by Anamaría Crowe Serrano
Bill Manhire, (2017) “Some Things to Place in a Coffin,” by Bill Manhire,
Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017.
ISBN: 978 -1 -776561 -056. NZ $25.00 + $10 P & P from
VUP at http://vup.victoria.ac.nz/some-things-to-place-in-a-coffin/
Seven years after his last collection, Bill Manhire, first poet laureate of New Zealand and father of the creative writing programme at Victoria University, from which he is now retired, has produced this beautiful collection.
The title, from a poem dedicated to his late friend, artist Ralph Hotere (who painted the cover image), alerts us to the theme of many of the poems. But there is little gloom here. In fact, Manhire is refreshingly unsentimental, which gives the poems more impact than if he had resorted to dramatic devices. Committed to a sense of exploration, he approaches the subject of death from oblique angles, working with associations rather than direct references. Take, for example, this poem commissioned for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme (it forms part of the ‘Known unto God’ sequence):
My last letter home
turned out entirely pointless.
I wrote whizz-bang
a dozen times
to try and say the noises.
By focusing on a tangential detail with such distilled language, the larger context of war is intensified. Other poems in this sequence are set further afield – Cairo, Dunedin, Taieri Mouth – making the experience of war universal.
Equally understated is the sequence ‘The Beautiful World’, where beauty is bound to mercurial moments. We are given glimpses, enough to make us think we understand, but then the moment that we thought would define beauty vanishes into the past, into a book, among trees. Sometimes, the moment is threatening; men shout and want to break down doors. But they, too, leave. What remains is an essence of the moment, dreamlike – a memory that is charged with presence.
Memory itself runs through the collection as a kind of leitmotif. We are introduced to the subject with characteristic subtlety in the first poem (How Memory Works):
Come over here
we say to the days that disappear.
No, over here.
There is also wit and humour in the collection, delivered in a jaunty conversational style, as well as autobiographical poems. The myriad moods are complemented by close attention to rhythm and the effect that rhyme and assonance can have on the overall momentum and force of a few lines. They are delivered in a variety of forms: sonnet, prose poems that could also be flash fiction, song, one-liners, a scathing take on the ‘Election Address’ (delivered to the residents of End-of-the-Line). The diversity of form is suggestive of a poet who is not satisfied to sit on his laurels but cares about probing the possibilities of poetry.
Curiously, the most significant poem in the collection, ‘Some Things to Place in a Coffin’, is perhaps the least gratifying in that it is a list of things, some tangible, some not. No doubt the items have personal meaning for the poet and his late friend, but for the reader (this one, at least) they lack the evocative note and delicate treatment that other poems have received.
Nevertheless, the collection has everything that good poetry should have: simplicity coupled with surprise, striking imagery, thought given to space on the page, a lightness of touch that takes us to serious depths, all elegantly crafted and ultimately a delight.