Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nuptials by Bill Manhire

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?

Nuptials is published here with the permission of Bill Manhire. More of his poems here.

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. 


Kay Cooke said...

Thanks for the Bill Manhire poem Mary - as always with a Manhire poem, it is an enjoyable engagement with language.
Thanks too for your accompanying comments - also enjoyable and enlightening.

Mim said...

Has this poem been set to music, Mary? I hear it as song lyrics.

(Thanks for stepping in.)

The Paradoxical Cat said...

We are all lifted by Bill Manhire's wonderful poetry. Thanks for posting this.

Harvey Molloy said...

Great poem. It's so simple but I also hear echoes and voices. 'Take this take that' reminds me of Plath and the two voices and the simple vocabulary reminds me of Old English poetry. I find it oddly disquieting, intriguing, as if a dream had been translated into English, as if something was owed, or a dowry not given, or something forgotten. It starts me thinking of other poems, it takes me somewhere else.

melissashook said...

I like Declining the Naked Horse and I'm sorry all of you stopped it from coming in the room...

susan t. landry said...

thank you, mary--it is such thrill to discover these new-to-me poets. this poem is a knockout; as is The Naked Horse...

Mary McCallum said...

Mim - while some of Bill's poems in this collection were written expressly to be set to music, this one wasn't. However, Bill leans naturally towards music for the language and cadence of his poetry, and much of it would work well put to music.

Harvey - interesting thoughts on the tone of the poem, thank you. Disquiet and intrigue - yes - that often surfaces in Bill's poetry I feel. I like the thought of a dowry not paid...

Thank you everyone else for your comments. Marvellous to be able to send Bill over to American poets to read. We know him so well over here.

Claire Beynon said...

Thanks, Mary - as you say, 'we know him so well here.' I very much enjoyed hearing Bill read his Antarctica poems in Chch two years ago...

The commentaries that accompany your poems are always rich pickings, too. You take such care, show such dedication.

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Claire - yes, I very much like the Antarctica poems - and thanks for your comment re. the commentaries. I enjoy writing them.

By the way, Mim - guess what - Bill has emailed me to say that as a piece of serendipity - composer Norman Meehan has in fact set Nuptials to music and it will be performed as part of a concert at Te Papa's Sounding's Theatre (Wellington) in late September - you should get over for it! - it;s part of Writers on Mondays: http://www.victoria.ac.nz/modernletters/about/events/writers-mondays.aspx

Enchanted Oak said...

The Naked Horse poem reminds me of asking an English prof in college to identify the tense in "You would have had to have been there."

I'm with those who find something amiss in the picture painted by Nuptials. Don't know what it is, but the poem is eerie for it. Lovely.

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