Take back your heart,
that tattooed star. Take back
take back: your this and that, your pale guitar.
Only my harmonica
knows who you are.
Take back the light on the water;
also the body, scar after scar.
There is a list of things -- the words
you might have said, etcetera --
long bridge and sky,
the single car,
each syllable and step, particular,
the near and far --
and oh, take back the traveller.
I have this paper music.
I have what remains.
I have what is muscular.
Light in your eyes, beloved,
like air in a mirror. Take back.
Take back. The bride is leaving America.
Only my harmonica
Knows who you are.
Bill Manhire was NZ's inaugural Poet Laureate, and has received the Prime Minister's Award for Poetry. He directs the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington and has produced a number of collections of poetry.
Bill Manhire has been regarded for some time here as a cool, ironic poet. He confesses to putting up 'lyrical foliage' when he writes - preferring privacy - but it is clear that the past two poetry collections have shifted into a warmer, more personal clearing. 'A man in a boat/rowing across the last half mile of twilight' is a line in one of the most moving poems ever about the death of a friend and about being a New Zealander. It is called Opoutere.
Bill likes to take readers to that place where he believes poetry finds its true voice - not in the places we used to find it amongst lofty language and themes - but rather in the directness of music or casual conversation or a sign on the door of a hotel. Even at the very point where language peters out ...
The word 'etcetera' can make an appearance in Bill's poems and so do words like 'la la la'. He's not averse to rhyme, and there are often echoes of skipping rhymes, drinking songs and lullabies. Some of the poems in his latest collection The Victims of Lightning [VUP], where Nuptials can be found, are collaborations with composer Norman Meehan.
Bill's poetry has been called 'the anti-lyric lyric' and yet the truth is the banal is rendered significant (or at least provocative) - and sometimes moving and beautiful - because Bill hooks it and plays with it as one would a fish on a line: pulling it in, letting it out, pulling it in, until there it is on the deck beside you: brilliant and flapping. Or dead - with a mischievous look in its eye.
There are exquisite images in his poems - look at that 'tattooed star' of a heart, and up against Opoutere there is a ladder that 'longs to be lifted'. And yes, there are hearts in his poems, more than you'd think, and often guitars, and moons and wrists and children ... always have been.
Thirty years ago, Bill was my tutor in one of his early under-grad creative writing classes. I will never forget a poem he published back then called Declining the Naked Horse. It made us laugh, we who lived in cold Aro St flats and debated oxymorons and knew our Coleridge from our Plath. We repeated Bill's poem in the Student Union cafe over hotdogs and chips. Was this a poem? Really? Really?
My friends studying law and medicine thought not - dismissed it as fakery: an equine Emperor's new clothes. Those of us who tapped away on typewriters composing imagistic confessional things in the middle of the night, went off excited and tried to write something like it. We failed of course. Who could beat a naked horse coming into the room?
Mary McCallum is this week's Tuesday Poem editor. She is a NZ novelist, poet, creative writing teacher and bookseller. She completed her novel The Blue at the International Institute of Modern Letters where Bill Manhire is the director. She has doubled-posted Bill Manhire's Nuptials this week on her blog O Audacious Book. Do check out some of the other Tuesday Poets in the live blog roll.