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Wow by Bill Manhire

For the benefit of the world beyond New Zealand shores, I need to say a little bit about Bill Manhire. Not that he is exclusive to New Zealand, since his poetry is published by Carcanet Press in the UK and recently appeared in Granta. He was our inaugural Poet Laureate, from 1997-99.

(In the UK you get to hold the post of Poet Laureate for a lifetime and their list contains some very famous names starting with John Dryden in 1668, later Wordsworth, Tennyson, John Betjeman, Ted Hughes, Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy. They’ve had 21 since 1668, but in New Zealand you only get two years, so we have already had twelve since we started in 1997. Almost half of those have been women.)

Bill Manhire is a teacher at the University of Victoria in Wellington, where he is also director of the International Institute of Modern Letters. He has been responsible for turning out fine writers from his Masters programme, who now, like my own tutor, Catherine Chidgey, are teaching a new generation of writers their trade.

I had the pleasure of watching Bill talk about Wow on the day it was launched in New Zealand – at the Word Festival in Christchurch in November. Listening to him talk about some of the poems gives a little extra insight into what is going on around and behind them. I don’t think that it matters if we do not know these things, but they can give us interesting information about the genesis of the work.

I should say that Bill is a Southern Man. In New Zealand the rugged South Island is our largest landmass, but is home to only a quarter of the population. There is a dying myth of the great southern man; rugged, stoic, hard-working, often farming men of few words or sentiments, but as tough and hard as the rocks in our Southern Alps. From this tradition came some of our hardest rugby players, one of whom was Colin Meads. The poem called “He loved her lemonade scones” was inspired by a comment about how Meads met his wife, when he was both farmer and rugby player. Here is the poem in full:

They fell in love between the end of the footy season

and the start of shearing. Sheep grazed, bewildered.

The paddocks stretched up into the hills,

mostly scrub and a few old stands of bush.

‘Now listen here,’ he said, and that was it really.

At his talk in Christchurch, Bill described this as “Courtship, King Country style.”

Bill’s parents were from Scotland and ran a pub in the southern city of Dunedin. He remembers in the area called St Kilda an old fella that lived in a shed in someone’s garden who would come into the pub and the barman would make him hold up his arms so the barman could spray him with something that smelt better than he did. Then the man would buy a drink. Bill learned a lot, listening to those old men talk and talk.

Bill said a little about the division of the book into three sections; the first slants towards the environmental, the second has more amusing pieces, while the third tackles aging and what the world may have in store for the old. Although the central section does have plenty of humour, I also think that there is plenty of depth in there too, taking you beyond just the words on the page. In ‘Breakfast’ for example, there is so much to think about. Who, why, what did he do? So much more left out than is put into the poem. Here is the entire poem:

I had no trouble with anything

till he started making the toast.

My own favourite is the poem called ‘Huia’. A huia was native New Zealand bird that is now extinct and can only be seen stuffed in museum collections. Humans have hunted it to extinction. A crow-sized black bird with a long tail and white tips to its tail feathers. Those feathers were highly prized by Māori, and were often worn in the hair by rangatira, the chiefs and leaders, rather like the tail feather of the Bald Eagle. An ancient status symbol, it has been reduced to only being seen on our stamps and coins. Here is the whole poem:

I was the first bird to sing

I sang to signal rain

the one I loved was singing

and singing once again

My wings were made of sunlight

my tail was made of frost

my song was now a warning

and now a song of love

I sang upon a postage stamp

I sang upon your coins

but money courted beauty

you could not see the joins

Where are you when you vanish?

Where are you when you’re found?

I’m made of greed and anguish

a feather on the ground


I lived among you once

and now I can’t be found

I’m made of things that vanish

a feather on the ground

So haunting and evocative. You can hear the call of the huia, which is talked about in many myths and stories and which once someone said they were able to mimic. The last conformed sighting of a huia was in 1907.

And finally one more that I love – called “The Deerculler’s Wife”. The problems of the poet – I particularly like the line “and turning words off at the wall does nothing”. This is another gem of a poem and well worth dwelling on, for the rich depth of meaning.

The deerculler’s wife mentions whitebait again

but even so this poem isn’t working

the hart still loves the high wood

which is mostly gone or maybe elsewhere

and turning words off at the wall does nothing

and this other poem I have just started

well it is probably drowning too but as it goes

it makes a lot of noise it yells and lows

and yells and lows and lowers its antlers

it has a yellow whistle to attract attention

Published by Victoria University Press, RRP $25

Reviewed by Marcus Hobson


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