I don’t know where the dead go, Kevin.
The one far place I know
is inside the heavy radio. If I listen late at night,
there’s that dark, celestial glow,
heaviness of the cave, the hive.
Music. Someone warms his hands at the fire,
breaking off the arms of chairs,
breaking the brute bodies of beds, burning his comfort
surely to keep alive. Soon he can hardly see,
and so, quietly, he listens: then someone lifts him
and it’s some terrible breakfast show.
There are mothers and fathers, Kevin, whom we barely know.
They lift us. Eventually we all shall go
into the dark furniture of the radio.
©Bill Manhire, Lifted Victoria University Press, 2005.
The eldest of my children published a poem in a recent issue of Sport about the two of us. The poem ends, “We don’t like Kevin but we both like ‘Kevin.'” I forget who Kevin was, but of all the poems of Bill Manhire’s that I admire, this one, “Kevin,” this secular prayer, is the one I admire most. It reminds me of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” another secular prayer: what is there, when we all must die, and we have lost religious faith? Arnold finds an answer, of sorts, in personal relations: “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” Manhire finds it in human continuity, perhaps the poetic tradition he has inherited, which includes Arnold: “There are mothers and fathers, Kevin, whom we barely know.” The man “breaking off the arms of chairs, / breaking the brute bodies of beds, burning his comfort / surely to keep alive” is no doubt a metaphor, but I think of the great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, in the winter famine of 1918-1919, who did exactly this. This poem conveys harsh truths, unironically, sympathetically, and in its hopelessness – as in Arnold’s hopelessness – there is a glint of hope, or consolation. Perhaps the only afterlife is in “the dark furniture of the radio” – one of those stained oak radios of my childhood, its transistors humming, a vehicle for the voices of the living and the dead. “They lift us” – “lift” being a particularly resonant word for Manhire – in the way that hymns lifted previous generations. This is such a sad, desolate poem, but every time I read it, it cheers me.
Tim Upperton’s poems have been anthologised in The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (VUP) and Essential New Zealand Poems (Random House). His second book, The Night We Ate The Baby (Haunui Press), was a finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in 2016.