Sunday, May 9, 2010

Peter Bland on Bill Manhire

The 12th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is an April 1996 review by Peter Bland of Bill Manhire’s retrospective collection Sheet Music: Poems 1967-1982 and new collection My Sunshine.

These are Manhire’s before-and-after volumes, everything that leads up to Milky Way Bar (1991) and the new work since. It’s been difficult to get hold of Manhire’s previous collections – particularly Good Looks (1982) and Zoetropes (1984), which contain much of the best of the earlier work – so this new amalgamation of his first five books is nicely judged. The title Sheet Music gives a clue on how to read him (the poem as musical score as much as, and probably more, than dramatised speech).

Milky Way Bar
was, for my money, the best single collection of New Zealand poetry since Curnow’s An Incorrigible Music back in 1979 (another title that puts the emphasis on the poem as a spoken score). In Sheet Music we can follow Manhire pulling back from the lyric in close-up (mostly love poems) into an increasingly canny, fictional approach. The early poems have a Chinese quality, opaque and nicely turned, with a feeling for direct statement such as one finds in the Americans James Wright and Robert Bly:
When we touch,
forests enter our bodies.

The dark wind shakes the branch.
The dark branch shakes the wind.
Manhire writes (somewhere) that he hasn’t been interested in the Americans since about 1972, but he comes away from them with a liking for a looser, more flexible line and a feeling for pauses almost as good as Pinter’s. I suspect too, from re-reading some of his reviews, that he gets more from a close reading of earlier New Zealand modernists than most of us would have the patience and/or insight to uncover.

As a New Zealander he’s someone who lives “at the edge of the universe,/ like everyone else” without getting particularly het-up about it. The New Zealandness of his writing is witty and indisputable, but he doesn’t carry it around like a weight on his back, a curse on his ancestry, or as an elitist excuse for exhibiting particular spiritual values. New Zealand is where he belongs but his “whole pleasure is in the inconspicuous... the important thing!”

As he quotes from Sterne at the beginning of My Sunshine, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine. . . they are the life, the soul of reading.” And in the notes to Sheet Music, he writes that “these poems are strategies for discovery. They seem more and more to be fictions, elaborated out of the truth of this or that situation.” He has a light touch (a lovely speed of intellect) that unloads its discoveries with a sort of elegant surprise:
Highest, driest, coldest, windiest
continent, doubling its size in winter:
Emily’s gone to Antarctica.

All that red hair on the ice!
A number of younger (and talented) Wellington poets have tried to copy Manhire’s little emotional shifts but, mostly, they end up looking fey, coy or deprived of subject. Manhire’s own strategies are always earthed in “concept”, i.e. Antarctica (as in Hoosh), Hirohito (we all know something about him), Isabella (and about her), An Amazing Week in New Zealand (Billy Graham and NZ in the 50s).

The variations, often autobiographical, he plays on such themes have led Manhire to successfully develop the longer poem – something you have to do if you’re going to stay in the game, increasingly surrounded by “poetic” prose-writers and magic realists.

In My Sunshine this development is Manhire’s major achievement. He seemed, until Hirohito, a minor master of the shorter lyric, someone who could polish-up direct statement until it shone. He still can, but now they’re the jewels cunningly set within more discursive explorations, as in this (from Isabella Notes): “A snuff-coloured moth/ an angelfish, a bear,/ grapes, red bay, a children’s game.”

Or, from Hoosh (in My Sunshine), this Antarctican banquet: “pony mixed with penguin/ mixed with whale, seal/ rissoles and the stewed paws/ of huskies.” Peter Greenaway, eat your heart out!

There’s just enough narrative left in these longer poems to make the story interesting, while the facts are cunningly mixed in with what he knows we know about the mythologies of each occasion so that, increasingly, these longer poems work on several levels, playfully leaving the reader with plenty to do.

Manhire’s poems are about. . . “samples and traces/ stuff from the core / to take home and question / and even then perhaps / not quite be sure.”

New Zealand poets are not supposed to be this elegant, funny or outward-looking! Political correctness, an earnest social conscience and/or a penchant for public ranting are surely more the order of the day. This is scandalously entertaining stuff, beautifully crafted, often moving in its autobiographical and family recollections.

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