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Sport 42: 2014

Mark Williams — ‘When You’re Dead You Go on Television’

page 149

Mark Williams

‘When You’re Dead You Go on Television’

Sex, Death and Household Objects in Some New Zealand Poetry

My father likes to describe himself as an atheist who loves church music. In my childhood, though, he was one of those, who, as Nathaniel Hawthorne observed of Herman Melville, could ‘neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief’.1 So I was exposed to the ‘whole octave’ of Christianity, from the Christadelphians, my father’s childhood religion, through, experimentally, the Presbyterians and Anglicans to my mother’s former faith, Catholicism.2 I heard exhortations in the Christadelphian hall on the Resurrection of the Dead, which would come after the Last Days, the Apocalypse and the second coming of Christ. I listened as the Christian Brothers delivered their version of the Hell-fire sermon that terrifies Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where every sense will be so exquisitely refined that the torments of the dead will be more intense than we might humanly imagine.

It’s difficult to believe in an afterlife of any description, but fifty years after my parents traded apocalyptic exhortations in a mean hall in Khyber Pass Road for the wicked glamour of St Patrick’s Cathedral, I find that I respect the outrageousness of the Christadelphian faith in a physical and earthly afterlife.3 Of course, our bodies are not going to be reanimated by a cyronicist Christ, but the prospect is no more unlikely than that of eternal spiritual existence, and decidedly more enticing. Moreover, the theme of resurrection often finds habitation in art and literature that I love, like Stanley Spencer’s vision of villagers rising from the grave in his 1945 painting ‘The Resurrection: Tidying’.

With a touching ordinariness Spencer conveys the continuity of these newly-raised citizens with their previous, mortal lives, their lack of amazement at finding themselves again bodily as they embrace, chat, or comb each other’s hair. And there is an alcove in St Eustache, page 150
‘The Resurrection: Tidying’ 1945, Stanley Spencer, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm (Birmingham Museum Trust/The Estate of Stanley Spencer/ Bridgeman Art Library)

‘The Resurrection: Tidying’ 1945, Stanley Spencer, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm (Birmingham Museum Trust/The Estate of Stanley Spencer/ Bridgeman Art Library)

a church in Paris that commemorates the now vanished life of the markets in the old Les Halles area. It contains a 1990 triptych by Keith Haring, ‘The Life of Christ’, which beautifully adds to the religious art in a church that celebrates working life and the flesh in all its forms: human, animal, vegetable, living and dead. In this work by a gay painter dying of AIDS there are apocalyptic references to the disease that would soon kill him, but also signs of that optimistic and redemptive view of the human body that marks his work, a radiant baby enclosed by arms and a resurrection scene.
The theme is also found in D.H. Lawrence’s eccentrically lovely short novel ‘The Man Who Died’, where Jesus comes back from the tomb and, as Lawrence puts it, ‘begins to find what an astonishing page 151
‘The Life of Christ’ 1990, Keith Haring (Saint-Eustache, Paris; © The Keith Haring Foundation)

‘The Life of Christ’ 1990, Keith Haring (Saint-Eustache, Paris; © The Keith Haring Foundation)

place the phenomenal world is, far more marvellous than any salvation or heaven—and thanks his stars he needn’t have a mission any more’.4 Lawrence was vividly attached to the idea of resurrection in its sexual as well as its religious aspects, and these seeming opposites are not separated in his writing. He despised the dreary puritanism and social envy of lower-middle-class English religiosity, opposing it with a salvific view of sexuality. Here the old intensities of Christianity are transferred from the other world to this one, from the spirit to the body, especially the body in the act of love. This is why his fiction seems so odd to us now, not because of its sexual daring but because it mixes sacred and profane elements we still prefer to segregate, as in this passage from Women in Love (1921): page 152

Then he clambered into the boat. Oh and the beauty of the subjection of his loins, white and dimly luminous as he climbed over the side of the boat, made her want to die, to die. The beauty of his dim and luminous loins as he climbed into the boat, his back rounded and soft—ah, this was too much for her, too final a vision . . . . He was not like a man to her, he was an incarnation . . .’.5

Religious themes, concepts and language occur in curious places. The faithful have no special claim to them. In spite of literary blogger Nicholas Reid’s objection to the ‘envious’ use by atheists or agnostics of the imagery of religion, such images are no less rich or even less ‘inspiring’ when unhinged from belief.6 My subject here is not the afterlife of the spirit, but the afterlife of religious ideas about death. In a culture not noted for religious enthusiasm, or indeed enthusiasm of any description, we find poems that display no religious belief yet contain echoes of religious language and poems where the dead are included in conversations as though they were still living. And we find poems which imagine an afterlife in terms of the present physical one, as in the poem from the 1982 collection, Good Looks, that gave me my title, a brief affectionate poem about a young child by Bill Manhire:

When You’re Dead You Go on Television

Toby lying on the floor
Is really climbing in some tree.
He has no wings, and so he flies.
He has no beak, and so he sings.
He has no song, and so he tells us.7

According to Wordsworth in the ‘Immortality Ode’, children come into the world ‘Not in entire forgetfulness, / And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory . . . / From God, who is our home’; ‘Heaven,’ he exclaims, ‘lies about us in our infancy!’.8 Yet childish ideas of heaven cannot be detached from material representations. Toby can imagine himself climbing trees or flying, but he cannot imagine death. So he familiarises the unimaginable by associating it with a household technology wherein disembodied page 153 voices lie concealed. In this small poem an adult as well as a child is thinking about death, and its fond, familiar tone is deceptive. Imagining himself as an animal or a part of nature, the child is also beginning to realise the limited extent of the self, knowledge that brings with it puzzlement about death. At the same time he is reaching towards that imaginative making we call art.

Two decades ago John Newton anticipated that we might find a way to exit the problem of Manhire’s notorious privacy, arguing that ‘re-reading death appears to mark the way forward’.9 We might use this prescient observation to think about Manhire and some other New Zealand poets, not those of the 1970s Newton concentrates on, notably Ian Wedde and Murray Edmond, but Baxter and Curnow, from whom Manhire has signalled his distance yet whom he speaks back to as well as subverts, and other poets both closely associated with and distinctly at odds with his writing. Of particular interest here is the moderation of a familiar irony in Manhire’s poetic practice and voice so that some recent poems find a new arrangement in the relations between author and reader by adapting stratagems of the earlier work to a more profound confrontation with a preoccupying subject: how to imagine death.10

Consider another poem from Good Looks, a collection that, as the back cover announces, ‘opens with poems which record the death of a father’. I see this poem as a bridge, pointing to the profound confrontations with death of the later poetry without altogether abandoning the playful evasiveness of the earlier work. The poem is called alluringly ‘What it Means to Be Naked’, the last word of which appears—or nearly appears—in other titles of this period offering us erotic encounters which are, as here, withheld:
What it Means to Be Naked

As you will know
the hands join hands to sing

and then you are naked.
Under the snow, the hands and chest

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are draped, and with them the belly;
the thighs are pure bone

sunk without trace. Likewise
the eyes,

the mouth, the nose
sink in the face, while the teeth

are left surprised
by the pain which has vanished.

Also, as you will know,
the tongue leaves

its voice and taste to the snow
and the room at once

grows chilly. The hair,
of course, stays on the pillow.

Then the penis is removed
and shaved, as you will know,

and is buried subsequently
in snow: and this latter,

covering the earth as always,
as you will know,

and being no more
than the usual snow

under the snow
the snow will eat it.

On first encounter, this poem has a baffling quality of meaning wilfully withdrawn. The trick of decoding it is not a simply turned verbal key like the racecourse referred to in the title of the celebrated page 155 ‘Wingatui’.11 We must work through tonally disconcerting phrases and attend to a speaking voice engaged in a communication that seems personal yet is resolutely undisclosing. There is no direct indication of the kind of authorial investment we expect to find in a poem dealing with death—no hint of a source in Wordsworth’s ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, except perhaps in what Harry Ricketts has called ‘an aching litany of o’s’.12

This is an extraordinarily physical poem, full of the parts of love, touch, communication, here turned in a reversal John Donne would have approved to the figuring of death. The trick of reading ‘What it Means to be Naked’ involves resisting the obvious associations of the cues scattered through the poem: the reader must separate the words ‘naked’, ‘thighs’ and ‘penis’ from their usual sexual connotations and direct them to those of death, burial and decay. Yet the words look back longingly to what has been left behind, and the speaking voice of the poem can no more conjure death without employing physical referents than can the child, Toby, in my title poem.

The effect of reading ‘What It Means to Be Naked’ is not unlike that of confronting the opening stanzas of Allen Curnow’s ‘Organo ad Libitum’, from the same year, another poem that dramatically conjoins sex and death inside a coffin:

Time’s up you’re got up to kill
the lilies and the ferns on wires
the brightwork the sorrowful silk
ribbons the cards the cars

the black twelve-legged beast
rises the dance begins
the six shoulders heave
you up the organist sits

In Curnow’s poem the reference to the organist gives away the funereal plot, while the faint echo in the walking coffin metaphor of Iago’s ‘two-backed beast’ in Othello reinforces the proximity in the poetic imagination of sex and death. Curnow’s ‘you’ addresses the dead person and, implicitly, the reader as a future dead person,

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but without actually placing us inside the situation of death, except as a literary feint. In ‘What It Means to be Naked’ the use of ‘you’ similarly implicates Manhire’s readers in the scene of death, but carries them further—to an existential confrontation with the physical disintegration of the body. The casual demotic phrase, ‘as you will know’, disarmingly connects the speaker to a familiar addressee, as if the two are chatting nonchalantly about everyday matters and shared knowledge, but is also a kind of threat, an understated memento mori addressed to the reader, that invokes what cannot, of course, be ‘known’: the experience of being the dead person inside the coffin. We are gulled into accepting that what follows is so obvious that it scarcely needs stating even as we are carried by this matter-of-fact phrase to where we expect to be taken by Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King.

But this is not mere gothic effect. Manhire ushers us as readers beyond the point where literary death thrills us to a place where what we will ‘know’ is a state of nakedness that will swallow our words, lips, and sex. The organs of delight become those of decay, and here the poem invites us to turn our attention back to life and its sensual pleasures. Dwelling on the mechanisms of death reminds us to enjoy the world while we inhabit it, as in another poem from Good Looks, ‘Children’, in which a parent contemplates the inevitable death of his children:


The likelihood is the children will die
without you to help them do it. It will be spring,
the light on the water, or not.

And though at present
they live together
they will not die together.
They will die one by one
and not think to call you:
they will be old

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and you will be gone.
It will be spring,
or not. They may be crossing
the road,
not looking left,
not looking right,

or may simply be afloat at evening
like clouds unable
to make repairs. That
one talks too much, that one
hardly at all: and they both enjoy
the light on the water

much as we enjoy the sense
of indefinite postponement. Yes
it’s a tall story but don’t you think
full of promise, and he’s just a kid
but watch him grow.

The poem leaves one either with a sense of unutterable despair at the prospect of universal mortality or of delight in the particular pleasures and possibilities of life in the moment, of parenthood, and growing children who do not heed the dire warnings meant to protect them from harm. Yet we may not need to choose here; to parent is to hold both apprehension and pleasure in the mind at the same time. By naming the unspeakable fear that lies behind all our worry over avertable childhood dangers, Manhire directs our attention to the living children—talking too much, or watching the light on the water. In such moments we may defer the existential anxiety, enjoying that postponement at least while it lasts.

Perhaps in ‘What it Means to Be Naked’ to figure the loss of bodily parts in death is also to remind us of their presence in life. Undeceived about death, the poem is nudging us back towards life, even to the world the risen Christ encounters in ‘The Man Who Died’, despite the unManhirish enthusiasm of Lawrence’s description: ‘the natural world, thronging with greenness, a nightingale winsomely, wistfully,

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coaxingly calling from the bushes beside a runnel of water, in the world, the natural world of morning and evening, forever undying’.13 Lydia Wevers has referred to the ‘seriously funny’ quality of Manhire’s writing;14 in this simultaneous turning towards and away from the consciousness of death we find another such joining of contraries in the poetry—or an extension of the same one.

Certainly, death and sex are conjoined here, as in the ‘ghastly clay-stopped hole’ in James K. Baxter’s 1961 poem, ‘On the Death of her Body’, but without Baxter’s consolatory ecstasy that lifts the lovers beyond corruption for a moment of almost transcendent consciousness:

It is a thought breaking the granite heart
Time has given me, that my one treasure,
Your limbs, those passion-vines, that bamboo body

Should age and slacken, rot
Some day in a ghastly clay-stopped hole.
They led me to the mountains beyond pleasure

Where each is not gross body or blank soul
But a strong harp the wind of genesis
Makes music in, such resonant music

That I was Adam, loosened by your kiss
From time’s hard bond, and you,
My love, in the world’s first summer stood

Plucking the flowers of the abyss.15

For Baxter, both Eden and the fall of man are discovered in the act of sex, but the poem leaves us feeling we have encountered neither sexual love nor theological insight but an excess of ‘resonant music’. For Manhire, as John Newton observes, ‘any coupling . . . is a scene in which intractable concealments elaborate themselves’, but not, I think, religious epiphanies—even rhetorical ones.16

In ‘What it Means to Be Naked’ Manhire transports the concept of time into death; the sequence of decay in the tomb inversely page 159 mirrors that of growth in the living organism, a trick Hugh Lauder has observed at work in another Manhire poem, ‘The Afterlife’.17 Allen Curnow’s poem ‘You Will Know When You Get There’, which appeared the same year as ‘What it Means to Be Naked’, leads the reader through a teasing advance towards the moment of extinction in the closing couplet, when

. . . a door
slams, a heavy wave, a door, the sea-floor shudders.
Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black fissure.

At the instant that the mortal door slams shut, Curnow inserts a barely discernible trace of older explanations of death and what comes after. That ‘surge-black fissure’ and its accompanying ‘shudder’ suggest orgasm as well as the moment of extinction. Yet it’s also possible, as Vincent O’Sullivan has remarked, to move from that marine surge to ‘serge’, the black cloth worn by clergy, or from fissure to fisher, as in Christ’s ‘fishers of men’.

Curnow was raised in an Anglican vicar’s house and studied for the priesthood. He is not insinuating that we may pass through that door into a world beyond, merely registering the potent, perhaps indissoluble bond between the languages of dying and religion—the long, rich connection of the words we use with Christianity that is not wholly broken by our post-Christian world. Manhire was raised in the pubs his father ran around Dunedin.18 No clerical head peers over the pulpit from his childhood, as in Curnow’s 1986 poem, ‘A Raised Voice’. But words with traces of religious history and implication visit his recent poetry agitating, though not denying, a staunch acceptance of mortality where, as the elegy ‘Opoutere’ puts it, ‘Everything goes under the earth,/the old timber, and the new’.19

More unsettlingly, in ‘Erebus Voices’, a 2005 poem from the collection Lifted commemorating the Mt Erebus disaster, the bodies of the NZ901 victims, recovered from the mountain, chant:

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The Dead
We fell.
Yet we were loved and we are lifted.
We froze.
Yet we are loved and we are warm.
We broke apart.
Yet we are here and we are whole.20

Unlike the dead person in ‘What It Means to be Naked’ or Captain Scott and his party in ‘Scott Dead’, who ‘sink and sail beneath the ice’, they do not lie in permanent cold.21 The Erebus dead are present and have voices, at least in collective memory. Whole, lifted, warm— they might almost be resurrected.

In another poem from Lifted, ‘Kevin’, death is again attached to a household technology, a more dated one than Toby’s television—this time the radio:

I don’t know where the dead go, Kevin.
The one far place I know
is inside the heavy radio. If I listen late at night,
there’s that dark, celestial glow,
heaviness of the cave, the hive.

Music. Someone warms his hands at the fire,
breaking off the arms of chairs,
breaking the brute bodies of beds, burning his comfort
surely to keep alive. Soon he can hardly see,
and so, quietly, he listens: then someone lifts him
and it’s some terrible breakfast show.

There are mothers and fathers, Kevin, whom we barely know.
They lift us. Eventually we all shall go
into the dark furniture of the radio.22

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This is a more complex, elusive and inexhaustible poem than that which gave me my title. It invites us yet refuses to give up its meanings; it involves one of the most ordinary technologies of everyday life yet attaches to it that ‘mysterious’ quality Chris Price has observed in Manhire: ‘There’s an element of mystery to these poems that I value, a sense of something happening just outside the frame that the poems point towards but don’t explicitly name’.23 My own reading is necessarily tentative, as interpretation must be in the face of such memorable but resistant speech, and it focuses on the odd presence in the poem of the words ‘celestial’ and ‘lifts’, words that I associate with my mixed religious past—one signalling a heavenly world of spiritual beings; the other pointing to the Christadelphian belief that salvation involves only the risen body and an earthly paradise, not a spiritual reality.24 Of course, Manhire will not share such specific associations; nor do I argue that he intended to convey any religious suggestions. The words themselves, however, cannot be disinfected of their multiple meanings and resonances.

Alan Riach—and more tentatively Ian Richards—read ‘Kevin’ as an explanation to a child who asks questions about where we go when we die, a reading that carries us back to Toby’s location of the dead inside the television.25 Yet the fatherly explanation offered seems too baffling for such an occasion. The poem can also be read as a conversation with Kevin Cunningham, a New Zealand writer and a friend of Manhire who died of a degenerative disease in 2002—hence the references to lifting. The poem’s speaker is talking to the dying man or, perhaps, retrospectively imagining a conversation with the dead person about death and memory, as in the beautiful poem from 1996, ‘Moonlight’, where the speaker finds himself conversing with a dead girl, until called back to reality:


Kate Gray (1975–1991)

I start up a conversation
with occasional Kate. Too late,
too late, but with a big sigh
she appears in the sky.

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I tell her the home doesn’t forget—
her mother’s lullaby step
still reaches the chair
where her father sits deep in the forest.

I hear myself saying
please and please and please;
I want to go back
to the start of the nineties.

Sleepless night, big almond eyes,
and a hand rocks a pram in the passage;
from somewhere a long way
outside our houses

the moon sends its light to this page.26

Such conversations do not offer adequate consolation or suggest that the dead survive in some other place, that they are recoverable as real presences. Rather they sharpen the sense of death’s ineluctable reality. ‘Moonlight’ is not informed by religious faith, however tested by grief or doubt, as in Tennyson’s poem to his dead friend, ‘In Memoriam’ (1850):

We have but faith; we cannot know,
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness; let it grow.27

For Tennyson, grief has thrown his faith into doubt, yet there is still a sense, however attenuated, of divine presence that we may glimpse ‘behind the veil, behind the veil’.28 There is a ‘beam’ of light as well in ‘Moonlight’, where ‘the moon sends its light to this page’. Manhire’s light, however, does not register Tennyson’s tortured need for some sign of a divinity that might illuminate the darkness of doubt but the speaker’s recall of the grace of a girl’s presence on moonlit nights back in the 1990s when she was part of a household, a family, a community.

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Reading Manhire, we are in a situation not unlike that of the speaker of ‘Moonlight’ seeking a human presence that has disappeared behind language. In these one-sided conversations the silent partner is unreachable except by way of the words they left behind. So in our own post-religious culture the words of the older one in which religious ideas were widely shared still speak to us, even if we have lost faith in or forgotten the meanings they once signified—indeed, perhaps, especially when we have. In ‘Kevin’ the dead go to some far place and the speaker, seeking to describe that place, turns to a strange simile, the heavy radio, which issues forth not Wordsworth’s ‘intimations of immortality’ but the squalid effusions of contemporary media. They cannot become part of a conversation and speaking to Kevin makes this finality and removal more actual for us as readers while the name personalises him. In the poem an ordinary thing, the radio, is invested with inexplicable suggestion and presence as well as banality and distance.

‘Eventually we all shall go / into the dark furniture of the radio’—it is tempting to see this as a pleasing-sounding absurdity, but in this poem it has surprising emotional force, even if we feel tentative about pinning its source down too neatly. The dead lie in a place we cannot know. We recall their voices as we recall the world of our own past, separated by distance. They are like the mysterious presences inside the television to a young child. But the radio, with its cohabitation with us over so many decades as a treasured household object rather than a mere technology, is both more threatening and more inviting. The radio in ‘Kevin’ has a glowing, celestial promise, but is also dark and heavy and will, eventually, swallow us all.

There is richness as well as loss in the poem’s impossible effort of communication. Ian Richards connects the rich language of ‘Kevin’ to Milton and T.S. Eliot, but perhaps he misses a more local and particular reference in the hives and cave to James K. Baxter’s early poems, ‘Wild Bees’ and ‘The Cave’. Baxter was a religious poet, sustained by a faith less uncertain than that of the anguished Victorian, Tennyson. But in his late poem ‘The Ikons’ the poet-speaker looks into approaching death hoping to find acceptance, only to find himself pulled back to the real, as all the big transcendent meanings—‘God, Mary, home, sex, poetry’—that have sustained his life come apart.29

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It is a poem that juxtaposes the desire for death with the beauty of small particular observations of the world. This floating of the poet away from his expected religious conviction makes ‘The Ikons’ more acceptable to me than Baxter in his familiar guise as preacher. I resist in poetry the certainty of believers as well as that of militant atheists like C.K. Stead. Stead’s poems, like Manhire’s, are often concerned with how we deal with mortality without religious consolation. But in Stead’s poetry the figuring of mortality does not disturb or shock us. Stead’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the absolute erasure of death leaves the reader with less access to the ancient associations of language and thus provokes no existential shiver in the reader.30 The slight pressure Manhire applies to our consciousness of mortality by way of language attached to the idea of mystery, even transcendence, has a more complex emotional resonance.

Committed to that which is ‘Hard. Bright. Clean. Particular’, Stead is bluntly dismissive of religious belief: ‘There’s no God’, he proclaims, ‘We don’t answer fo / Our violences, nor even for our sense of beauty’.31 Yet he is more God-bothered than Manhire. God’s absence is curiously present in the atheist’s work, although without that bleakness that signals nihilism in Philip Larkin’s lugubrious ‘Aubade’:

I work all day and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.32

This is, of course, the same death as that of ‘What It Means to be Naked’, but one that has more brutally emptied meaning and pleasure out of life because the voice is so bleakly internalised.

‘What It Means to Be Naked’ places the reader inside the coffin.

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Yet the dead are still connected to this world not just by memory but also by what remains of them physically; they are like the subject of Wordsworth’s poem ‘A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal’, where the dead girl is ‘Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course / With rocks, and stones, and trees’ or the mobile dead of ‘Scott Dead’ still drifting under the ice.33 Resurrections are not indicated in these poems, but the continued presence of the dead as bodies places us as readers more directly in the situation of the bereaved. We are brought closer to our own deaths by those of others and find ourselves listening for their voices that have vanished from the world but not from memory. By listening we can, at least imaginatively, ‘lift’ them.

Jenny Bornholdt is another poet whose work has deepened in response to death. In poems of the 2000s, ‘The Jersey’ and ‘Undone’ particularly, Bornholdt deals with the death of a father, although the speaker in the poetry is not held at so unnerving a distance as in ‘What It Means to Be Naked’. In these elegiac works emotion hovers within our reach, while a familiar object associated with the father, a jersey, concentrates that emotion. Grieving, the speaker decides to disassemble the jersey, in response to the undoing of the ordinary and familiar world by his death. Family can no longer be inhabited without knowledge of its fragility. An earlier poem, ‘Wedding Song’ (1995), contains a list of instructions to a young couple about how to live praising and loving the world. The ecstatic measures of Whitman, Ginsberg and the Bible, are invoked in this call to the newly married couple to love earthly reality, even if the word ‘try’ acknowledges the difficulty of the task:

Now you are married
try to love the world
as much as you love
each other. Greet it as your husband,
wife. Love it with all your
might as you sleep
breathing against its back.
Love the world, when, late at night,
you come home to find snails
stuck to the side of the house
like decoration.34

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Here all the effort of attention is turned towards the body, towards human love. A decade later, in ‘The Jersey’, the ordinary world has become unstuck, distant, estranged:

Then my father died and the world became a stopped
unsteady place.

After a time
I got back to doing the things
I’d done before.
Our son started swimming lessons.
In his class was a child named Lyric.
At the end of each lesson
she and my son floated
on their backs
while the instructor towed them
through the water.

There was a weird stillness about the children
when this happened.
It was as if someone had flicked
the sound off
carving a core of silence
into the pool’s
noise and tumble.35

The jersey is not symbolic. Manhire makes his radio mysterious; Bornholdt refuses to allow the object to stand for anything other than itself, even for the poem whose tortuous making records the personal and familial unmaking occasioned by the father’s death. Yet the description of the children being towed through the water has an uncanny atmosphere: it is almost what Joyce called an epiphany, the secular version of a sacred moment, but charged here with sadness rather than Stephen Dedalus’s ‘profane joy’.36 Watching a girl wading in the sea, Stephen exuberantly appropriates the language of his Catholic background to his purposes as artist and would-be lover of young women. Bornholdt’s speaker looks at the children swimming and they are held for a suspended moment just outside the ‘noise and tumble’

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of time. They seem thus to be poised outside that apprehension of mortality all parents must set aside if they are to watch their children as they grow. But the world to which the children call the watcher back is more difficult to hold onto than that indicated by moments of attention to light, water, and talk in Manhire’s ‘Children’. Certainly, there is none of that effusive attachment to the world the wading girl elicits in Joyce’s excitable young man.

Poems like these are works that in John Berger’s terms defy explanation by resort to any established system of belief.37 Yet they are not simply instructions for living without belief. They reach back to the full range of associations worked into the language we use to deal with loss and death, and they observe that seriousness in the face of mortality that Philip Larkin, in the poem ‘Church Going’, recognises in the decaying material forms that accompanied Christianity:

      For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.38

Something valuable remains here after belief has dissipated— not just images or rituals or even a common way of using language, but a necessary gravity in the face of death. Such gravity has also distinguished Bornholdt and Manhire’s work of the last ten or so years, and this has produced a new richness in the language of our poetry, even where it embraces a severe plainness of expression.39 It does not need to be attached to faith, nor does it belong to those who fiercely dissent from faith. It falls to all of us who inherit, however distantly, the shared literary and religious legacies of Western culture and those

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it has commingled with—notably Polynesian.40 And it allows a variety of responses to those legacies ranging from those of D.H. Lawrence and Stanley Spencer to Keith Haring and Philip Larkin or, nearer to home, Hone Tuwhare. Nor is it all darkness and despair; humour and lightness jostle with mystery and gravity. In Andrew Johnston’s 2007 poem ‘The Present’ the author re-encounters his dead father:

I’d given my father a humble figure
carved from dark stone, smooth as if river-worn,
face drawn in with fine white lines;
fine white lines ran down its limbs.

It was a crystalline day in spring
or autumn; he was walking
down Salamanca Road where it turns
and runs above the rose garden—

glint of harbour in the distance,
spring in his step because he’d discovered
a whole new place to park—
a wide street lined with pohutukawa

and angle spaces—all of them empty—
marked with clean white lines.
He was wearing his fine grey suit—
pink cheeks, grey suit—

and was heading
down into the city
as if he had business
to attend to.

My father was surprised—
not, as I would have expected
to receive a carved stone figure—
but that I thought it necessary

to give him a present at all—
it wasn’t Christmas, it wasn’t
page 169 his birthday, it was just
a fine clear day in spring or autumn

so I told him
it was because he’d had a rough year,
what with his having
died and everything.41

The present is of course not just a gift to the father but also the ‘crystalline day in spring’, the moment in which the speaker, in a place saturated with his father’s memory, retrieves him. The dead man is in a sense resurrected, as are the figures in Stanley Spencer’s painting. He has life, movement, and the capacity for surprise and exchange. He is not cold and immobile like the dead in ‘What It Means to Be Naked’ or trapped in an eternal semblance of life as in ‘Scott Dead’. But he is also utterly absent, made vivid and present in loving words not, alas, real flesh.

1 Journal entry for 20 November 1856, in Randall Stewart, ed., The English Notebooks by Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Modern Language Association/Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 433.

2 The phrase ‘whole octave’ is borrowed from Katherine Mansfield, who proclaimed in November 1906 in her journal that she experienced the ‘whole octave of sex’, in Journal of Katherine Mansfield, edited by John Middleton Murry (London: Constable, 1962), p. 5.

3 The saved will be united under God in an earthly paradise whose capital will be Jerusalem. There is no hell in Christadelphian belief, merely extinction of those not saved.

4 D.H. Lawrence, Letter to E.H. Brewster, 3 May 1927, Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Vol 2, edited by Harry T. Moore (London: Heinemann, 1962), p. 975.

5 D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 203.

6 See ‘Reid’s Reader’ <>. Reviewing Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity, Reid comments:

Atheism and agnosticism are in and of themselves not very good at creating inspiring images or concepts. Indeed they tend to scorn inspiring imagery. It is therefore somewhat galling to consider the continuing power that religious images still have, even in a very secularised age in which New

Atheism rants and romps. You keep telling the populace at large that there is no God and that religion is an illusion or a neurosis and yet—blast it!— images of sainthood and angels and salvation still sit prominently in the collective consciousness as well as deep in the collective unconsciousness.

The envy wells up, so out come anti-religious works that have to resort to the imagery of religion. After all, they have no original and resonant imagery of their own. Remember the rush of films and novels there were at the millennium (i.e. around 2000), which dealt with ‘angels’, written or produced by people who clearly had not the least notion that an angel was a messenger of God and that the images of beautiful winged creatures (borrowed from the pagan Greek Winged Victory, of course) were strictly secondary to this concept? At least some of these angelic works were in the nature of elaborate sneers, attaching non-religious agendas to traditional angelic images.

A French wit once said that ‘hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue’. I would say that the use of religious imagery is the compliment that the irreligious pay to religion.

7 Good Looks (Auckland: Auckland University Press/Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 58.

8 William Wordsworth, ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from recollections of Early Childhood’, in Harold Bloom and Lionel trilling, eds, Romantic Poetry and Prose (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 178.

9 John Newton, ‘The Old Man’s Example: Manhire in the Seventies’, in Opening the Book: New Essays on New Zealand Writing, edited by Mark Williams and Michele Leggott (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995), p. 182.

10 Andrew Johnston and Robyn Marsack in the introduction to their Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009) observe that Manhire has ‘carved out a huge space on the other side of irony in which he has been able to write profound, undeceived and moving poems’, p. 12. Johnston has also edited an anthology of New Zealand poems, Moonlight: New Zealand Poems on Death and Dying (Auckland: Godwit/Random House, 2008).

11 Famously, ‘Wingatui’ was placed in the Pseud’s Corner section of the English magazine, Private Eye. Yet while English readers might be excused for finding only meaningless surrealism in an oddly titled poem which contains an ‘azure violin’, New Zealand readers—and these days those familiar with Google—soon grasp that ‘Wingatui’ refers to a horse-racing track outside Dunedin. From this hint the poem is readily cracked, although the ‘azure violin’ it contains (like the wandering penis in ‘What It Means to Be Naked’), reminds us of the limits of our interpretive reach.

12 ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ (1802), in Bloom and Trilling, p.596. Ricketts was speaking of Manhire’s ‘Kevin’, but the observation applies equally to both poems.

13 In The Short Novels of D.H. Lawrence, Vol II (London: Heinemann, 1956), p. 6.

14 ‘Very Carefully Sidelong Postmodernism’, rev. of Songs of My Life, by Bill Manhire, New Zealand Books, 6 no 5 (Dec. 1996), pp. 2-3.

15 Collected Poems: James K. Baxter, edited by J.E. Weir (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 224.

16 Newton, ‘The Old Man’s Example: Manhire in the Seventies’, p. 165.

17 In ‘The Afterlife’, as Hugh Lauder notes, a dead person undergoes ‘a series of developmental stages which parallel the growth of a child to adulthood in this world’, ‘The Poetry of Bill Manhire’, Landfall, 147 (September 1983), p. 306.

18 See Manhire’s Under the Influence, Montana Estates Essay Series (Wellington: Four Winds Press, 2003).

19 Bill Manhire, Lifted (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005), p. 23.

20 Manhire, Lifted, p. 41.

21 ‘Scott Dead’ is found in Hannah Griffin, Bill Manhire, Norman Meehan and Anne Noble, These Rough Notes (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2012), p.31.

22 Lifted, p. 79.

22 Lifted, p. 79.

23 Chris Price, ‘Writing that Matters: Two Views of the Place of Politics in New Zealand Literature’, by Tim Corballis and Chris Price, Writing at the Edge of the Universe: Essays Arising from the ‘Creative Writing in New Zealand’ Conference, University of Canterbury, August 2003, edited by Mark Williams (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2004), p. 62.

24 Manhire’s poem describes the light inside a radio, perhaps the ‘celestial glow’ emanating from the valve radios of the 1950s (a radio in the poem ‘The Voyeur: An Imitation’ from Good Looks has a ‘modest glow’). But the associations of celestial with the heavenly, spiritual, or supernatural are hard to avoid in a poem about where we go when we die. I associate the word with a Catholic heaven inhabited by spiritual beings. Coming after the Christadelphian insistence that there is no immortal soul separate from the body, Catholicism as I encountered it posed a strict duality between spirit and matter in favour of the former so that I imagined the afterlife as purely spiritual. In fact, Catholicism also affirms belief in the resurrection of the body, our own as well as Christ’s; as the Apostles’ Creed insists,‘I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’. There is an obscurity within Christianity regarding the status of the body in the afterlife that derives from the conflict between its Jewish messianic sources in which the kingdom is an earthly one and the mystical and philosophical traditions borrowed from both the Greeks and Judaism in which spirit and matter are opposed.

25 Ian Richards, ‘Bill Manhire’s Poetry: Some Personal Responses’, <nofrillsnzlit.angelfire/com/Manhire.html>; Alan Riach, ‘Kevin’, Scottish Poetry Library Website

26 Bill Manhire, My Sunshine (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1996), p. 20.

27 Alfred Lord Tennyson, ‘In Memoriam’, Poetry of the Victorian Period, 3rd ed., edited by Jerome Hamilton Buckley and George Benjamin Woods (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1965), p. 57.

28 Ibid.

29 Baxter, ‘The Ikons’, Collected Poems, p. 499.

30 In the 1988 poem, ‘After the Wedding’, Stead asks what it means to live without reference to the former meanings attached to words like God, rejecting Baxter’s spiritualised sexuality that leads back to Eden in favour of an undivided apprehension of the world:

Weddings are full of God and the Word of God
and the word God. I wonder what they mean.
To be one with your body, your body one with the world—
more than a marriage, it’s a consummation
bracken and oil-flame like red cellophane
flapping on the hill-slope.
won’t ask you back, you must make your way
in dreams, by moonlight, or by the broad light of day.

In C.K. Stead, Collected Poems, 1951-2006 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2008), p. 202.

31 ‘You Have a Lot to Lose’, C.K. Stead: Collected Poems 1951-2006 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2008), p. 35; ‘Twenty-Two Sonnets’, in Collected Poems 1951–2006, p. 100.

32 In Philip Larkin: Collected Poems, ed. Anthony Thwaite (London and Boston: Marvell Press and Faber and Faber, 1990), p. 208.

33 Bloom and Trilling, p. 154.

34 Jenny Bornholdt, How We Met (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995), p. 33.

35 Jenny Bornholdt, Summer (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2003), p.


36 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (London: Jonathan Cape, 1958), p. 176.

37 ‘His [Ernst Neizvestny’s] profoundest works defy explanation by resort to any established concept. They remain—like the experiences they express— mysterious’, John Berger, Art and Revolution: Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the USSR (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 125.

38 Collected Poems, p. 98.

39 Richards has also commented on this richness, connecting it persuasively to the Symbolist legacy. Drawing here on Chris Price’s observation about the tendency of Manhire’s language to gesture beyond the frame of the poems, I would say that our language is still rich with words once attached to belief, or words like ‘lifted’ in the volume of the same name, that accumulate symbolist implications, and these associations produce a kind of mystery or enigma, as the words seem to point beyond themselves to larger meanings no longer shared or accessible.

40 In Manhire’s poem ‘Without Form’, from Lifted, for example, Biblical allusions mix resonantly with an echo of Dante’s line ‘In the middle of the journey of my life’, from The Divine Comedy and the Manhire theme of the mysterious place of art and music in our lives:

It is noisiest here in this middle place,
Cries of despair and those of praise,
Yet you might close your eyes and begin to walk forward.

This must be how the first god did it.
It was back at the beginning, and he began to sing,
Though the light—which was there—showed nothing.

41 Andrew Johnston, Sol (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2007), p. 73.