Bill Manhire is the pre-eminent voice of New Zealand poetry; that country’s first Laureate, and author of over a dozen collections, stretching back to the earliest part of the 1970s. He found some notoriety in his early career when a short poem, “Wingatui”, whose meaning was partially rooted in the vernacular of the New Zealand horse-racing world, was included in Private Eye magazine’s “Pseuds Corner” column. It was an act of philistinism for which the New Zealand poetry community took some time to forgive the British press, but that incident has served as only a minor footnote to what has become a significant literary career.
Manhire was from the start unafraid of abstraction; “Poem” from his 1972 collection The Elaboration reads,
When we touch,
forests enter our bodies.
The dark wind shakes the branch.
The dark branch shakes the wind.
However, it’s clear that the poet’s voice has become richer, more conversational over time, although many of the conversations are one-sided, as evidenced by his easily-distracted conversation with “Kevin” in the poem of the same name, from his 2005 collection Lifted:
I don’t know where the dead go, Kevin.
The one far place I know
is inside the heavy radio.
Manhire then goes on to speak more to himself than to his subject, recalling his own experiences of radio, while Kevin sleeps on. To a certain extent, the poet’s work is much more introverted and internalised than it first seems – he appears in most of his later poems as “I” and is rarely detached, which hints through the chronologically-arranged sequence at a growing self-concern as he ages. This not-quite-solipsism reaches its zenith in “1950s”, a supercharged list poem detailing the very personal paraphernalia of his childhood;
My cricket bat. My football boots.
My fishing rod. My hula hoop.
My cowboy chaps. My scooter.
Draughts. Happy Families. Euchre.
The most vividly-drawn poems are from his mid-period work, especially 1991’s Milky Way Bar, two of which are pieces of poetic reportage. “Hirohito” examines the de-deification of the wartime Japanese emperor and “Phar Lap” tells the tale of the legendary Depression-era Australian racehorse. In both poems, Manhire considers the geography of the South Pacific and its relationship with other nations along the Pacific Rim through figures of history and popular culture. In “Hirohito” the God-emperor is replaced by the God of capitalism and commerce in the final lines;
I catch sight of him through snow,
a man with glasses
staring out of the screen
of my 14-inch Sanyo.
In “Phar Lap” he pokes at the corpse of the great horse and the mystery of its death in the USA, evoking the conspiracy theories formed in response to perceived jealousy at the horse’s success;
Well, let’s say he died in California,
let’s say he died of absence.
Manhire is distinctively-voiced and largely accessible, more so as he matures into his fifth decade as a writer, with three new poems tackling the eternal theme of ageing and mortality. The selection’s final poem “Old Man Puzzled by His New Pyjamas” could perhaps serve as a simple metaphor for the older person’s hope for the coming afterlife;
I am the baby who sleeps in the drawer.
Blue yesterday, and blue before –
and suddenly all these stripes.
Bill Manhire has much to talk about – often himself, but also the concerns of others – but he says it with a confident lightness of touch and image, and he is never less than engaging. Infusions of melancholy keep his poems afloat in the mind, and the mood is always questioning, probing. His Selected Poems is a good way for the European reader to introduce themselves to a poet often marginalised by geography.