Poetry review: Bill Manhire's Some Things to Place in a Coffin

by Sarah Jane Barnett / 08 May, 2017
A poem to painter Ralph Hotere gives Bill Manhire’s new collection its name. Photo/David White

A poem to painter Ralph Hotere gives Bill Manhire’s new collection its name. Photo/David White

In retirement, Bill Manhire isn’t sitting on his hands.

Some Things to Place in a Coffin is Bill Manhire’s first poetry collection since 2010. It’s been four years since Manhire, one of our best-loved poets, retired from Victoria University and the creative writing programme he started, the International Institute of Modern Letters. Some Things is published simultaneously with Tell Me My Name, a book of riddles he created with composer Norman Meehan, singer Hannah Griffin and photographer Peter Peryer. His “retirement” is off to a good start.

As with most of Manhire’s work, Some Things has a gentleness about it. He never states things too firmly and is rarely sentimental. The poems welcome but never push. He’s often funny. A somewhat reductive summary would be that these exceptional poems are about memory and waiting; about situations that people are stuck in, and the beauty of life that is out of reach. They exhibit the fine musicality and repetition Manhire is known for, and economy of language, as in The Schoolbus:

Bill Manhire. Photo/David White

Is that another drink the man is pouring?
The boy turns the hand of the separator.
Cream. The boy stands on the railway line,
disappearing in rust and shine.

There’s a spaciousness to most Manhire poems, but space seems especially important to this collection. For instance, long poem The Beautiful World occupies 12 pages. It’s a story about growing up and loss, and each part shines like a coin on wet pavement; I can’t help but bend closer. Spaciousness is also created by the way Manhire refers to people. They are an unnamed “girl”, “man”, or “mother”, giving the poems a universal feel, which is intensified by his somewhat surreal style. In short, these poems are about all of us.

There are more specific poems, of course, such as the title poem, an elegy to painter and close friend Ralph Hotere, who died in 2013 (the book’s cover features a Hotere painting from Manhire’s collection). And then there is the central poem of the collection, Known Unto God, which was written to commemorate the Battle of the Somme. The poem contains the imagined voices of unknown soldiers. Its simple rhyme suggests a children’s song, and Manhire matter-of-factly describes the naivety of young men going to, and dying at, war. Each stanza is on a single page as if he is saying honour this small voice:

Once I was small bones
in my mother’s body
just taking a nap.
Now my feet can’t find the sap.

In a recent interview, he said, “I’ve always thought poetry needs a bit of weirdness.” To enjoy these poems, you must be okay with ambiguity. Instead of a story, they have a tone to feel and experience. I read Some Things remembering that a few years ago, Manhire had surgery for cancer. There’s no easy line to draw between Some Things and his illness, but I feel it’s in these pages. It could even be in My World War I Poem, which is Manhire’s word play and understatement at its best. It’s just two lines of this tender and accomplished collection:

Inside each trench, the sound of prayer.
Inside each prayer, the sound of digging.

SOME THINGS TO PLACE IN A COFFIN, by Bill Manhire (Victoria University Press, $25)

This article was first published in the May 6, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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