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Sport 4: Autumn 1990

Bill Manhire — The Poet's Wife

page 91

Bill Manhire

The Poet's Wife

The poet looks at the poet's wife and says: You are my best poem. Did I ever tell you that?

The poet's wife looks at the poet. And you are my best poet, she says.

Giving a little laugh. Thinking a little thought.

The point is this, he says.


Years ago, before the poet's wife was, strictly speaking, the poet's wife, she wrote a little poem. She was so sick of holding open refrigerator doors. She was so sick of it all.

dedum dedum dedum dedum
out where Kapiti lies
like a dark mummy on the horizon
forever unwrapping its bandages
into the future ...

She took it to the poet, who read it aloud in that special voice of his.

When I put in the bandages, she said, I was thinking of clouds.

The poet said: Would you like to move in with me and we could talk about books and stuff?


She is sick of his talk of Douglas Bader's legs. She thinks: Probably some people might be impressed. But I know better.


Would their life together be significantly better if the poet's book royalties were put towards an annual holiday? A holiday for them both.

No it would not be better.

Last year, the poet's royalties were $43.75.


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In fact, holidays aside, the poet has a job that brings in plenty of money. She has no idea what kind of job it is. It takes him out of the house each day, the way jobs do, and sometimes he wears walk-shorts.


The poet is working on his opera libretto, CARNAGE ON THE ROADS.

Don't hover! he says to his wife.

Am I hovering? says the poet's wife.

Yes, you are. Hovering.

Sorry, says the poet's wife.

It's just that it's extremely difficult with you hovering like that. I had something really good coming and I lost it.


He is actually a geography teacher and assistant careers adviser in a large North Auckland school. All he can do is warn.


The poet's wife reads a magazine at the hairdresser's. An article catches her eye: DANGEROUS LOVERS.

You could be looking for love in all the wrong faces. You could be ignoring the warning signs that you're romancing Mr Wrong.

I wonder, wonders the poet's wife, if he is a Don Juan or a Mother's Boy, an Obsessive Possessive or a Danger to Shipping? Or are poets different, like they say?


She watches a television documentary about lighthouse keepers. The loneliness. The isolation. The children taking correspondence courses. She tries to feel God in her muscles, but there is no sign of him.


The poet judges a poetry competition. He awards the $150.00 first prize to a poem about refrigerators written by an entrant with the pen name, Rumpelstiltskin. The poet receives a $500.00 judging fee. It is good the way everything is getting on to a proper professional basis he thinks. He spends his fee on personalised number plates. Now the number plates on his car say: POET 7.

Six other poets have had the number plate idea before him. They all live in Dunedin. The Dunedin school.

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The poet does not live in Dunedin. He lives in his imagination.


The poet's wife watches a television programme about two brave elderly stroke victims. One has lost the use of her left arm, one her right. They play the piano together, each using her one good arm. They are helping each other to turn adversity into harmony.


Reach for the Sky. Still one of the great titles. This is only the poet's opinion, but he thinks it is a good one.


In the newspaper she reads about a two-headed baby which has been born in Tehran. The baby's body is outwardly almost normal, except for a third short arm. Internally, it has two hearts and four lungs, a main stomach and a sub-stomach. Each head has its own neuro system. The baby's movements are not harmonious. While one head cries, the other may be sound asleep.


Well, wonders the poet's wife, AM I romancing Mr Wrong?


The poet's wife once had a job as a woman opening refrigerator doors. It was on television advertisements mostly, in the early days of television, though also some magazines, and sometimes there were trade displays, up on a stage, it was quite hard work actually, though it did take you round the country. This is how the poet first saw her — on television, opening a refrigerator door, in the days before colour.


The poet's wife hums and puts on the kettle. The poet is at a literary festival in Hamilton — reading his poems, and presenting the winning cheque to 'Rumpelstiltskin'. Soon he will be home again.

A small cloud on her horizon. What if 'Rumpelstiltskin' turns out to be a woman and not a grotesque little man? What if 'Rumpelstiltskin' is ... beautiful?


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The telephone rings. It is a journalist who is writing an article on poet's wives — from the angle of the wife, of course. He has come to feel a lot of sympathy for poets' wives in the course of his researches. He wonders if they can set up an interview?

How do you mean, says the poet's wife.

Just talk and that, says the journalist. He has a soft Irish brogue.

Will I or won't I? thinks the poet's wife.


He writes: 'There's a tree, one of many, of many one. ..' Then scores out the line with a practised scoring movement.


He reads Osip Mandelstam. In his sleep he cries: Nadezda!


She looks out of the window. Grey day. The grey before rain, the grey after rain.

The whole garden seems to sag, like a hammock sunk in the earth, slung between two stumpy lemon trees. Neither of them exactly covered with fruit.

A simile, thinks the poet's wife.

She claps her hands in excitement. A simile!


He tells the pretty girl that he likes to rescue words — take them by the arm and lead them to some unlikely place, where they tend to look more interesting.

How do you mean? says 'Rumpelstiltskin'.

Like putting a boy from Dunedin on the streets of New York, says the poet, in a voice which indicates this is his final word on the matter.


Riff-raff: he cannot get the word out of his head. Dunedin riff-raff. He looks it up in the OED. Persons of a disreputable character or belonging to the lowest class of a community. Persons of no importance or social position. Unlearned rifraffe, nobodie. There were a good many riff-raff in the upper gallery. The riffe-raffe of the scribbling rascality. The Rabble or Scum of the People, Tagrag and Long-tail. A collection of worthless persons. Odds and ends. Trumpery; trash; rubbish. A hurly-burly, a page 95 racket, a rude piece of verse.

Ah, thinks the poet, there is the title of my next book.


He has become interested in Douglas Bader's legs because Douglas Bader's widow wants to sell one of them. It says so in the newspaper.


One day the poet's wife writes a poem:

Out where Soames Island
like a dark tape recorder
          endlessly unwinds its reels
               into the unrecorded storm

Stepping the lines down like that. Covering several pages.


The poet reads one of his recent poems in the foyer of the Founders Theatre in Hamilton:

Out where Rangitoto lies
like a dark breast
forever bearing its nipple
to the insatiable city . . .

The applause, he guesses, is somewhere between perfunctory and reluctant. He catches Rumpelstiltskin's eye. Ah! Would it he fair to call that an adoring gaze?


I hope he is not a TRAVELLING MAN, thinks the poet's wife.

Away from home a married man becomes a travelling man. He can take off his wedding ring. A salesman can become a company president, a company president can become a poet, a poet can become an All Black. The warning signal is seen through fog. By falling for this fellow, you are seduced by a phantom: he is no longer visible when he leaves town.

The Travelling Man can be a particularly Dangerous Lover.


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Toynbee. The poet is on fire for her. Toynbee is Rumpelstiltskin's real name. The poet's lines flame with her being. She is the match which sets imagination alight.

He starts a little poem:

Here she comes, with her
Douglas Bader eyes,
scanning the clouds
& wild enemy skies.

But he will probably throw it away. Something tiresome about the rhyme.


Why only one, anyway? What has happened to the other leg? Is it lost? Is she hanging on to it for some reason? These are the sort of questions which pass through the poet's head.


The poet leaves his wife and goes to live with Toynbee. A big decision, but he makes it. He writes romantic passages about clouds and a few somewhat bitter lines about his wife. None of it much good. All I can do is warn, he thinks. All I can do is warn.


The poet's wife joins a support group for poet's wives. There are hundreds of members in the larger organisation, with branch offices all over the country.


She meets a woman who is now married to a stockbroker. And then there is another woman who goes around with a man who owns a whole chain of boutiques in the South Island. Her mind drifts off on the cloudy winds of envy ...

Begorrah! (She has just remembered the Irish journalist.)


The poet receives an invitation to a writers festival in Dunedin. All expenses paid. Just after the August holidays.


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'Throw your heart over the bar, and your body will follow.'

The poet's wife reads this in a book. Because she is the kind of person who fumes and frets a lot, she keeps turning to a chapter called 'Stop Fuming and Fretting'. It tells her that she needs the peace of God in her muscles, in her joints. Then she will stop fuming and fretting.

The book says: Speak to your muscles every day and to your joints and to your nerves, saying: 'Fret not thyself' (Psalm xxxviii. i.) Think of each important muscle from head to feet, and say to each: 'The peace of God is touching you.'


The point is this, the poet says to her on the telephone.

But then he says nothing.


That wasn't you in those refrigerator ads, was it? says the journalist. Back in the 60s when television was just starting up? I was straight off the boat. By God, you were the first good thing I saw.


The journalist moves in with the poet's wife. The first good thing I saw. His word processor comes with him. Several nights a week they go to the pub. One day the journalist writes a poem:

Dedum dedum dedum dedum
Out where Stewart Island lies
like an old refrigerator
opening and opening its door
upon the vastness of Antarctica ...

He looks her straight in the eye. So there you are then, he says. You are still a poet's wife.


The poet travels to Dunedin. He steps up to the podium — his eye in a fine frenzy rolling. I am the prince of clouds, he thinks, I ride out the tempest and laugh at the archer. He thinks: The Burns Fellowship. He thinks: Riff-raff. He thinks: All I can do is warn.


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They make love, a strenuous bout.

Afterwards, the poet's wife draws a rectangle; in it she draws two lines which intersect to form a cross. Guess what it is, she says.

A window? says the journalist.


A parcel?


What, then?

A short story, she says. With a trick ending.


The poet's wife sits at the word processor. Her fingers fly over the keys. Now what is that? A simile? Of course not. Perhaps a cliché? Or — an image of transcendence?


The poet explains how he used to be fascinated by the idea of a poop deck — the phrase itself seemed naughty. He imagined a deck covered in ... well, not to put too fine a point on it ... poop. But looking back ... looking back, he can see the first stirrings of the poet there. That interest in language — the young boy sniggering in the playground — in love with the sea, in love with his native tongue ...

Stop me, he says, if this is boring you. Or if it isn't the sort of thing you want.

No, says the Landfall interviewer. No not at all. She smiles behind her hand.


The journalist stands on the roof of the house. For a while he stares down at the garden: one rhododendron, two lemon trees. Other houses in the distance. Is he going to jump? Of course not. He is going to fall. My beautiful one! he cries. My icebox girl! My mistress of the lonely voice ...