Poetry Shelf review: Bill Manhire’s Wow

Bill Manhire, Wow, Victoria University Press, 2020

Excuse me if I laugh.

The roads are dark and large books block our path.

The air we breathe is made of evening air.

The world is longer than the road that brings us here.

from ‘The Armchair Traveller’

Over my decades of reading New Zealand poetry, some poets stand out. To my discovery of Hone Tuwhare in my secondary-school library in the early 1970s, I add the joy of reading Jenny Bornholdt, Bernadette Hall, JC Sturm, Michele Leggott, Emma Neale, Tusiata Avia, Cilla McQueen, Anna jackson, Bill Manhire. So many other poets have given me goosebumps across the decades, poets who have made me pick up a pen and write, who have hooked my attention and then kept me listening. What is it that makes a particular poet, such as Bill Manhire, our first national poet laureate, a favoured return over years? For me it starts with music, moves through heart, silence, mystery, ideas, wit. I seem to favour bridges into poetry thickets, and these thickets might appear within a handful of words or a book-long sequence.

At WORD Christchurch a few weeks ago, I went to some excellent sessions. I have already written about the miracle of being there in the time of Covid, along with my festival highlights – but how fitting one favourite was the Bill Manhire / John Campbell conversation celebrating Bill’s new collection, Wow. John discussed the lasting effect of being in a Bill Manhire class at university and reading his poetry. I carried away such warmth and enthusiasm for poems and what poetry can do. John launched the conversation by explaining Bill’s impact on him: ‘A light went on in my head and heart which has never gone out’. This line has stuck with me. Poetry turns on internal lights. Gifts us an internal galaxy system. Coincidentally the house lights are always up in WORD sessions so it felt like a living-room or café conversation without the usual audience / speaker barrier at work. I kept wanting to join in! Afterwards fans lined up with the book to get signed and I pictured the queue of people racing home to find their own Wow enthusiasms. I will barely scrape the surface of how many paths through the collection.

Wow, co-published by Carcanet in the UK and Victoria University Press here, is one of four winter recommendations by the Poetry Book Society, an organisation TS Eliot and friends founded in 1953.

I begin with Wow’s preface: ‘they’ve cleared away / the clearings’.

The mystery is potent. The image haunting. I was sitting in my Ōtautahi hotel room, looking out at the parking-lot clearings, with Wow in hand, and I couldn’t stop leapfrogging from city clearings to bush clearings to mental clearings to poem clearings. And I couldn’t stop wondering what replaces the clearing, and the word bounced about in my head so much it lost sense. And then it became vital: we need clearings. We need clearings in the city, and the bush, and in our heads. Maybe we need clearings in poems, where the the light and dark intermingle, and the glints sit next to the ominous.

Thickets and clearings. The first poem is a song of the extinct huia, a fitting call onto the book’s musical terrain, and to uncertain and unsettling presents and futures. Such a poignant note to enter a collection with:

I lived among you once

and now I can’t be found

I’m made of things that vanish

a feather on the ground

from ‘Huia’

Turn the page and ‘Untitled’, a short poem, is an altogether different form of song. The dark edges are prominent, the silence (the unspoken, the withheld) a hook. This poem is the complete Manhire package: you get music, silence, mystery, dark edges, light turns.

Untitled

This book about extinct birds is heavier than any bird:

heavier than the dark bird eating my heart,

page after page of abandoned wings.

I lift it up and sit it on my lap

and listen to it purring.

Bill Manhire

John invited Bill to read the four-lined ‘A Really Nice Trip’, where the speaker visits several ‘Pleasant’ places: ‘Then we went all the way out to Pleasant Point.’ The audience laughed and loved it, and I pictured everyone picturing a mindstream of pleasant places. The poem is a wee joke. The poem turns up in reviews and on festival stages. The poem is also like a clearing for our own pleasant places, in my case, reeking of summer and green tea in a flask. Ah such a tongue-in-cheek, underrated word that scoots over how a Valley or a Flat or a Point can be satisfying, pleasing, a downright pleasure.

Yes! Bill is the maestro of ordinariness (a bit like Jenny Bornholdt is too) where an economy of words releases any number of treats. There is comfort in the ordinary – that pleasant place – that is sometimes so ordinary it becomes unreal, super-real. This kind of poetic ordinariness makes pinpricks on your eyelids, and you settle back in your chair or hammock as the armchair traveller, the poetry traveller, and it is altogether wonderful. I quoted the first stanza from ‘The Armchair Traveller’ at the start of this review, because it is this one of those classic Manhire poems that is going to haunt like ‘Kevin’ haunts you, or ‘The Ladder’ or ‘Erebus Voices’ or ‘Hotel Emergencies’ or ‘The Victims of Lightning’. Here is the last verse:

Time now to let the story take its course,

just settle back and let the driver drive.

Bliss is it late at night to be alive,

learning to yield, and not to strive.

from ‘The Armchair Traveller’

‘The Armchair Traveller’ is a poetry thicket at its very best – you get the light and dark, the mystery, the silence and the exquisite music. There is comfort but there is also discomfort. Perhaps the comfort –for me even in the darkest threats – is expanded by Bill’s fondness for rhyme and repetition. At times the rhyme resembles an incantation, a list, or repeating sounds, an insistent beat, but at other times, rhyme feeds the mysterious business of being human. ‘Warm Ocean’ is full of repetition and rhyme, assonance and alliteration, a sweet concatenation of musical effects and human connections, both within hearing and at a whisper.

Don’t play the music don’t play the music

says the man

who walks around town saying

over and over don’t play the music

all songs being made

as we know from things that hurt

ice that melts flames that fall from the sky

yes all of that and more

and the father goes on singing

long after his daughter leaves the church

from ‘Warm Ocean’

Yes! Wow offers multiple impacts as you read. Three poems in a row are heart catchers: ‘Knots’, ‘Our Teacher’, ‘The Sky’. Things are missed and missing. So poignant. Such treasures. How to tear yourself apart from the magical movement of ‘The Sky’? Impossible:

A man comes by with coal in a wheelbarrow,

muttering, muttering. He wants

to sell us warmth, his feet don’t leave the ground.

We think that we will always miss the sky.

It says look up whenever we look down.

from ‘The Sky’

Read Wow and you get story and song, light and dark, the surreal, constant surprise, but there is also always wit and humour. I laughed out loud at the indignant woman who thought she had phoned the cattery to get her vegetarian cat named Coleslaw back, and the bemused listener couldn’t get a word in edgeways. ‘The Lazy Poet’ is hilarious as it overlays cricket and poetry (‘He wonders about the word “thicket” …/ then turns on the cricket’) until ‘rain stops play’. I also laughed out loud at ‘The Deerculler’s Wife’, as it signals a poem that might be drowning, or yelling to get attention, or even blowing a yellow whistle.

Like many poets, Bill uses a roving speaker, who may or may not be autobiographical, invented, borrowed, an amalgamation of voices, experiences, imaginings. In a blog he wrote for Carcanet, he talks about the action between the speaker in the poem and the person who writes, and the way characters, one in particular, who keep turning up in his poetry. This nimble voice keeps us on our reading toes. Bill’s vagabond ‘I’ is best friends with an inquisitive and acquisitive eye and ear as it gathers in the world, real or imagined.

Wow will haunt you – so many of these poems have joined my list of memorable poetry encounters (see my list above to add to). The baby in the title poem says ‘wow’ while the big brother says ‘also’. This new collection sparks both the ‘wow’ moments and the ‘also’ moments. Get lost in its glorious thickets and then find your way out to take stock of the ordinary (and out-of-the-ordinary) world about you.

Bill closed his WORD session by reading ‘Little Prayers’, written in response to the Christchurch terrorist attack, 15 March 2019. This is a poem to hold in your heart. I will leave you with the opening verse, in the hope you will open the book, in your armchair or hammock, and begin reading:

Let the closing line be the opening line

Let us open ourselves to grief and shame

Let pain be felt and be felt again

May our eyes see when they cease crying

Let the closing line be the opening line

from ‘Little Prayers’

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).

Victoria University Press page

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