Poetry Review: Selected Poems

By Paula Green

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Book cover of Selected Poems. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Selected Poems. Photo / Supplied

To mark the end of Bill Manhire's directorship of the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University Press have released his new Selected Poems, about a decade after his previous collected works.

This is the most gorgeous book of poetry I have held in a long time: hardback, beautiful paper stock, an internal design that allows the poems breathing space, a font that doesn't distract and Ralph Hotere's elegant drawing of Manhire on the cover.

Manhire is one of the standout poets of his generation - not beholden to trends, a prodigious reader of the poetry of others, with an ear attuned to the wide stretch of the world we inhabit. The poetic result is irresistible.

The selection of 104 poems takes you from Manhire's youthful love of words and life to his most recent engagement with similar things.

Several things have accompanied him in this poetic passage: mysteriousness, musicality, offbeat humour, surprise, gracefulness, graciousness and heart.

How these elements work their way into his poems has changed a little over time, but they have stuck.

The musicality of the poems catches the reader first. It is as though the words are a score with infectious rhythms and harmonies always linked to the everyday, which also mimic the way music works its magic beyond words. His words tap their meaning upon your tingling skin.

In the early poems, you find a bare bones kind of music that makes sweet echoes. So in Love Poem (the first in the book), you fall upon "bends", then in the next line "quietens", or "tongue" and in the same line "song".

In 1950s, a poem in Manhire's most recent collection, the musical choices transform a list of mundane things into things that exude poetry. As the poetic magic kicks in, you absorb the music, the nostalgic flare, the autobiographical narrative, the childhood roller coaster:

"The Famous Five. The Secret Seven.

Tarzan of the Apes. My idea of Heaven.

The empty sky. Haere mai.

My View-Master. Sticking plaster.

My Go outside and play. My Anzac Day."

In Erebus Voices, it is a music that profoundly moves you. Manhire has adopted the voice of the mountain followed by the voice of the dead. The mountain's couplets are linked by the simplest of rhymes and the dead by simple repetition - as though this is no occasion for musical cunning.

"I am here beside my brother, Terror.

I am the place of human error."

The second thing that captures is the way the poems are saturated in love. Manhire withholds much - his private life, his domestic life - but intimate details glitter like shards, frequently caught in the mystery and the questions (I love his new The Question Poem).

The arrival of children coincides with the arrival of crayons. The Caravan is not simply transcribing domestic life. There are family details (photographs, conversations, singing), but then the poem tilts into the gaps of mystery and what the poet holds back: "Now/ the words are largely lost in song, and song is lost/ inside the children."

There are so many poems to love in this book - poems that favour found language, anecdote, dialogue, story, other characters as well as the music, mystery and ever-present love. Manhire has written a handful of remarkable poems that can stand as flagship poems of our times. The extraordinary Hotel Emergencies is one such example.

One quibble - it would be useful to have the dates of his books along with the titles in the contents page.

It is a joy to read a Manhire poem. You need to linger and let the words wash through you as you accumulate intricate and subtle delights. If Manhire's poems are discoveries in the writing, they are discoveries in the reading. If you have never bought a book of poetry make this your first. Selected Poems is significant, and utterly satisfying.

Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.

- NZ Herald

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