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Bill Manhire. Collected Poems.

Manchester, England. Carcanet (Paul & Co., distr.). 2001. 303 pages. 12.95 [pounds sterling] ISBN 1-85754-537-0

THE PUBLISHERS EXAGGERATE Bill Manhire's place in the past and present of New Zealand poetry, but in consequence offer a selection of his work ample enough to show the development of his verse and its strengths and weaknesses. Manhire's early work was a transformation of lyric poetry using a sequence of grammatically orthodox but not necessarily semiotically meaningful statements, moving from one image to a quite different one. The best poems are singingly simple, clear, and rhythmic with an inclination toward final line stress. The poems appear to evoke moods and feelings such as displacement and solitariness, yet these are probably illusions produced by a writing technique which draws upon semiotic poetry without its elan but even more upon surrealism's tendency toward the fragmentary.

Within a few years Manhire was combining his earlier approach with a move to greater coherence and sometimes longer poems. A poem from this period, "Phar Lap" (a kiwi racehorse with a Thai name) gives an indication of underlying attitudes. That racing means business, even the Mafia, stirs no satire in Manhire but something like celebration complete with mild puns and jokes. Still, the final lines linger in the memory: "hear a woman sing / in another language // from the far side of Phar Lap's ribcage."

By the end of last century Manhire had become well established and effectively a pen for hire. Appointed the first "Poet Laureate" of New Zealand (a P.R. gimmick by a wine company), he produced a corporate-funded volume that shows signs of growing stress and effort. Many poems lack the energy and drive of the earlier ones, and the shying away from serious ideas or emotions becomes very apparent. The (commissioned) villanelle well nigh symbolizes the drift from the confidence of earlier poetry. In 1998 Manhire flew to Antarctica as a member of an Artists to Antarctica program. The best poem in the resultant collection, "Hoosh," was written long before the event. The rest ignore Wordsworth's advice on the need for a gap between experiencing and writing. Despite some fine lines and images, there is disappointingly little that is fresh or insightful or even notably vivid. The final piece in Collected Poems is public poetry and fails to evade the triteness implicit in that mode. Commissioned by a newspaper for its millennium edition, "The Next Thousand" presents a view of unchanging history from which hope, idealism, and creative effort at social and cultural change all are dismissed.

Manhire has a gift for turning poems in translation into genuinely contemporary verse, most notably in his versions from the Anglo-Saxon:
 Wulf, Wulf

 it is not
 at all hunger shaking my limbs
 but that you do not journey

 absent & yet
 you fill me

Elsewhere he turns three commissioned translations of Pushkin into very readable versions of more conventional modernism.

It's difficult to say whether any of the three-line poems in this volume are intended to be haiku, since Manhire has never quite grasped the essence of that genre. Unsurprisingly, he too sometimes finds it hard to distinguish successful poems from those less so. What is surprising is that so many of the latter should be included here along with very slight verse. Nevertheless, Collected Poems is an enjoyable retrospective selection by a writer who at his best is a master craftsman.
Bernard Gadd
Papatoetoe, N.Z.
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Author:Gadd, Bernard
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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