Between the Kindling and the Blaze, by Ben Brown (Anahera Press, 2013), 50 pp., $27.99
This, his first slim book of poetry, compiled by and for Ben Brown (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Mahuta), comes in a finely presented format from a fledgling small-press publisher, with a flaming cover painting by Rewi McClay depicting the fire (ahi) of the title.
Except this collection is not so much poetry in any ‘traditional’ English language sense, the métier of – for example – the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, but is far more intensively mōteatea in all of that genre’s multifold formats – laments, lullabies, lashings, laconic reflections and long pieces that some would nominate as prose. Ben Brown carries, with considerable mana, the coat tails of Baxter and Tuwhare and Hunt and doesn’t go near the vanilla-and-villanelle nature of much other contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand verse. All good.
Brown is also a performance poet par excellence and these mōteatea, as with all such oral poetry, are intended to be declaimed and exclaimed to an audience: to be performed in front of a crowd, preferably in an atmosphere of beers, guitars, perhaps a whiff or seven of dak (‘a slang name for marijuana’ – as the extensive glossary defines it.)
There is little rhyme, stanzas are irrelevant, arcane words are almost non-existent, and Brown does not play around trying to be obscurely clever and cleverly obscure: this is all upfront stuff, eh. There is some reo Māori – though for this staunch reviewer perhaps not enough – and the use is always relevant to proceedings.
There is also a 10-track CD of the poet reading many of his poems in a mellifluous and measured voice that surprised me when I heard it. Why? Because so much of the imagery and thematic thrust in this collection delivers dirty-nail-bitten sturdy scenarios of gang life (‘Dog town’ and ‘The dog my brother’); ripped-and-torn mental photos of broken-down (but nevertheless proud) men and women; excoriating sagas of Pākehā misdeeds (‘Hei kīngi’) and Māori missteps; and blunt tales of tragic (anti-) heroes, like that of Chris Campbell from Ruatoria (‘The Brother come home’) whose escapades and cronies I remember vividly from years ago. Brown, then, is dulcet and cadenced when he reads, yet many of his plotlines rage, bubble like hot mud pools, are raggedly rough-edged – including the time-warped Te Rauparaha being chucked into the same boil-up as gang-patched taurekareka (slaves) in the lengthy ‘A conversation between a rangatira and his slave’. There’s quite a contrast between what this poet writes about and how he orates it.
It’s also important to acknowledge that for Brown there is usually redemption from any falls from grace: his work here is chock-full of religious terminologies, with the God-word resplendent throughout, and side-servings of crucifix and yield and therein and prayer and heaven. A sort of rattling scree-slope of religious mysticism permeates many of the pages of this book; a street-corner witnessing as of some shrouded and hooded Bible-basher. At times there’s a sense of shamanistic skateboarding across the smashed concrete of a broken city, the sparks of which kept striking the voice and chords of ‘Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash – of all people – into my brain as I read.
So, man and woman, in a sort of cultural apotheosis, earn mana – or ‘womana’ – in league with beneficent reflections on ancestors (tipuna) and a respectful segueing into physical surroundings (‘Taniwha’ and ‘Pūriri’). But it is not an easy, nor always a successful process: for many Māori, alienated and urbanised, life is an existential whirlpool and not all scrabble out to safety – for them, it’s always somewhere between the kindling and the blaze. You gotta be staunch, brothers and sisters; more than a bit stoic to survive in Aotearoa New Zealand, back then as it was with Brown’s grandfather, and nowadays too. In ‘Almost home’, the poet: ‘was almost home, I see the light on, be there shortly …’ but it took him a lot of time and effort and several eldritch encounters to even get that close.
Ko he aroha tino nui mo te Papa raua ko te Mama o tēnei kaituhi whiti kei konei hoki. (There is lots of love for the father and mother of this poet here also.) Noticeably, Brown pays allegiance and prays obeisance to his stalwart parents in several poems (as for example ‘Lost’.) Mana is earned, but it is also learned from mentors such as them.
You also need a sense of humour to survive ki te ao (in the world) as Māori, and Brown is chock full of this wry forte – as for example in his respectful poke at Tuwhare (‘Chur bro’), and also as in the example of himself being set up for a ‘shout’ by one of his own relations (whanaunga), which is always the way (‘Bro’ story’.) Echoes of Billy T. James riffs (‘True hori story’) swim through the entire book like eels (tuna) cackling away from the traps (ngā hīnaki) that never snap for them.
Finally, the magnum opus in this collection is, for me at least, the poet’s riposte to James K. Baxter, and the epochal poem ‘The Māori Jesus’. In ‘I am the Māori Jesus’ Ben Brown asserts:
And I even got you Hemi
Every crowd needs a doubter
The brutal truth is that there is nothing romantic about being Māori, eh. And no one wants to hang around wind-tunnel Wellington either:
So you won’t catch me
Walking on Wellington Harbour mate
Too bloody cold and windy eh
What further sets these two apart from one another in their poems is that whereas Baxter vilified, or at least denied, any vestige of a divine presence after the eighth day, for Brown there is ‘my other Father’, and there is unquestionably that big leap into the underworld (‘Te Rerenga Wairua’) at the tip of the island too:
… a nice place
forever to leave from
I concur with the spiel on the publicity flier that accompanied this book: ‘This collection is also an important contribution to our literary landscape – very few poetry collections by Māori writers have been published in the last decade, which has left a significant gap in our poetry canon.’ That gap is closing at long bloody last. And while Ben Brown quips about Tuwhare:
That’s a neat trick too man
Turning the Pākehā’s
English into a
Reo all your own
– it seems to me he’s doing the exact same thing here, all further accentuated by his own massive indents and idiosyncratically curlicued clumps of lines.
Ka nui te pai tau mōteatea.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA has a PHD in English from the University of Auckland. He is a novelist, poet and editor who currently lives and teaches in Hong Kong.