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