Some Things to Place in a Coffin
Victoria University Press, $25 pb, 95 pp, 9781776561056
Poetry books that focus on memory, recuperation, and loss are common, but it is rare to find poems that speak about such matters as sparely and eloquently as these do. Bill Manhire’s new poems are bony and sinewy, resonating with an awareness of public and personal grief. Although these works often speak by indirection, many of them pack a real punch. As Manhire probes the awkwardness of memory and recall, he also reflects on knowledge’s elusiveness.
There is a strong sense of the provisional throughout this book, and of words that gesture at issues they are unable to fully encompass. The poems are sometimes opaque, as if Manhire does not wish to completely yield up his meanings. Many of them also occupy the suspended place where human beings try to imagine and memorialise the dead – moving the reader towards the unimaginable and the irredeemable.
The opening poem, ‘Waiting’ sets the scene: ‘The window waits for light. / The path to the river waits / for twigs and stones and feet.’ The reader immediately understands that there are unresolved issues and significant indeterminacies afoot. ‘Poem in an Orchard’ develops these themes while introducing a more sombre note, evoking someone who topples ‘out of our quiet conversation / into the lower-level light, / out of family and creation / into what we have come to call the insect night’.