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

by Briar Wood
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473403386


Book Review: Five Strings, by Apirana Taylor

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_five_strings.jpgIt’s an underrated pleasure to read a book and identify with it’s protagonist, to sit nestled inside their mind and language, and in the some of the best books – to love another character through them. Apirana Taylor’s Five Strings achieves this with two protagonists, Mack and Puti: We look into Puti’s ‘fish-bowl’ eyes from Mack’s perspective, and a moment later look back through them at the sun highlighting Mack’s own ‘jowly chops.’

Puti and Mack are both sickness beneficiaries and alcoholics. They live in a room together, and walk daily to the public loos to wash their dishes, and weekly to the pools to shower. They’re regulars at the One Way Up Tavern, where they’ve found their community, but between Mondays when they run out of money, and Wednesdays when they get paid, they’ve got no-one but each other.

Taylor makes affectionate use of language. Mack describes his circumstances as ‘Dickensian’, and Five Strings is full of bums, flops, pukus, and bastards. The book’s world is sensuous. It’s characters never have sex due to a mutual combination of apathy and fear, but a scene where Mack makes Puti a banana sandwich served (for this reader, at least) as a sufficient substitute:

He peeled off their jackets. He buttered four slices of bread with the thinnest skin of margarine, then placed each banana on top of a piece of bread. He crushed and spread the fruit with his knife taking care to ensure the black and white pulpy mass didn’t flow over the bread’s borders. He capped the two spread slices with another piece of bread…

He gave Puti her sandwich. She watched him build it with as much concern, care and concentration as he took in making it. She cupped the sandwich in her hands, like someone taking the holy bread for communion.

Five Strings is a uncomfortable study of the tender, painful interplay of power and care in long-term love. The couple look to each other for everything their society isn’t giving them and frequently come up short. They both claim to be burdened by the other’s dependence, but the reader senses that really Five Strings is about the need to be needed, and so it’s doubly poignant when they fail each other.

During the first two thirds of the novel everything that happens seems to have happened multiple times before. This is a sort of intimacy; we learn the pattern of the days and weeks their relationship is made of. But towards the end of the second third a reader might begin to wonder if another trip to the pub with Mack is necessary, when after all he’ll only get drunk, argue with the bartender, then philosophise to no-one about modern meaninglessness and the stupidity of the modern work week.

Sometimes Five Strings feels like a play that could go through just one more rehearsal. The sentences are often stilted, pulling the reader out of the minds of the characters and back into that of a person looking at a book. Often, too, the characterisation of minor characters feels stagey. Sometimes this a problem and sometimes it isn’t. Dolorous ‘a bearded transvestite’ and ‘Greta Garbage’ both read like caricatures, not characters, and the novel gains nothing by alienating us from them.

When the character in question is an authority figure, someone sitting at a remove from the story, the flatness is fun and in accordance with a sort of realism. When Puti’s anger management therapist arrives late to their meeting saying, ‘Don’t think I’m late. It’s all part of the new policy. Give the clients time to settle in. Time to relax and stretch out those thoughts,’ we can’t help but snort our derision. Even though Sandra’s character doesn’t seem quite realistic, the way the system she represents grates on Puti absolutely does.

Taylor’s irony is existential too. When Mack’s drunk and happy he thinks, ‘[there’s] nothing wrong with the world, and if there [is he’ll] fix it.’ Drugs and alcohol are the routine of Mack and Puti’s lives, every other priority is submerged under them. Such narratives are often deterministic and tautological – he needs alcohol because… he needs alcohol – but Five Strings has an intimate understanding of its characters in both their desperation to escape their addictions and their ecstasy in being subsumed in them. We see how drugs and alcohol can be both a choice and an inevitability at once.

Taylor has a sharp, dramatic sense of everyday practicalities and the way their difficulty is compounded by poverty, but Five Strings is also a story of love and ultimately of reclamation.

Reviewed by Annaleese Jochems

Five Strings
by Apirana Taylor
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473389482

Book Review: Lucky Punch, by Simone Kaho

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_lucky_punchFollowers of Simone Kaho’s poetry and spoken word performances on various stages will be delighted and surprised by her debut collection. As a performer, she is vivacious and alluring. Her captivating readings lure you in, captivating you with her tales of extended family foibles, childhood fascinations and modern city romance and heartbreak. At times Simone’s work has a dark undercurrent in the form of vignettes capturing various acts of violence and casual misogyny. Lucky Punch is in fact a string of inter-related vignettes, verging on prose poetry, with some more formal poems interspersed. Each one is short and succinct, requiring the reader to pause before moving to the next one. Set mainly in Waterview, Auckland in the 1980s, it is as much a coming-of-age story, as it is a poetic reflection of a domestic and urban life, through the eyes of a curious child.

The illustrations that grace the monochrome cover are courtesy of a young relative of Simone’s. They depict a child bobbing above the waves; the title submerged and a wide-eyed character navigating this subterranean world in big heels. On the back, we have a man and possibly a woman in freefall. The childish drawings are fitting for the experiences described within the covers, where hidden dangers lurk in the background of fantastical and mundane childhood experiences. The politics of growing up with Tongan culture is touched upon lightly in several poems, such as, Standards, where vegetarian Simone examines the cultural ideas and hypocrisy around meat eating.

…I gave up meat eating at sixteen.
They thought I was crazy in Tonga.

Or there’s, the poem, Here, that touches on the racial attitudes that are present toward the Tongan culture in New Zealand:

An Air New Zealand training manual gets leaked.
It says Tongans are softly spoken but drink the bar dry.
Maybe it’s Tongan thing, like gold teeth.

Some of the poems are peppered with cultural references: Tongan time, the umu, and catching crayfish.

Simone’s fascination with the rhythms and quirks of nature is evident in the collection; something that may surprise fans of her stage work, which has a more urban and edgy mood. Firmly rooted in place, many of the images will be familiar to Aucklanders, such as hanging out at the local creek, running from bulls, pillaging blackberry bushes and taking trips to the local dairy for cheap bags of lollies. We all know the delight of finding a bird’s nest and pulling a disgusted face on discovering a weta for the first time. It’s relatable in a way that brings a smile to the face of the reader.

Expressed at times as a stream of consciousness, we look through the child’s eyes as events unfold and circumstances shift into uneasy young adulthood and all its rude awakenings. Simone holds our hand for the journey and we are right there with her, swinging from branches and experiencing our first kiss, our first sip of peach schnapps and our first gasp of recognition that the reality of growing up can hit you like a badly-thrown punch. When we walk away relatively unscathed, we feel lucky; we might even laugh about it later, or in Simone’s case, metabolise the experience into a poem.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Lucky Punch
by Simone Kaho
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473367510

Going West Festival: The Poetry of Place, with Paula Green, Kerry Hines & Leilani Tamu

pp_kerry_hinesPaula Green’s NZ Poetry Shelf is a blog I pop in on regularly. Green claims that she only writes about poetry that she enjoys, which makes her reviews a breathe-easy and pleasurable read. She reliably sniffs out great local poetry, so my interest was roused when she announced that both session guests, Kerry Hines (right) and Leilani Tamu (below), had been subjects for her blog. Hines and Tamu are very different writers. But Green expressed that both drew uncannily similar responses in her reviews. As if to echo the uncanny, when asked to read from their collections, each chose poems with a titular ‘beach’. In both cases, the poems were atmospheric, and anchored to place.

Concept of place features heavily in both writers’ work. It is discussed that place can be temporal as well as spatial, and that place is often about people, politics, and the memories people have of place that morph over time.

pp_Leilani_tamuKerry Hines’ collection, Young Country, draws inspiration from the images of nineteenth-century photographer, William Williams. These haunting photographs were presented to us in a slide-show, and feature alongside the poetry in her book. Leilani Tamu spoke about the photography (one photograph in particular) that set her on her poetry journey, along with influences of writers such as Albert Wendt and Karlo Mila.

These two poets are informed by their academic interests – Leilani’s Master thesis was titled ‘Re-defining ‘the beach’ – the municipality of Apia, 1879-1900’ and Hines’ doctoral thesis, ‘After the fact: Poems, photographs and regenerating histories’. Each poet spoke about the importance of archives to their writing process, the importance of libraries.

These are two poets I’ll be sure to keep an eye on.

Event reported by Elizabeth Morton

Young Country
by Kerry Hines
Published by AUP
ISBN: 9781869408237

The Art of Excavation
by Leilani Tamu
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473290047

Book Review: Real Fake White Dirt, by Jess Holly Bates

Available at bookstores nationwide.

cv_real_fake_white_dirtEverything about Jess Holly Bates’ book made me uncomfortable. The astroturf affixed to the front cover meant the work did not sit easily amongst my other shelved books. Skimming through the pages I spied pseudo-Maori neologisms − the author conjures ‘wei’ to transliterate lyrics from a popular rock song. One sequence of poetry is even titled ‘disgussed'(sic).

This is a book too big for its boots, I thought. How I was wrong.

This is not to say that a deeper reading lessened the discomfort. Real Fake White Dirt is a work as dissonant as its title. The reader is hurled between post-colonial guilt and a tenuous pride in ‘Whakapapapāpākehā ‘, between ignorance and tokenism. One feels they might be the victim of an ideological ‘wedgie’. Bates invites us to engage with something fiercely uncertain, a terrain where the grass is withered on either side of the fenceline. It takes a brave reader to set off on this literary journey.

But one shouldn’t let the thematic heaviness deter them. There is humour here, and character sketches that are at once comic and familiar. We meet ‘miranda von stooth / who works with underpriviledged youth’ and ‘jennifer kato / growing organic potatoes’. This is poetry as satire, and everyone is ripe for the picking.

Real Fake White Dirt was written for theatre, and took the form of a energised one-woman show, performed here and abroad earlier this year. This is not poetry that speaks softly. Often it is shouting, rambunctious, wailing from the page. Font size acts to guide the reader through the crescendos and lulls.

There is a glossary too, to ease the reader through neologisms, Te Reo Māori and historical footnotes. This is poetry that is determined to engage its audience. Bates’ work is uncomfortable but user-friendly. Even the astroturf affixed to the front cover has gained my appreciation – this is a book that doesn’t fit amongst the others and, for that matter, nor should it. This is one of a kind.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Real Fake White Dirt
by Jess Holly Bates
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473290030

Book Review: The Art of Excavation, by Leilani Tamu

cv_the_art_of_excavationAvailable in bookstores nationwide. 

Leilani Tamu’s first book, The Art of Excavation, is a little unusual in that it comes with substantial notes and a glossary of terms. Glossaries aren’t so unusual, but combined with the statement from the author and the breakdowns of many of the poems the reader has an easy in to the collection. I don’t usually enjoy it when authors explain poems or collections to me but I did enjoy this and I can definitely see the benefit for readers who may be unfamiliar with poetry or not yet sold on the concept.

Speaking about a collection’s accessibility is often used to compliment poetry that seems simple or is otherwise not very challenging to the reader. Tamu herself uses the term accessibility but I think that rather than being poetry that is boring or simple she’s working very consciously to make the themes and concerns of the book available to all readers who might pick up the book.

The book’s main concern is the Pacific and the history and future of it. It’s refreshing to read a collection dealing directly with colonisation and its impacts because if often feels like art in New Zealand can gloss directly over the surface. My only slight regret here is that it is often not Pākehā writers who take on those themes but instead writers who directly experience colonisation each day because they don’t have the luxury of thinking it was an historical event. By writing about the past and the future together Tamu is challenging the common narrative that colonisation is over and done with. This may be obvious to some readers but to me is one of the centrally important ideas the collection presents.

Tamu writes in an open and lyric style that mixes many different styles of language and register. The moments I was most pleased by were the ones where the register switched from high to low or back again. It doesn’t feel like a trick but an acknowledgement of the complexity of the topics being dealt with and for me was a good jolt. This register switching is an acknowledgement of the kind of lived experience of contemporary culture, alongside the “high” historical or literary perspective. There are some really lovely lines in the collection and sometimes they even rhyme which I rarely found pat. A particular favourite for me was this phrase, best read aloud:

‘you tear open ancient fissures
and cast aside superficial stitches’

There are moments of dark humour, sections that focus on history and obviously many political aspects. Tamu writes to her ancestors and her children. Sometimes it seems like she’s writing to herself or to other versions of herself. I did at times want Tamu to really dig in more deeply to some of the themes and really get going but I hope that her second collection will add to the work she has started in this collection.

Reviewed by Emma Barnes

The Art of Excavation
by Leilani Tamu
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473290047