little sense of the poet pressing against the form, discovering it as he writes, creating that tension that the best poems possess. Obviously you can do whatever you like in a poem, but the form, whether shadowy or prescribed, has a way of answering back. ‘Tighten’ it seems to say. Let there be tension and urgency and the best word and the imagination all working in the highest gear.
MacNeice’s poem ends with a puzzle: “There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses”. The room is utterly vivid and its contents make a world. Where this openness does not occur in a poem, where there is a closing off, no cleverness or facility can adequately compensate. It is uncertainty spinning out its centre that makes the poem.
If James Brown’s Selected doesn’t quite fulfil in this way, if some deeper links and musicality are lacking, or the forms which he adopts lack that sense of pressing back and being overcome, like a cyclist going into a head wind, there are still many pleasures, juxtapositions to marvel at, sharp and splintered views.
Wow by Bill Manhire (Victoria University Press, $25) and Selected Poems by James Brown (Victoria University Press, $40) are available from bookstores nationwide.
* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand. and Kete, the site of the Coalition for New Zealand Books.*