Book Review: Rāwāhi, by Briar Wood

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_RawahiRāwāhi (shortlisted for the Ockham 2018) is an ambitious collection of poetry that transports the reader to places all over the world. The title rāwāhi is a word that means, the other side, or overseas or abroad. This locates Wood (and us) within te ao Māori but in a global sense. This makes sense in Māori tradition as Māori have had a long history of travelling, from those who travelled from Haiwaiki, to those that accompanied the British to London.

We start our journey in the poem Kuramārōtini with Ākuanei, who has chosen to travel with Kupe to the new land of Aotearoa. Wood centres a woman here in a well-known Māori story and in the naming of a place. It is Ākuanei who has the power of words and it is she that is eager to travel. In this poem Wood is aligning herself with her tupuna who decided to leave Hawaiki. My favourite stanza from this poem is:

Some hoa.
Best to know that
legendary navigators take huge risks
and do not make the safest companions.

What stands out to me in this stanza is the voice, the way Wood deals with Kupe like an old friend. It brings real closeness to a story that may seem distant to some.

From Kuramārōtini, we are then taken to a poem about dolphins, and it is with these dolphins that we will be swimming through te moana. Also seeded in Kuramārōtini is the concept of searching for landfall, there is tension between the adventuring urge and the connection with Papatūānuku. In Māori stories there has always been a deep awareness of the separate worlds of Tangaroa and Tane Mahuta, and this tension plays out in this way. A poem that explores the relationship between sea and land is Kūmara Hōu which mirrors again the journey from Hawaiki in its opening stanza:

Kūmara hou – new kūmara – 
also kūmara tawhito – old kūmara – 
brought on waka from Hawaiki,
maybe Mexico, Peru, the Kon-Tiki
sailed thousands of miles across
Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa seeking
your roots, your tubers
Ipomea batatas earth banana.

This stanza explores so many places in such a short amount of time, drawing on phrases from three languages. This is just a snippet of how dense and rewarding Wood’s work is in this collection.

Wood spends time in Paris, London, Ireland and pulls from the linguistic universes she visits. Every language holds a new world in it which gives Wood’s poetry such a wealth of imagery and voice. It rings of the modernism of Eliot but without the elitist condescension. Wood draws on these languages because she understands that to come close to seeing the real diversity of our world we must come close to the words of each locality.

Kilmartin Glen, a poem located in Ireland, begins with the awful phrase ‘Don’t bring your voodoo in here!’ which is at once startling and humourous in the ignorance it reflects. The character in the poem is referring to a Māori karakia that is to be made before the weaving of flax. This is just one of the reminders that Wood is traversing a world that isn’t always kind or understanding to indigenous people like us; ‘If that’s Christianity they can keep it.’ is a line Wood delivers later on in the poem, showing she is not going to take such treatment lightly.

In terms of technical flair there is so much to love and linger on in this collection. How each piece flows into the next is immaculate, a construction that pushes the reader out of their comfort zone by giving us a firm hand to hold. This is a New Zealand poet whose work is worthy of attention and this book very much deserves to be on the Ockham Book Awards Poetry shortlist. I’ll leave you with the first few lines from the poem Transyek that I think encapsulate both the feeling and philosophy of Rāwāhi:

To live life like a fish curved
inside the breaking tip of a wave –

Is this foolish or brave – ?
or maybe neither, but simply to live.

Reviewed by Essa Ranapiri

Rāwāhi
by Briar Wood
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473403386

 

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