Sue Orr reviews the work of poet Bill Manhire, a sprawling effort covering themes as diverse as animal rights and personal identity.
It’s a thing writers often do, when they get a new book by a fellow author. They flick to the dedication page, curious for the identity of the wing-person who endured years (probably) of ego-propping and reads of early drafts.
It’s also where the gossip is. In the case of one poet – not Bill Manhire – the dedicatee was simply the first name of a woman. The poet had reportedly been cavorting with several women of that name. Presumably, each of them was chuffed at the personal mention.
The dedication page of Manhire’s latest book, The Stories of Bill Manhire, tells its own little love story. Manhire, who turns 70 next year, gifts this handsome collection to his four young grandchildren: Isabel, William, Alexander and Tessa.
The sleeping baby on the cover, by Peter Campbell, affirms the association with regeneration, the cycle of life. We’re being invited, then, to see the book as both collected works and something fresh and new. It’s an intriguing proposal, given all but two of the stories have been published before. It gathers the contents of the 1990 book The New Land: A Picture Book (later expanded as South Pacific) and 1996’s Songs of My Life. The Brain of Katherine Mansfield, first published in 1988, and the 2003 essay Under The Influence are here too. There are just two unpublished stories – ‘The Ghost Who Talks’ and ‘The Death of Robert Louis Stevenson’.
Yet new it feels. Bigger than the sum of its parts, but something much more than that. There’s alchemy at work here; a fiery energy in the spaces between stories. The volume delivers a sassy one-finger salute to any concern about staleness in re-issued fiction.
For many, this work will in fact be brand new. Manhire’s poetry is internationally-acclaimed; these stories – most now more than 20 years old – less widely known. Those coming to them for the first time will smile at a New Zealand steeped in nostalgia; ersatz Rotorua souvenirs, board games both traditional (‘South Pacific’) and literary (‘The Brain of Katherine Mansfield’).
But it would not pay for any reader – new or revisiting – to settle into the comfort of warm, fuzzy reminiscence. As Maurice Gee said when he launched The New Land back in 1990, the stories have ‘deep holes that you can fall into’. Perhaps those holes are the source of the energy; in many of the tales, the hole is a wondrous, infinite abyss.
In ‘Highlights’ – a collection highlight – Robert has taken his elderly mother on a vacation to Rotorua. They tour the sights, Robert passively tolerating his mother’s delight at underwhelming activities. Manhire here creates subtle connections between the very old and the very young; the reader cannot help but associate the supervision of the elderly woman with dutiful child-minding. Then comes a simple, shocking moment that leaves the reader on the wrong side of the precipice. ‘I never liked the way your father put his tongue in my ear.’ Mother is staring at postcards of nude boys when she says this. Manhire doesn’t dwell in the moment – the road-show must go on – but the reader’s sensibilities about age and sexuality are blurred, stirred, muddied.
Other ideas are unsettled throughout the collection. Manhire exploits, brilliantly, the cruel tension between human love for animals as pets and as food in ‘Ponies,’ framing the story with a human-packhorse of a narrator. Notions of voice and identity are contorted physically and metaphorically in the terrifying ‘Ventriloquial’, which ends in a deep hole of bawdy chaos.
We might wonder then, in 2015, what we have missed out on fiction-wise, as a result of the author’s decision to focus on poetry for much of his writing life. The clues are to be found in the two new stories, ‘The Death of Robert Louis Stevenson’ and ‘The Ghost Who Talks’.
Both are infused with a dazzling dry humour borne out of wordplay and a willingness to laugh at, and with, the literary milieu. ‘The Ghost Who Talks’ takes up the cause of the neglected ghost character, the literary term for a character serving no purpose in a text. Manhire’s ghost character is ‘prepared to work in first person or third person… to pass by or just loiter.’ It will even consider e-books, ‘but in the meantime Bill says he will see me right. God bless him, and all the other poets.’ It’s impossible to read this without laughing; impossible, too, to miss the laconic style for which Manhire’s poetry is also known and admired.
‘The Death of Robert Louis Stevenson’ imagines Stevenson’s last days in Samoa. The narrative is interrupted with hilarious snatches of overheard conversations between tourists visiting the Stevenson museum, but the real humour lies in the characterisation of Henry Simile, Stevenson’s hired help. Who could resist having fun with such a surname? Manhire revels in it.
Isabel, William, Alexander and Tessa will each, in time, read these stories for themselves. I imagine them chuckling over the differences between similes and metaphors and the plight of ghost characters. When they’re ready for true family stories, there’s the intimate, generous memoir ‘Under the Influence’ to turn to at the back of the book. In the meantime, each should proudly claim to be the sleeping baby on the cover.
The Stories of Bill Manhire (Victoria University Press) launches Thursday 12th November at Unity Books.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.