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.
About this poem
This poem was originally published online as part of a SPL project, supported by Creative New Zealand, which commissioned Scottish writers to introduce a New Zealand poem. The introduction is by Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, who taught in New Zealand 1986-2000.
'Kevin', the closing poem from Bill Manhire's collection Lifted, caught me the moment I read it in December 2007, when I was browsing in a bookshop in the northland town of Whangarei.
I bought the book on the strength of that poem alone, though Manhire has been writing good poems for a long time now and a number of them reflect on his Scottish ancestry – his Mum once told me she was sorry he'd lost his Scots accent as a wee boy when he went to school! Poems like 'A Scottish Bride' (from Zoetropes) seem oblique and unassertive, yet there are lines which seem to come from a pre-aeroplane, pre-internet world, where the distance meant years, and loneliness might enter the character.
You cannot imagine, halfway
across the world, her father wrote,
the sorrow of the undersigned…
There's a similar poignancy in 'Kevin' but typically for Manhire, it hinges on a lightness of touch and gentle humour, what we Scots might call a 'reductive idiom' – except that there's a sad, sympathetic smile in it, rather than bitter protest.
'Kevin' is a poem with universal application – it's about mortality, an attempt to explain to a young person what it means when you die: where do you go to? What happens to your voice? Where might someone meet you again? How can we reconnect, remember, bring you back?
Unlike older New Zealand poets James K. Baxter and Allen Curnow, who might have offered bardic comment, vatic irony or lyrical depiction of lonely figures in the New Zealand landscape, Manhire's poem is almost all internal, a voice speaking quietly, almost apologetically. The only location imagined here might be a sitting-room with a big dark radio, the kind of thing that would have been brought to New Zealand from Europe, emerging from that historical colonial past into a contemporary world where new technologies prevail. Radio works now in the mass media world of internet and worldwide web, strafing commercialism and heartless advertising – not just good music but 'some terrible breakfast show'. Yet the voices you hear can sometimes still come from an older, more distant world.
And despite the particularities of that imagined radio, it is after all a metaphor, an attempt to suggest what connection might come from the past, across time, languages, ideologies, geographies, to anyone now, and to anyone yet to come. The element of uncertainty in that evocation – you just don't know what you're going to hear – is beautifully caught. It's serious, humbling, unsentimental and perhaps fearful. The love that inheres in the words 'mothers and fathers' equally implies the mortality that connects generation to generation, the debt each generation owes to the earth that never really lets us leave.
The poem works through its steadiness of tone, beginning with a compassionate yet honest ignorance: the first admission is 'I don't know…' The imagery suggests the shelter people have looked for from prehistoric time – 'the cave' – to the business of living socially, so much with others: life resembles 'the hive'. Maybe the repeated 'v' sound in the last line of the first verse-paragraph suggests the e'quiet hum of an old radio. By contrast, the repeated internal rhymes, 'go…' 'I know…' 'the heavy radio…' and the end-rhymes in the last verse-paragraph that repeat these sounds: '…know' '…go' and '…the radio' – these end in open-ended vowels, which fade off into silence. The poem asks to be read aloud. All these sounds work together to create a pattern that very carefully represents the connectedness I've noted, while it makes an implicit statement about vulnerability and the absolute loneliness of all living things. I stress that implicit. There is nothing overt or exclamatory in any of this.
It is frightening that anyone might be suddenly 'lifted' (that heart-in-the-mouth moment when you're stopped by the police for whatever reason, that turns you into a wee boy once again, whatever age you are). There is perhaps the idea of a child 'lifted' and disappearing, the news coming through on a 'terrible' breakfast programme. Yet the image also evokes the pleasurable feeling of a child being lifted up by a parent or grandparent, carried tenderly, or hoisted to a higher vantage-point. Anyone might remember such a moment from childhood.
What makes the poem enduring for me is the first word of the second verse-paragraph: music. What it's about is something to do with music, the old questions still with us in the new time, the certainty that we all burn our comfort, 'surely to keep alive'