Groove Book Report: Tell Me My Name – Bill Manhire riddles; Norman Meehan music; Hannah Griffin song; Peter Peryer photographs – Published by Victoria University Press (Poetry + photographs + music CD)

Tell Me My Name Cover
Recently, I found myself caught up in the great Nobel Literacy Prize debate over whether Bob Dylan should have been awarded it or not. The arguments came from many sides but it all came down to this: Are lyrics poetry? That is, what makes lyrics suitable to be read; or recited; or sung or quoted; or used in a wedding speech; or a eulogy; or put on a pedestal and displayed around a Harbour walkway? Or anywhere? Do lyrics need music. Is that that what defines them or determines them from poetry? I guess the Nobel panel of judges decided that lyrics could stand alone as a legitimate branch of poetry – and QED a legitimate literacy work. That begs another question, too. Does a great literacy work must be in a published book? Have any text or SMS works ever been nominated? Or even Kindle only editions. And, of course, one could easily argue that Rap is poetry – set to music or just recited. It doesn’t need Hip Hop to sell it, but it helps. Don’t let’s get started on that one.

The debate will rage, no doubt. In the meantime, here in New Zealand, there’s a world-famous poet whose writings often end up set to music, although he doesn’t intentionally set out this way. In the case of poet and National Treasure Bill Manhire, it was poetry. Or more to the point the poetry of Riddles. Manhire should know a thing or two about poetry, as founded the International Institute of Modern Letters, which is home to New Zealand’s leading creative writing program. He is now Emeritus Professor of English and Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington. Riddling entered Manhire’s life when he was very small child. In the introduction to his new collection Tell Me My Name, he reveals the first riddle his mother ever sang to him. He might not have really understood then what the nonsense all meant but it created a strong memory and he sings it still.

“A wee wee man
In a red red coat Staff in my hand
And a stone in my throat.”
(Answer: a cherry)
From the traditional English Riddle, The Cherry Song.

As a university student he was introduced to Old English and Norse languages and Anglo Saxon riddle poems. “Objects like a cloud, a swan, an iceberg, would be described in slightly oblique, misleading ways.” This has affected the way he writes this new collection. Oblique but ultimately transparent references are important to this sequence of thirteen riddles. To add another dimension jazz scholar Norman Meehan has composer and plays some very atmospheric piano accompanied by Jazz vocalist Hannah Griffin. What’s interesting about the compositions is that none of them give any clues as to the answers to these riddles but they are revealing once you do know the answers. There’s one about ice that Manhire has peppered with tiny cluesin the lyrics. But musically Meehan gives little away save for the opening few notes of a melancholy violin, slowly groaning like and iceberg.

“I am the land without a stone I am silence on her throne I am water turned to bone”

Manhire’s worked with Meehan and Griffin before, on Buddhist Rain, Small Holes in the Silence (Rattle Records), These Rough Notes (VUP) and the acclaimed Making Baby Float – poems written by Manhire about growing up in 1950’s New Zealand. Griffin’s voice is just as lush and warm on this new CD as it was on that earlier project. It’s almost a maternal angelic presence. Calming and soothing. She could sing the phone book or the US presidential results and still make the world seem alright. What’s abundant here is the space between lyrics and music. Like Manhire’s reading voice, it is slow, relaxed and measured. It is also slightly monotonic, with Griffin holding fast her course. Again giving away little but surprisingly it’s still seductive and enticing. You want to solve these. Or at least try.

The little hardback book that comes with the CD includes the full texts and eight photographs by celebrated artist Peter Peryer – none of which truly give the game away, either. They’re actually red herrings – images that provocatively lure you one way, and then another but ultimately have little obvious connections to the subject of the riddle. This is yet another layer of playfulness. I approached this as a CD review but it’s as much a book review – or a poetry review – as well. Upon my first reading, I looked at the ‘riddleness’ of each poem – what lies within the rhyme. I was looking for the word-smithing and the echoes, the enigma, and because of the rhymes the sweetly crafted melody. As poems, along there is an openness, as if you are walking through a wide-open paddock – endless green stretching to the horizon to meet the blue skies. No wind. Calm. Slow. Sensually sun kissed skin. A vast plain that could generate both movement and stillness. This is a bit of a trade mark for Manhire. He likes to leave the doors open and for the poem to breath. You can hear his soft, gentle voice in these lines. With him, it’s always what he doesn’t say that is important. Take this poem. Simply numbered ‘1’. I won’t spoil it by telling you the subject of the riddle but if you put yourself in the mind of the speaker you will travel with him to the destination:

The road goes by the house
the wind sings in the tree
we sing the travelling worlds
we sing quietly
(we sing quietly)

All of these poems have cryptic clues awaiting their own individual ‘Eureka!’ moments where there is a Ha! at arrival which is good but not as good as the travel). Sure, you can look to the back page to discover the answers or are they? Perhaps a bridge; an ocean; an echo; a family tree; a watermelon; a muddy puddle; ice; Christmas fairy lights; the dark; longitude and latitude. I’ve added one in, can you guess. Best not. And why puncture the delight of solving these riddles, or better still the bliss of not really ever knowing. In a world of big data, secrets and lies, and a pursuit of truth – fake or otherwise, is there ever a time when we can just ponder without conclusion? Perhaps that is the real pleasure here. The following example may shed some light. Or not.

I’m always at the cinema
I’m always at the beach
I’m waiting in that secret place
that lovers try to reach

from poem number ‘5’

Next month these poems will be performed as stage production at Wanaka’s Festival of Colour adding yet another dimension. There are rumours that the show may tour the country, too. As a ‘literary’ piece it will jump of the page, into the strings and keys of the piano and drift across the auditorium, floating on the vocal chords of a singer. Will this be poetry or lyrics that you are experiencing. Does it matter? Like the riddles themselves, we need to let them be – un-categorized, a pleasure as they are.

I’ll leave you with more to travel on, navigate it wisely:
I’m made of where you’re going
I’m made of north and south
I’m made of possibility
I’m made of somewhere else

From Poem ‘4’

Tell Me My Name is published simultaneously with Bill Manhire’s new poetry collection Some Things to Place in a Coffin.

Jewel and Don Henley – TSB Arena, Wellington – 22 March 2017


Originally featured in

With a three night stint in Aoteroa Henley rounded off his landed his four decade time machine in the Capital with much ado and little fanfare.

Jewel Kilcher kicked off the evening with a simple solo set, beginning with a simple and stark a capella rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. I haven’t see her perform since she performed in Wellington over 20 years. When she did that gig she was in her prime and she was very young, too. Her first album was out and she was enjoying the novelty of her first world tour. “This place is a barn” she remarked, noting the lousy sound and high reverberation. Back then the TSB really was a barn. Roll on a few years. Times have changed. Thanks to the shows like WOW (World of Wearable Arts) the place has come up to speed. And sound systems are definitely much better these days. All the better to hear Jewel. I’m still amazed at the purity of her voice. It’s still unique and so very clear. I don’t think it’s changed at all over the years. She still possesses the ability to jump octaves in a single song. The best example is during her big hits Who Will Save Your Soul and You Were meant For Me. The latter she does with such aching passion that there’s not a dry eye in the place. She also rattles off a couple of others like Intuition, Hands, Standing Still and Foolish Games. Most of her material comes from the early albums. They all sound great in this stripped back format, as they were originally written.

Her slightly nervous, slightly flaky stage presence has toned down a bit over the years, too. I can remember her jittery audience rapport from the last time I saw her. At one point, tonight she changes songs after a few lines because she’s lost concentration. Another time she scolds the audience for talking in her set. “I can hear everything up here,” she quips dryly, like a schoolteacher.

In the middle of her 40 minute set we are reminded of how she has an abusive father; how she grew up on a farm in Alaska (which features in a Discovery Channel TV show The Last Frontier); how she was homeless in LA and how music saved her. You can read up on these and many more fun-facts in in her second memoir available in the foyer (Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story). Oh, and by the way she’s also launching a new website imparting her wisdom gleaned from those harsh years. Now 42 and a mother with a five-year-old she’s still strikingly pretty with an amazing voice and determined to do it her way.

“Your all in a good spot”, announces our headliner, “Don’t ever move. I’ve love my country, but it’s has gone to bat shit at the moment.” It’s not an original line. He said the same thing to his Auckland audience. And probably Christchurch, too. It’s an easy and cheap shot to gain a bit of respect, early on. Not that he needs it. The ‘Don’ is a legend down here. As plenty of vintage Eagles T-shirts on aging beer guts attest.

Under a cloud of vintage radios the Don Henley show rolls in to deliver a two hour time capsule of songs from his solo career and his time with The Eagles, starting off with one of my favourites, Seven Bridges Road, done a capella by the whole ensemble up front and centre. He’s brought along a big crew. I count 13, including 3 backup singers, a five-piece brass section, bass, drums, a slide (and sometimes violinist) two pianos and two lead guitarists – manned superbly by long-time collaborator Steuart Smith and Chris Holt. Both tag-team their way through most of the solo from this set that spans nearly four decades from early Eagles to Henley’s most recent collection of originals and covers Cass County. They pretty much stick to the well published set list but there are many highlights. For me these are the tunes that bookend the big singles, although Life In The Fast Lane, with added brass and more sharing of the lead guitar solos deserves special mention. One of the deeper dives into the catalogue was dedicated to a woman Henley met in Aspen – “before all the Gucci giggery”, says Henley referring to the advent of the ski culture affluence that is now there. He gives us a bit of the backstory to how he met a particular Czech exile in a bar and ended up staying with her in her cabin in the woods. The Last Resort is a wonderful old song that closes Hotel California. It’s totally 1970’s but it still works well today done up in a most Broadway fashion. It has a similar immigrant sentiment to Neil Diamond’s Coming to America. Somehow it also seems like yet another dig at the hypocrisy of Trump’s America. Although Henley plays country, he’s no GOP redneck.

Another great moment is New York Minute, from Henley’s End of Innocence album. The band do it with a wonderfully lush treatment. This one definitely feels like a show tune.

The show has a number of covers, the best being Garth Brooks’ It Don’t Matter to The Sun. They do this with some tenderness and retain its down home feel, despite the large number of players involved. That also works well on a very hokey version of Bramble Rose (a Tift Merrit Cover) and a song about internet stalking That Old Flame which features a duet with one of the backing singers, Lara Johnston. He also duets with another singer, Erica Swindell on an old Luevin Brothers number, When I stop Dreaming. Along with Lily Elise, the three ladies get their own turn to sing as a trio, doing Henley’s own I Don’t Want to Hear Anymore, while the man himself “steps out for a smoke and a pancake”. They do a fair job on it but I think it’s best to leave this one to the man.

Of course, everyone was waiting for Mr Smith to strap on his white double neck and start up the first chords of Hotel California. The band’s version was blistering, proving that even though they’ve played it a 1000 times, there’s still some life to be lived. A surprise that finally got everyone up dancing, despite the wilting protests of the party pooper usher team, was Tears For Fear’s Everybody Wants To Rule The World. “This is therapy,” Henley joked, eluding to America’s political environment again. Yes it was.

Given Henley is fast approaching 70, and that this the last night of the tour Downunder, he’s in fine voice and looking pretty good. He doesn’t try to over exert though, leaving out any theatrics like leaping around the stage and the show is delivered right on script. It started on time and finished with in a cat’s whisker, with two (planned) solos and no improvised components. Nobody was adding any extras, despite it being finals night. This was never going to be a challenging show. It was just a great night out, with good music from a man who knows how to write a good song.

While most of Wellington was either at Adele or wishing they were, there were about 4000 fans down on the waterfront who were very happy re-living their teenage years with great tunes like Boys of Summer and Dirty Laundry still ringing in their ears as they headed out the exit doors. There were at least a handful of punters that I overheard on the way out who were going to go hunting for their cassettes in the garage when they got home. And chances are they were as happy as I was that they’d stayed home and gone out this weekend, too.

Launch of ‘Hit and Run’ at Unity Books 22 March 2017

Originally published on

“On 22 August 2010 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) elements, operating as part of a Coalition Force in Bamyan province, Afghanistan conducted an operation against an insurgent group…
Nine insurgents (not 12 as reported) were killed in the operation which targeted an insurgent group in the area where Bamyan province borders neighbouring Baghlan province…
Following the operation allegations of civilian casualties were made. These were investigated by a joint Afghan Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Interior and International Security Assistance Force Assessment team, in accordance with ISAF procedures….
The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded.”
New Zealand Defence Force – Media Release – 20 April 2011

Six years later, to the day, investigative reporter Nicky Hager and war Correspondent Jon Stephenson have released a book (Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour). It reveals what they believe to be the truth behind the “tragic and disastrous SAS actions” and allege that “at least 21 civilians were killed or injured – many of them women and children.” They have even recorded their names and documented their lives in the book, including 3-year-old Fatima, who was killed as her mother, carrying her, tried to dive for cover.
They also claim that the attack went further, leading to the blowing up and burning of at least a dozen houses by SAS and US forces and then later, a second village raid destroying more property before one single insurgent was caught. He was handed over to the Afghan secret police and tortured.
Hager also claimed in his press conference, held after the launch that the real insurgents, still very much alive, had actually attended the funerals of the civilians (from that 21). This he said was recorded on video and sold to authorities. He hadn’t seen the tape, he conceded.
This book, he said, was an investigation into the truth behind the story of these raids and the cover up that was conducted not only by the NZDF but also by The Defence Minister at the time, Wayne Mapp and the Prime Minister at the time, John Key, who had actually authorised the attacks by telephone.
He made no bones about linking the connection between the raids and the recent death of a New Zealander, Lt Tim O’Donnell, who was killed by a roadside bomb in August 2010. One journalist asked if this was a revenge attack that he was alluding to but he was careful not to answer this conclusively.
Hager said that he and Stephenson had been given the story, they hadn’t sought it out. And that was one of the compelling reasons to pursue it. Both Hager and Stephenson emphasised several times during the book launch that the book was based on ‘numerous and extensive interviews with people involved in these events, including New Zealand and Afghan military personnel as well as residents of the village.” Hager did also add that he had not approached Key or Mapp for comment because he believed that although they may have known the truth they were not likely to reveal anything or even to reply in any way.
Hager’s book was released today and will be available through most of the usual retail outlets. Below is uncut audio of the media conference, held in the foyer next to Unity Books.