Wow

WOW
Bill Manhire
Victoria University Press

REVIEWED BY KIRSTIE MCKINNON

American writer Anne Lamott in her book Stitches, proposes the radical idea that we never really get over what we have lost. I find this oddly comforting, as if there is no rule about just-getting-over-it. We are free to be, and free to make music, paint butterflies or construct birds from our pain.

Bill Manhire’s book Wow has sat uncomfortably in my consciousness for some months now. I felt the loss in the work, and shied away from it, not wanting to sink too deep into that subterranean river. I have realised now that grief is where much music comes from.

Lately I have found myself needing to listen to Bach, because the low river can be heard under the surface, the sound feels whole. And of course Manhire understood this, and tried to tell me, but I had somehow skimmed over these lines, until my third reading:

‘‘all songs being made
as we know from things that hurt’’

Manhire’s book of riddles Tell Me My Name stunned me in its rhythmic beauty. The same precise attention to rhythm and sound is here in Wow. I read the bell-like lines, straining to hear the sounds of extinct birds. I kept wondering, is this Manhire’s intention, or am I reading it wrong? Am I listening too hard? Is that the point?

From ‘‘Warm Ocean’’:
‘‘. . . he runs
into the forest same old forest
followed by all our women
chirping and cheeping and chasing
off once again to hide among the birds’’
From ‘‘Someone Was Burning the Forest’’:
‘‘...The towers were dissolving
yet surely there were trees ..."

From ‘‘The Lazy Poet’’:
‘‘He remembers how once upon a time he wept & roared\
and wept & roared
like some bewildered sailor washed ashore...’’

Wow contains riddles and jokes, and pain in quips. The work rewards a first, second, third, fourth reading. It's complex, lavish and spare.

Kirstie McKinnon is an East Coast Otago poet

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