One of the things I like about what poetry can allow is the holding open of a sense of mystery even when there is nothing obvious that needs to be solved. I find this in Bill Manhire’s elliptical “Across Brooklyn.” That it is a poem about mortality is no mystery: the very first line places the speaker of the poem in “the street where they still make coffins.” We are given, in fact, a very vividly realised scene, with concrete details we can visualise, and hear – planks and nails, darkening entrances, the sound of someone whistling. Yet the significance of these details doesn’t seem quite limited to the literal meaning of them, though it is hard in this poem to point to any obvious symbolic meaning they might hold. The mystery of the poem is, perhaps, simply the mystery of our unease about our own mortality, in this poem figured as a kind of uncanny tourism:
This is the street where they still make coffins:
the little workshops, side by side.
I pass them with my daughter on our walk to the river.
Are we seeking the bridge itself,
Or the famous, much-reported view?
A few planks and nails lie around,
And each of the entrances seems to darken.
Far back, out of sight, someone is whistling.
Yes, I suppose we do walk a little faster.
There is a faint noise of hammering, too.
from Lifted Victoria University Press, 2005, reissued as a VUP Classic in 2018
The first line of the poem introduces the coffins that the rest of the poem seems to try to run away from, passing the coffins by on the way to the bridge. Brooklyn Bridge is well known for its view – these are tourists, looking for well-known sights – but this is a bridge well known in poetry too, so well known that I misremembered the title of the poem not as “Across Brooklyn” but as the more expected “Across Brooklyn Bridge.” I might have been thinking of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” or Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge.” Even reading poetry we can read like tourists, wanting to keep revisiting familiar or famous sites, seeing what we expect to find, getting ahead of ourselves. But in our search for the already-famous, we might find something unexpected, something unsettling – though what could be more famous than death?
The coupling together of tourism and mortality does something strange to the sense of audience, too, that this poem evokes. Lyric poetry often involves a certain strangeness of address, so that reading a poem can be like eavesdropping on an improbable relationship, as a poet addresses a rose, or talks to themselves, or addresses a lover whose replies can only be imagined. This poem seems to draw particular attention to the strangeness of lyric address, the last couplet in particular throwing a sense of address somehow off kilter. The ending, with the introduction of “a faint noise of hammering, too,” is curiously inconclusive, bringing in one more additional detail, as if in a hurry to get it in before the poem ends. It comes as the second line of a couplet that seems to have been already interrupted by its own first line, “Yes, I suppose we do walk a little faster.” This seems to be a reply – but no one has asked a question. Yet there is a sense, perhaps, of someone else present, someone this anecdote is being reported to. Perhaps this sense of someone else there, but not there (are we, the readers, beginning to feel a little ghostly ourselves?) might add to the unease of the poem, a poem that seems to speed up as if hurrying past its own subject matter. This is no ordinary tourism anecdote, that we might expect to be told in the past tense, perhaps with some pictures to accompany it. If this is a tourism anecdote, why is it being told in the present tense? Is it still happening? Are we ever going to get across Brooklyn to the bridge, let alone to the other side?
Anna Jackson made her debut in AUP New Poets 1 before publishing six collections with Auckland University Press, including I, Clodia, and Other Portraits (2014). She has a DPhil from Oxford and is now an associate professor in English literature at Victoria University of Wellington. Jackson is the author of Diary Poetics: Form and Style in Writers’ Diaries 1915–1962 (Routledge, 2010) and, with Charles Ferrall, British Juvenile Fiction 1850–1950: The Age of Adolescence (Routledge, 2009).
Bill Manhire’s most recent books include Some Things to Place in a Coffin (2017), Tell Me My Name (with Hannah Griffin and Norman Meehan, 2017) and The Stories of Bill Manhire (2015). He was New Zealand’s inaugural poet laureate, and founded and until recently directed the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. He has edited major anthologies, including, with Marion McLeod, the now classic Some Other Country: New Zealand’s Best Short Stories (1984).