Lifted by Bill Manhire
Wellington: VUP (2005) Reprint 2018)
RRP: $20. Pb, 79pp
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
Lifted by Bill Manhire was first published in 2005. It won the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. Manhire taught at Victoria University Wellington, where he founded the Institute of Modern Letters and is now Emeritus Professor of English and Creative Writing.
The book contains not only poems but also prose pieces. Manhire is pre-eminently a poet of the private and personal life; a poet, broadly speaking, in the romantic tradition. He is, stylistically, a poet who tends to be eclectic, employing a variety of tones, registers and metrical effects. We could look at the opening of the first poem in the collection, ‘Without Form’, dedicated for Marion:
It is noisiest here in this middle place,
cries of despair and those of praise
yet you might close your eyes and begin to walk forward (p 11)
There is a rhythm in the formality of phrasing which contrasts with the musicality and rhyme of the last two lines. Continuing with the lengthy poem, “Opoutere” – in memory of Michael King. The poem has a fresh, vital quality which comes from the free play of imagination with language and experience. Manhire is, for his own purposes, as open to the varieties of experience and expression available, as he is sceptical of them, and serves them up to us for identification and enjoyment:
This the place of posts.
A man in a boat is checking his lines.
He is out towards the rock
at the mouth of the river,
clear sky above the ocean,
while behind him the estuary is filling
with its acres of shine. (p 20)
How much of the promise and fulfilment of life is comprised in these poems, how much of life for the reader to recognise. With regards to the poet, they illustrate creative freedom to proceed along lines of his own choosing – however set they may be in another sense – in the way he pleases. More, by bringing them into his focus he revivifies the poems.
Manhire exhibits considerable variety in the structures he chooses. We have prose, short and long poems, conversational rhythms; and several patterned poems. There is the humour of ‘The Ladies’, the patterned verse of ‘Still Life with Wind in the Trees’, a four-verse poem and there are quatrains. In ‘Hotel Belair’ (p 34), a sequence about “A pleasant establishment”, we have the experience of looking out of a window, seeing everything. In ‘Dogs’, a sequence of couplets about shooting the dogs at the South Pole, the reader finds him or herself confronted with all the tragedy that accompanied this polar experience. This is how the sequence opens:
‘What do you think? Shall we start?’ –
‘Yes, of course. Let’s be jogging on.’
So many dogs! And once they begin barking,
It’s goodbye to the peaceful Polar morning. (p 36)
The flood of life’s experience, its little worries and large are brought to the fore in the rhymed poem, ‘The Monks’, with its expressions of the monks’ lives. The poet controls the flow of experiences guiding them in the last six lines to a quiet ending:
The sheep seem like starlight!
Even the artist lays down his pencil in despair.
There is simply nothing there . . . And they
turn indoors to Eden with a mild, abstracted air:
pleased that the road goes forward from the gate,
pleased not to be desperate. (p 43)
In ‘Old Man Talking in His Sleep’, Manhire may be said to be good-humouredly satirical. The poet s capable of achieving a range of effects through his variation of verse length and use of italics. Here is the paragraph with which the poem opens:
When I have left the shearing shed
and am riding home above the cloudy valley,
who do I see between my horse’s ears? (p 58)
The long poem, ‘Villa Ephrussi’ – Cap-Ferrat, 1911, is divided into five sections. The opening lines are beautiful, laden with poetic suggestion:
Beatrice Ephrussi waits at the station at Beaulieu,
while the ancient world arrives by train.
Stone and marble and canvas are laid out before her,
everything there on the platform.
Wife of a banker, daughter of a banker. (p 66)
The poem leads us to a statement of the transience of happiness and the experiences of grief. The lines work through their atmospheric possibilities and their expressions of an inescapable conclusion.
The final poem, ‘Kevin’, is a rhyming poem in Manhire’s typical humorous tone. In it, he arrives surprisingly and with absolute emotional control at a powerful emotional climax; one that is personal. Manhire is not only an entertaining poet, here he proves himself one with emotional assurance and the artistry to strike the seriously subjective note. The poem ends:
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. (p 79)
Bill Manhire’s book, written in the clear, crisp and attractive words of an experienced poet, brings us an interesting and entertaining series of poems that discern and clearly explain the realities of our lives, and they have the standing and integrity to say what he believes regardless of what is currently popular in poetry.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).