In Bill Manhire’s poem “Kevin,” “the cave, the hive” is an imagined space: maybe the far origin of voices on the radio; maybe the room around you as you listen in the dark; maybe the old-fashioned cabinet housing mysterious machinery. In any case it’s dim, enclosed, and haunted. I first heard “Kevin” at a City Gallery reading shortly after the recent earthquake in Christchurch. The full text is here, along with a discussion by Alan Riach. Riach didn’t have the information Manhire provided at the reading—that his friend Kevin suffered from multiple sclerosis and was losing his vision—and I find the poem a little darker than Riach does, but his account of its compassion and resonance sounds right to me. “Kevin” is agnostic about what happens when the lights go out, suggesting, as it turns from terror to consolation, that “Eventually we shall all go / into the dark furniture of the radio.”
I chose the phrase as a blog title because it sounds good (slant-rhyme of buzzing v’s); because I love the poem; and because I’m working out the relations between place, poetry, and a sense of community, and the words “cave” and “hive” conjoin different ways of understanding lyric space. One suggests solitary hibernation and the other crowded industry—introspection versus connection and collaboration.
It also seemed apt because Bill Manhire is such a force in literary Wellington. I came here to study twenty-first-century poetic communities of various kinds, but the particular draw at Victoria University is the International Institute of Modern Letters, a creative writing program founded and directed by Manhire. He was the country’s first poet laureate; he ran an influential workshop long before the IIML was organized; and he’s been particularly resourceful about nurturing New Zealand literature and raising its international profile. Many of the nation’s best younger poets have some connection to the institute. Timing, location, and other factors contribute to its success, but Manhire seems responsible for a lot: the structure of courses and degree programs; strong hiring and selective admissions; canniness about fundraising, university politics, and literary markets; and dedication to fostering a sense of writing community that extends, for many, well past graduation.
Manhire created this poetic hive but in the caves of his poems, sociability is suspicious. When not wandering through a national park and thinking, “please God / no more Americans” (“Global Track”), he’s describing Wellington coolly as “full of distant figures on the street.” He’s companionable about isolation, if that makes sense, as when he writes “I live at the edge of the universe,/ like everybody else” (“Milky Way Bar”). The neighbors are always noisy and his frequent use of the second person creates intimacy on the scale of a letter or murmured conversation. What I’d say about them for now is that they’re porous but not sociable, except in the way that every published poem is a potential instrument of connection.
Meanwhile, Manhire just auctioned off a yet-to-be-written poem to benefit the children in Christchurch. Some IIML grads have new books out, including Chris Tse, who read at a launch party yesterday in the library’s center for Maori and Pasifika studies. The institute’s latest newsletter includes links to news on National Poetry Day and the value of solitude. And here I am in a closed office above Kelburn Parade with blog retention issues, because I can’t decide whether “poetic community” is an oxymoron or something I need, and whether poetry can be a cave and a hive at once.
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