Enthroning Dullness

The Captain's Swallow, Andrew Waterman
[58pp, 9.95, Carcanet]
Lifted, Bill Manhire
[79pp, 9.95, Carcanet]

I found neither of these books stimulating. But I discovered what for me is a new critical point. Andrew Waterman's poetry appears from this volume to be a poetry that does not benefit from being shown in extenso. It is often argued - especially in the world of the small magazine and the weekly - that it does not do justice to a poet to print only one or two poems by him or her. My familiarity with Waterman's poetry has been through seeing the occasional poem only. And like the Japanese flower arranging idea that flowers appear best singly, I feel this is true of this poet: his work is seen to best effect presented in that way. In The Captain's Swallow the poet endeavours to paint a portrait of Sicily where, we are told, he makes 'prolonged stays'. And I can very much sympathize with his desire to create a poetry of place. But the trouble is that despite a clearly conscious effort to gather up anecdotes about the locals whom he knows in Sicily - be they Sicilians or ex-pat Anglo-Saxons - and mix them with detailed but not often very lyrical description of place, the result is not good. That he has tried too hard to capture the place, the atmosphere and its people, shows up in a poem like 'Roast Lamb'. This consists of twenty, four-lined stanzas, of which this is the fourth:

      Dusk congregates among bougainvillea, eating
     swordfish I hear in that hybrid accent
     I've come to recognize, 'Y'know what I mizz mose
     back here in Stromboli? Izz rose limb.'

The poem is a gallimaufry of overheard snippets of mispronounced English like 'The kikken is kikkin in the kikken' which is given as a 'Capitano' trying to pronounce 'The chicken is,' and adding a twist all his own, 'cooking
in my kitchen!' So the origins of this poem which finishes, 'Roast lamb,' I murmur: these things / that I miss most when I am back in England.' is a singularly banal moment of poor pronunciation. The end, too, confuses because the poet appears to be saying one of the things he misses most when in England is also roast lamb. This, of course, may be attempted irony meaning that roast lamb is one of the things he gives  a 'miss' to: but the reader can't be sure. But, to be fair to the poet, I may be missing the point. Is it perhaps that Waterman is trying to indicate that just as the Aussie tourist liked only Australian roast lamb, the poet when home in England misses Sicilian roast lamb? But, whatever, this poem - like a number in the book - consists of little more than a pot-pourri of cafe table observations made when resting from bouts of strenuous sight-seeing on foot. Poetry can be a bit too 'touristy' at times, no matter how long one stays in a place.                              

Bill Manhire's book Lifted I found harder to get any sort of handle on at all. A poem early in the book is 'Across Brooklyn', which I quote in full:

     This is the street where they still make coffins:
     the little workshops, side by side.
     I pass them with my daughter on our walk to the river.

     Are we seeking the bridge itself,
     or the famous, much-reported view?

     A few planks and nails lie around,
     and each of the entrances seems to darken.
     Far back, out of sight, someone is whistling.

     Yes, I suppose, we do walk a little faster.
     There is a faint noise of hammering, too.

The very inconsequential, bored tone 'Are we seeking the bridge itself, / or the famous, much-reported view?' (Well, if you, Mr Manhire, don't know where you are going, what chance has the reader?'); '...each of the entrances seems
(my italics) to darken' (does it darken or not?); and 'Yes, I suppose, we do walk a little faster.' He supposes they do? Do they walk faster or don't they? If ever there was a good example of a 'so what? poem' it is this one. Even the language is nothing more than prosaic, prose-like and unexceptional. If one of the basic criteria for judging a poem is the requirement to achieve freshness of expression, then this fails utterly. Neither in what it is saying, nor in the way it is saying it, is it in the least bit interesting.

On the facing page to that poem is another that, until the very last line, consists of nothing but a description of a ladder lying on its side. The very last line changes the absolute objectivism of the poem by the introduction of what Ruskin termed 'the pathetic fallacy': 'Nevertheless, it longs to be lifted'. But despite what I saying against Manhire's poems, I was attracted by 'Death of a Poet' about Charles Causley: a poem employing appropriately the sort of ballad quatrains Causley was so fond of. I think Mahire is of Cornish origin. And the book ends with a poem simply entitled 'Kevin' which is sufficiently attractive for the publisher to have quoted from it on the cover.

Lastly, this New Zealand poet
- apparently much feted at home - spent some time on a fellowship in Menton, Kathleen Mansfield's other country. I know the Cte myself, but was less excited by those Manhire poems reflecting that tourist trap even than Andrew Waterman's Sicilian lucubrations. Both of these poets have spent much time in academia, and it shows. Every academic essay has to be sprinkled on the page with a solution of caution: 'Yes, I suppose, we do walk a little faster.' Reading such lines I think of Pope and... and Swear now critic, or forever hold thy peace. I'll hold my peace.   
             William Oxley 2007