On Elephant’s Shoulders by Sudha Rao (The Cuba Press, 2022), 82pp, $25; Expectation by Tom Weston (Steele Roberts, 2022), 64pp, $25; Echidna by essa may ranapiri (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), 96pp, $25
When I first read the poetry across these three new collections, published by three separate presses, I failed to see a unifying theme. After all, one was penned by a new Kiwi who came to Aotearoa from India and now resides in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. One was created by a prolific takatāpui Māori poet based in Kirikiriroa. One was crafted by a poet I had not encountered previously, who is a lawyer from Tāmaki Makaurau.
But after further perusal, a shared aspect began to reveal itself and congeal in my mind. All three diverse poets dwell in a quest for surety, shared even though their initial motivations differ. As such, there is a search going on across all three collections, a veritable unravelling of the multifold layers of who an individual is, has become, is still becoming. ‘It is time for shedding skin’, writes Rao in her poem ‘Triptych’. In fact, as I mused further, all three poets are Outsiders in the Wilson sense, given that they are outliers along a continuum of such tangential individuals.
Rao seeks some sort of reconciliation between her homeland memories, her different cultural nexus, the breaking braids to whānau, and the new environment she encountered and continues to encounter in Aotearoa New Zealand. ‘I was moving between worlds’, she sighs in ‘Warp and weft’. She is indeed a ‘Migrant’ (p. 29), a ‘Manuhiri’ (p. 30), caught up in an entirely different yet shared colonised world:
What’s a brown-skinned woman to do
At the gates of a marae?
As such, several of her poems are bridge-builders, while at the same time, they search for stability. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the intelligently-crafted poem ‘Making a salad’:
I crossed the dateline and disappeared
into an ocean circling the bottom of the earth …
Learning to feel cold was to understand new seasons—
here, there are fifty words for rain …
I remember how my first experience of lettuce
prepared me to compile a recipe book for salads.
Rao writes copiously. There are a lot of poems – 54 – in this book of arrival, a sizeable tranche of them short and often depicting where nature is encountered by a poet as witness to a myriad of sensations of loss and gain as tauiwi. The language is sometimes striking, as in this example from ‘Desire undressed’:
I craze to race ahead of myself …
I believe that this collection is an encouraging start for someone who is still settling, still seeking her way as a newcomer, as a writer. Which is where I leave this interesting poet.
Tom Weston is constantly and consistently asking pātai, essentially epistemological and, therefore, metaphysical. His poems reverberate with questions about what he sees and hears, and this sensual input translates immediately into his search for some sort of answer to why he/we exist at all. As just one example, in the poem ‘Mapping the currents’, three questions flow through:
Does the wind feel the same way?
Who is the I who writes?
Should any poem be left with a question?
Yet there are never any answers throughout this somewhat sombre soliloquy.
These are not conventional religious texts but are more akin to the notes from Philosophy One courses in Theory of Knowledge and Existentialism I took at university over fifty years ago, with a fair dollop of Naïve Realism thrown into the mix. In his taut, concise, probing fashion, Weston wields words like rapiers rather than batons. Take as one such example these lines from the aptly-titled poem, ‘An early attempt at philosophy’:
We can ask what if and what may have been.
We can wait for an answer.
And if it comes there is light on the tip of the day.
One translation might empathise
the starting over, a new body
in the same old skin, the burning of old skin.
Language itself also proves difficult to dismantle, to deliver answers. Weston is Austin-like in his Wittgensteinian dissection, ‘asking whether any language gets it right’ (from ‘Released for now’). So, lines like these reverberate throughout:
I demand of this noun an explanation.
I demand of this adjective a noun.
The words entirely toxic.
Drowning in the tar-pits of language.
And all those paragraphs—where do
they go when we go?
I need to get a grip on language
before it gets a grip on me.
This claim is somewhat ironic given that Weston often utilises language skilfully to consistently lift his inquisitive stance from banality to brilliance, as with lines such as, ‘Language opens like ripping a sheet … / I am a victim of too much geography’ (from ‘The language of geography’). It is physicality—mountains, rivers, rain—that grounds this poet as he inconclusively ends poems with lines such as, ‘I know so very little of anything’ (from ‘In which the summer brags’) and ‘And I had only just started to scratch the surface’ (from ‘In which the rain replies’). Which is where I leave this interrogative poet.
essa may ranapiri’s is a continuous poetic voyage, a sequential shedding of skins in a search for identity, security, Pākehā apology. And long may they voyage, because their voice is at once experimental and candid, and lays bare both historical injustices bestowed on ngā iwi Māori and current ignorant inequity channelled toward those who do not harmonise with this country’s heteronormative cultural majority. The collection Echidna is a sometimes sardonic, sometimes sexy saga, replete with Dramatis Personae/He tāngata of Māori, Greek, Anglo-American entities. The subtitle of this ambitious tapestry is:
The Many Adventures of
HINENĀKAHAHIRUA as She Tries to Find
Her Place in a Colonised World.
All the points I make about Echidna/Hinenākahirua/essa may ranapiri can be witnessed in ipseity-poems such as ‘Echidna & her brothers’, ‘Echidna goes through her Emo phase’, ‘Echidna gets a name change’ and so on. The poems slither and snake around several topoi-securing selfhoods and, at the same time, are denoted with several devotions to an array of excellent kaituhi Māori. Yet, the accent is more on shaping poems around and across the page, as in the crucifix enabled in ‘Prometheus at the Crucifixtion’, and in a miraculously-mixed cast of characters intertwining throughout the narrative chronicle that is this progress, rather than an inculcation of abstruse imagery. More, the displays of disconnected text are a deliberate device to disrupt and disturb the eyes, the mind. Theirs is visibly upset language, curiously divergent and direct, drawn from a well-read curator of the museum of themselves. He tīpakonga raina mai i tēnei rātaka rerekē ināianei. From:
she gets her friends to call her Hinenākahirua
she don’t want to be white-washed by the classics no more
she is a daughter of te ao Māori & proud!
(from ‘Echidna gets a name change’)
the kuia all dressed in black
gestures her come
and all Echidna says before
before taking those short
towards the rest of eternity
is I’ve never been.
And with that Echidna is Echidna no more.
(from ‘Echidna’s fate’)
Where will essa may next excurse? Perhaps they will place a further korowai around their being me te timata tuhi i te reo Māori? Ko wai he mōhio? Kāore ahau. After all:
How many times has she died and how many times will she come
back, her name changed her body more monstrous? Hinenākahirua
looks back at Echidna’s life: where does one stop and the other really begin?
(from ‘She-viper with tales outstretched’)
Sheathed inside an earlier skin, they once wrote: ‘They’re starting to worry that words won’t be enough to destroy this racist/misogynistic/classist dystopia they suffer under’. I tell you what, though, their words are penetrating the dystopic carapace of Aotearoa letters. This intense poet/ess is necessary.
Ko te mutunga tēnei o tēnei arotakenga; he wā ināianei mō ēnei kaituhi toikupu pātapa.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA (Te Ātiawa) commutes between homes in Hong Kong, Philippines and Aotearoa New Zealand. He is widely published across several genres in both his main languages, te reo Māori and English, and his work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Italian, French, Mandarin, Romanian and Spanish.