Some Things to Place in a Coffin by Bill Manhire.
Wellington: VUP (2017).
Bill Manhire, Tell Me My Name. Riddles by Bill Manhire,
music by Norman Meehan,
song by Hannah Griffin,
photographs by Peter Peryer.
Wellington: VUP (2017).
Hb with music CD, 32pp (unnumbered).
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.
These two titles have been issued separately but form one package. Some Things to Place in a Coffin, a solo collection of Manhire’s poems, features a cover by his friend Ralph Hotere and ranges from elegy to almost-blues, observations to speculations. Some of the poems could well be riddles. The book’s production is generous and attractive: ‘Known Unto God’ is a collection of poems commemorating New Zealanders fallen at the Somme, and it forms a discrete chapbook in the full book. The long poem ‘Falseweed’ is separated by tip-in sheets of different colours; this poem and ‘The Beautiful World’ are allowed large amounts of space which slow the reading pace and contribute to the laid-back and thoughtful feeling given by the book as a whole.
The group book, Tell Me My Name, is a musical setting of thirteen (plus one repeated, but presented differently) riddles. The words are by Manhire and sung by Hannah Griffin, whose haunting torch/folk style suits them beautifully; the photographs are by Peter Peryer, and the music is by Norman Meehan – performed by the composer (piano), Martin Riseley (violin), Sue Prescott (whistles, recorder, bodhrán), and George Mason (bagpipes), in a group assembled for this enterprise.
A common theme is riddles. At the end of the group book, Manhire gives us a couple of prose pages about riddles and says, ‘Poets especially love riddles, perhaps because riddles invite us to be part of the process of making meaning.’ Riddles are all around us, to tease us in childhood (‘I gave my love a cherry that had no stone’ or ‘Thirty white horses on a red hill’) and to tantalise us as adults (Œdipus, Macbeth, Batman have all run up against riddles). Maybe part of making meaning means accepting that there is no meaning?
Here’s part of Riddle #5:
Oh I am what you dream of
and I am what you dread
and I am what you leave behind
but never quite forget
or else #13:
I have a human name
and yet I take no breath
my life has fled yet I am here
to talk about my death.
Perhaps it’s the use of the first person and the present tense which helps something sound riddle-like? A couple of poems from ‘Known Unto God’ read like riddles and could belong to more than one place, more than one speaker:
I whistled while I could.
Then I was gone for good. (p 48)
Well, I was here from the start, amazing . . .
straight off the farm at Taieri Mouth.
I lifted my head and ran like the blazes.
Went south. (p 47)
And there may be no one answer. A riddle may be like the oracle at Delphi, who neither speaks nor conceals but indicates (they say). Or maybe a riddle is a metaphor that just won’t lie down. In that case, why not just call it a poem?
The book of collected poems is a memorial, to Ralph Hotere and to the past. It begins with the wonderful ‘How Memory Works’ (in its entirety):
Come over here
we say to the days that disappear.
No, over here. (p 9)
This sets the tone for much of the collection: three-dimensional and down to earth, also matter of fact, not forcing us anywhere. Towards the end of the book there is the title poem, ‘Some Things to Place in a Coffin’. This is a list of twenty-nine items with no connections the reader could guess without outside help. It is a personal and painful collection of shared memories, events, jokes or mistakes, the kind of emotional shorthand people share as they have shared their lives, and it’s another kind of riddle.
The long poem ‘Falseweed’ ends (almost) the collection of poems. It’s quite different in shape and structure from the preceding poems. It begins:
Poor tanglebell, trying
so hard to ring
and barely coughing
& leafcandle flickering –
his long-lost cousin
feeling my way
feeling my way …. (p 83).
It ends in an image of flying upwards – I was reminded a bit of Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’ poem (movement of water mixed with passage of time, lots of -ing words) – ultimately into the light. No promises are made, but none need be: it’s all a riddle, after all.
This is a really splendid pair of books which quite deftly manage to enhance and augment each other as well as stand alone on their own. Both productions involve talented people who know what they are doing and are having a very good time doing it. The combination of photographs/ words/ and sounds is well worth the visit.
 Possible answers are in the book, not in the footnotes. Very sorry. But anything else would be cheating. See how many answers for each riddle you can come up with before you go out and buy the book.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015.