A Bathful of Kawakawa and Hot Water by Hana Pera Aoake (Compound Press, 2020), 88pp, $25; Piripai by Leila Lees (99% Press, an imprint of Lasavia Publishing, 2021), 108pp, $25; Party Legend by Sam Duckor-Jones (Victoria University Press, 2021), 96pp, $25
If you did not know that Hana Pera Aoake, Sam Duckor-Jones and Leila Lees are practising artists as well as writers, you’d sense it in the way they each write their books. Here we have three writers who juxtapose trivia with life-and-death matters, resulting in engaging collections. Aoake works with textiles and natural materials, Duckor-Jones sculpts and Lees paints—and their writing is imagistic. Colours and textures are precise, and they prioritise experimentation. Just flip to any page of Party Legend. Or see how Aoake brings together poems, social theory, an all caps-lock piece and a paragraph written exclusively in questions. And observe how Lees experiments with anonymity—subjects are referred to simply as the girl, the man, etc. But let’s start with Aoake.
Hana Pera Aoake (Ngāti Mahuta, Tainui/Waikato, Ngāti Hinerangi) is a versatile communicator. Both academic register and primal screams emerge from the same body. In eight distinct passages, Aoake longs to be on the ground to support Ihumātao, introduces theory about the commons, sees violence everywhere and, memorably, contemplates the nature of wairua. Aoake’s strength is their ability to see subtleties and, thereby, to write with nuance. In reflecting on allyship, they make an important distinction:
I often worry about the insistence of the notion of a ‘safe space’ rather than a ‘safer space’.
(‘Tika and Praxis’)
Juxtaposing deep and meaningful passages with trivia—oil spills alongside sexy patchouli guys—satisfies a reader’s sweet tooth. The superficial is light relief; it’s ultimately relatable, thereby helping a reader to stick with the book and take on board some of the more difficult material. Furthermore, uncensored admissions prove Aoake to be genuine: ‘Almost every day I am thankful for maoridictionary.co.nz.’
The titles in this collection are formatted in a circle, and the font is all whorls. As they explore, Aoake uses circular thinking, revisiting topics such as power, the living world, fashion, ignorance, history, hangovers and pushing through. Each time a statement is repeated our understanding of it is more comprehensive. In ‘The Only Way Out is Through’, Aoake restates between paragraphs:
If we want to be truly liberated there needs to be a way in which to come together and account for the differences in our experiences and privilege.
Looking to locate a worldview in which people might no longer feel alienated, they cite thinkers such as Saidiya Hartman, Glen Sean Coulthard and Silvia Federici. Their references are my new summer reading. And just to finish, here is that beautiful way they describe wairua:
I imagine a wairua with the power of a thousand hearts beating together simultaneously in the air, the soil, and in the living and non-living matter that encompasses everything.
(‘The Only Way Out is Through’)
Piripai by Leila Lees is a narrative collection of bird sightings. She begins by providing stills in refreshingly simple sentences: ‘There is a concertina vinyl door …’; ‘This is the lawn …’—as if posing pieces for a doll’s house, but not a generic one: a loved and lived-in one replete with folded hankies and cut violets in a small crystal vase. This is a comforting book; there are periodic cups of tea. But this is also an attentive book; the teapot is being swirled with boiling water.
Lees’ prose is rich in elegant verbs such as ‘roost’, ‘nestle’, ‘predict’ and ‘encounter’. Descriptions of birdsong evidence live transcription. One time on the garden path a pīwakawaka ‘lets forth a rippling movement of creaking cheeps’. In the same entry, the narrator makes character studies of poroporo, kawakawa, patē, tōtara and other plants. She rewards readers with her poetic sensibility: ‘[the girl] encounters nonchalance and a touch of sassy in the castor oil plants’. This is her artist’s eye, and I would go so far as to call Piripai art writing. Lees initiates one dreamy collective noun, ‘a rush of copper butterflies’. Her interpretation of the living world is to be treasured.
While the prose is rewarding, however, the narrative is inconsequential. Nothing is at stake; characters don’t seem interested in change. Their (admirable) contentment means, unfortunately, that the reader has no motivation to resume the book, even if the language in every page is graceful. Perhaps because of its groundwork of character continuity and its back-cover claim to a coming of age, this book gives me the impression I can expect the narrative to resolve, so I’m disappointed when it doesn’t behave like fiction. The whole series of sightings is perhaps revealing something but it’s too subtle to pick up on. The writing feels arbitrary, incidental to the beautiful excursions that occasioned it. This does, however, mean that Piripai is an ideal book for homesick readers, those longing for rural and coastal settings. And approached as prose poetry, it satisfies.
Where Lees evokes something of the real in nature, Duckor-Jones specialises in imagination. He doesn’t make time to watch for the beautiful rare revelations of the natural world. He’s coming up with charismatic, wet-eyed prize winners in the book’s namesake poem, then quickly putting into words the thrill of unstoppable destruction and reproduction in an alphabetical creation story.
In the creation story poem, ‘The Embryo Repeats’, we’re dropped into what appears to be Duckor-Jones talking out of his arse, but which very quickly turns out to be a psychedelic trip of a lifetime in which God is flamboyantly brewing up more creation:
& God’s base is a magnificent crumbling palace fabulous unfiltered sun purple triple shadow / & God’s bases are always gaudy open systems ripe and pumping giddily towards entropy with lush interpretive margins
This God is a diva. Fickle and high-maintenance, he’s a parody of the artist trope—a self-deprecating jibe on Duckor-Jones’ part. The narrator uses repetition to an endearing stultified effect which, due to the intriguing content, doesn’t come across as doddery:
God really has a
really superb collection
Really so many fishes & ants & lots
of other fishy anty things.
I think of Jim Henson’s muppets. I also think of Ted Hughes’ visceral crow poems. For example, ‘A Childish Prank’, in which Crow bites a worm—Christ—in two and stuffs man in one half and woman in the other. What’s relevant here is not Hughes’ archetype of the gender binary—far from it—but the Frankenstein quality to his approach. Like Hughes, Duckor-Jones has intuitive writhing adjectives easily to hand. God ‘mixes up a slitty chordy taily base’. Duckor-Jones does a good monstrosity.
Despite having a very real, frenzied-cymbals vibe, Party Legend is consoling. There are no strings attached to these poems. What you see, even if you couldn’t ever have predicted a quetzal mid-stanza, is what you get. And you get the impression the poet can’t hold a grudge. Consider this spare, self-contained, delightful glimpse of a poem, titled ‘19/9’:
the check-out girl said to
the chatty man &
she handed him his
And while Party Legend is rife with casualties of chaos, only an empathetic type would have noticed those casualties. It’s ironic. Only an empathetic type could have written the following line, which we can only but recognise, bodily:
the wind passes over like a firm hand on a cat
Again, only an empathetic type could be comfortable about being pleased with himself:
you make a lion
These poems are easy to love.
These three collections each privilege readers with an artist’s vision of the world. They provide the precious insights into social theory, the living world and imagination, which aren’t readily accessible through hasty looking. And it’s not as if these creators have more time than the rest of us. Aoake, lamenting a lack of time for ‘unsuccessful’ art-making, observes:
Perhaps we just spend our time trying to improve other people’s free time. We have no time left to practise art.
(‘We Were Like Stones Like Weeds in the Road’)
That these attentive books came about, therefore, is a real gift. A Bathful of Kawakawa and Hot Water, Piripai and Party Legend make the case for writers and readers making time to practise art. They do so sometimes with patience, sometimes without, each in compelling ways, and always in well-honed language.
ANGELA TROLOVE reviews the arts for Theatreview NZ, Art Zone magazine and several galleries, and she tutors academic writing with Studiosity. She lives in Ōtepoti with her Kiwi-Italian family.