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essa was the first (and is the only) person to ever ask me what my preferred pronouns are. It came in the middle of an unrelated messenger conversation, just a simple ‘Not to be rude or anything what are your pronouns? [sic]’ So for the first time in my life, completely casually, I told someone outside of my immediate close friend group that I don’t feel 100% comfortable using “woman” as an identifier. And then we went back to discussing the LitCrawl after party.
It seems like such a simple thing, like ticking a box on a form. She/Her, He/Him, They/Them. But more often than not that last box isn’t available for ticking. And that is the space that essa writes from, where many of the poems in ransack have been created. This collection takes that missing box, that void, and fills it to the brim with the previously unacknowledged.
Ransack is like a petri dish. When you read it you feel like you are examining a living thing through a microscope. There are scientific equations scattered throughout, so many references to the sea, an earthiness that is almost visceral. At times while reading it I felt the same feelings of awe I feel while watching a David Attenborough nature documentary.
Perhaps it’s that essa has lived a life where they, and everyone around them, has viewed their mind and body with a cool impersonal remove. They state in the poem the nonbinary individual: ‘This shouldn’t tell you much because gender shouldn’t tell you anything / about a person.’
There is a yearning throughout many of the poems in ransack, a sense that essa just wants to be accepted for who they are, and yet they are still trying to figure out for themself exactly who that is.
There are a number of poems addressed to Orlando, the titular character of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, who begins the book as a boy, and at the age of around 30 wakes up one day as a woman, spending the rest of the book as such. You get the sense reading The Dear Orlando series that this character is a stand in for a real life confidante or role model. In the first Dear Orlando poem, which is the first poem of the collection, essa writes ‘I think about your gender as I think about my own. Would you find that funny Orlando? And would you let me make it a running joke?’
And so essa does, inserting Dear Orlando poems in between poems about their childhood, discordant and frenetic poems about growing up, about love, body dysmorphia, suicide, colonialism, multiple classical references, and references to classic literature. There are also Māori creation stories and genealogies. They sit comfortably in amongst everything else to complete the origin story of essa.
In the poem Koare, essa writes:
My path is Tūrongo
who went to the east
and Māhinaarangi in whose womb
A line direct to myself
In a world which so often doesn’t make space for non-binary and gender fluid people, essa is clearly carving out their own space in ransack. And by doing so, with unapologetic and raw words, they are making space for others to follow. I can imagine one day in the future a young poet will publish a collection full of poems addressed the poem Dear essa.
reviewed by Gem Wilder
by essa ranapiri
Published by VUP