Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tuesday Poem: 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 - where I completed my novel The Blue - and has produced a number of collections of poetry.

Bill has been regarded for some time 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 being a New Zealander. It's 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 Bill 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.

Click on the quill for more Tuesday Poems. Bill is 'double-posted' on the TP hub this week but there are stacks more poems in the live blog roll in the Tuesday Poem sidebar.
 Tuesday Poem


S.L. Corsua said...

It's an aural experience to remember. Even when the content speaks of separation, the musicality of his lines dares me not to grin happily (I give in, I give in).

Thanks for sharing this, Mary. It's a gem.

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued - usually such a flurry of comments - but this is Bill's poetry and are we afraid to be seen to be "sucking up" to the creative master/guru, or what? It's such a cool poem and Mary's write-up about the declining Horse is so good - the whole idea about "what makes good poetry". But Bill is sort of right up there - so silence. And then this lovely note from the Phillipines - which is a pretty good example of how good poetry transcends these sort of things - (I give in, I give in) - such a good response, don't you think.

Rachel Fenton said...

Now that Anonymous has commented I wonder do I look like I am sucking up or that I look like I am worried to be perceived as trying too hard to look like I am not sucking up by inadvertently sucking up?

I like the peom very much - only just discovered Bill's poetry and am blissfully ignorant of any criticism - against or upwardly sucking - of it.

Thanks for posting this!

I had a wonderful creative writing tutor, too, but he died and I cannot mention him for fear of looking like I am using his name without his say so to further myself but he said encouraging and memorable lovely things about my writing and it makes a huge difference to a scrap of a scribbler with the torn corner of a paper dream. You were/are lucky, Mary.

Rachel Fenton said...

I like the poem, too! Lol.

S.L. Corsua said...

I'm also intrigued, but not by the perceived lack of a "flurry of comments" regarding Bill Manhire's poem because the comments appear in the Tuesday Poem site where said poem is currently featured. I'm intrigued by what "sort of things" Anonymous refers to in the statement "And then this lovely note from the Phillipines - which is a pretty good example of how good poetry transcends these sort of things."

Mary McCallum said...

Thank you S.L. - I love your reactions to poetry, they are so physical and often aural. Do you play an instrument yourself? And you are right the complex sadness of the separation pulls against the musicality of the piece - and against the banality of some of the language, too. The tension works doesn't it? It's even shown in the poem's shape on the page. [By the way - apparently this poem has been put to music just recently and will be performed in September! just heard this).

Regarding the comment by Anonymous - I think 'these sorts of things' means the politics of NZ writing where some writers are seen to be beyond reproach - or praise, even. That perhaps NZers don't praise our leading poets because it smacks of the commentator trying to get onside with the famous poet .... I guess both these things are possible. I do know it is hard to criticise the work of fellow writers here because we are such a small country and are bound to know the person in one capacity or another - causing problems all round. At the same time, I don't know where trenchant criticism takes you. I prefer to accentuate the positive instead and review the writers I like...

Sorry you got all tied up in knots, Rachel, working out which side you were on. And great that you decided not to care and came out with it. In the end, that's what Anon was saying - how wonderful it was that you S.L. just came out and candidly said what you said.

Oh I love that comment Rachel re being a 'scrap of a scribbler'! You're right good writing tutors are like gold to the writer...

Mary McCallum said...

Anon - meant to say, S.L. is right - the bulk of the comments are over on the main Tuesday Poem blog - www.tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com do check them out, there's a lot of excitement about the poem there especially among the US poets. Just a few loyal Audacious Book followers have commented here... Thank you, Anon, for your comment re. the Naked Horse and for enjoying Nuptials so much.

S.L. Corsua said...

So gracious of you, Mary, to provide a clarification. Regarding whether or not I play an instrument: yes, the piano. And I used to sing soprano in several choirs. Hence, my strong affinity for music. In the early days of my poetry writing, when I had a lot of questions, someone told me that "poetry is the sister of song." That was a definitive, liberating moment for me, when poetry "clicked" in my mind and I began trusting my ear, the same way I did when checking pitch and harmony. So imagine my glee when I read Bill Manhire's poem and your account re: his style and musical background.


The Paradoxical Cat said...

Just catching up with some blog reading and had a look at these comments. I understand where "anonymous" was coming from.

Ive also been disappointed to notice a luke warm response from the TP hub, to certain of our own heavyweight poets. Is it intimidation? Or envy?

BTW I commented on the actual Tuesday Poem blog post, and also responded on facebook, so the lack of comments here doesn't mean there was a poor initial response to Bill's poem at all.