Some Things to Place in a Coffin by Bill Manhire

(VUP, 2017)

Review by Jeremy Roberts

When I read Bill Manhire, I often think of the old (now defunct) idea of a poet being possessed by a kind of madness or fever, using the famous ‘disarrangement of the senses’ (yes – Rimbaud probably does have a lot to answer for) to create original work. This is because Manhire is so wonderfully, creatively ‘cuckoo’. For the reader, the interior monologue runs: Where did that idea come from? How did he get from that line to this one?

Ian Wedde once described Manhire’s method as ‘administering a series of mild shocks to the imagination’. This method is alive and well in Some Things to Place in a Coffin. Manhire remains quite a prankster, too. You can trust Manhire to do the unexpected.

The very first section of poems is titled How Memory Works, and includes the following annotation:

Come over here
we say to the days that disappear
No, over here

Straight away, the reader is in Manhire’s stock-standard universe of unease. In the personification poem “Waiting”, America and China wait for outcomes, as time flicks by. The names immediately suggest rivalry, industry, imperialism, war. Ultimately, ‘smoke rises slowly into the air. It is tired of waiting’. An enemy comes ‘limping out of a place that will not heal’ in “The Enemy”. “Poem in an Orchard” speaks of ‘this deep-inthe-earth despair’. In “Impersonating Mao”, unhappy Chen Yan dwells on the past, ‘stares at invisible things’.

Manhire tackles “The Beautiful World”, with 14 standalone, past-tense scenarios & aphorisms. There is provocation straight away, in #1:

You cannot reach the beautiful world
It is everywhere & nowhere
It thinks that we do not know, but we do

Beauty is far more elusive than is believed and, usually, we ‘cannot reach it’. Often, it is not in the form we expect. A factory worker tells us in #6:

The metal made an angry sound
each time you looked at it
But you had to look at it

In #10, there is a startling, original idea of ‘cold’ coming out of the earth, affecting people terribly, and it is even ‘in the wings of angels’. In #14, two lines out of three are written, but crossed out.

Known unto God is a section of poems commissioned for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. I don’t imagine too many Kiwi poets would dare to use humour, or employ such a light (but humane) touch, when referencing the horrors of war while honouring the dead, so serious are we now about how we pay tribute to the deceased of WW1. Manhire pulls it off.

The dead speak in these little poems – telling us what happened in battle, what life was like before the war, what ‘life’ is like now. One voice says:

My last letter home
turned out entirely pointless.
I wrote whizz-bang
a dozen times
to try and say the noises

The last thing heard by another ‘was all the guns going, you know, blankety-blankety-blank’. One soldier tells us:

(They) brought me home –
well, all of the visible bits of me.
Now people arrive at dawn and sing
And I have a new word: skateboarding

…referring to the youth of today making (peace-time) use of concrete at the local memorial. Manhire brings the dead back to life, by giving them opinions and personality, thereby avoiding limitations of the bleak ‘doomed soul’ approach. And so, they are with us — alive in memoriam. This is the genius of Manhire, let loose.

The middle section of the book has a further collection of meat-and-potatoes Manhire and, in every example, there is reason to pause, re-read, ponder, chuckle, relate to one’s own experience.

In “What Will Last”, Manhire addresses an interesting question, which seems more prescient the further we get away from the twentieth century. There’s an implied joke too, since Manhire currently seems assured of a place in future minds. He writes, ‘I don’t think the things we think will last will last, do you?’

The title poem of the book is written for his close friend Ralph Hotere. Significantly, there are no Māori words, apart from the name of a dog. The ‘things’ are mostly objects, with associations to Hotere, but there are also mannerisms – ‘A slowness. A suddenness. A concentrating grunt’.

In all these poems, what Baxter once referred to as a ‘landslide in the brain’ is consistently present. Sleep is ‘made of asterisks and cattle’. Then a rare and intriguing simile: ‘poetry falls from the crucifixion like a crumb’.

The last section of the book is called Falseweed — partly a word-play world set among a natural environment of fields, trees, and water, involving characters called leafcandle, Wintertwig, anchorwhite. There are journeys and departures, and many simple emotions. The opening lines are notable: ‘Poor Tanglebell, trying so hard to ring’. There are also sections that read like clear human memory, for example: ‘I saw how breeze in the chaingrass made the small chains sing’. Another line tells us: ‘When I was a child I thought as a child’. There are some very delicate lines, too: ‘oh pencilheart /oh smudge of lead’. You are invited to make of Falseweed what you will.

Many might think of Manhire as the epitome of academic poetry in this country but, ironically, he consistently uses remarkably plain, uncomplicated language — mostly devoid of metaphor, simile, and adjectives, to achieve his goals. There are sentences in fact, that you might hear in everyday life, such as: ‘In her dream she lived in a high apartment’, ‘The schoolbus is driving through the night’, and ‘The day is pleasant’. The trick — the gift he possesses — to suddenly ‘pull the floor away’ from the reader, is there on every page.

Some Things to Place in a Coffin is a richly rewarding book. It is funny, too, as the blurb says — reminding me at times of quirky David Lynch. Manhire has sent up yet another brilliant flare over the literary landscape of the ‘Dark, Shaky Isles’.