The Breathing Tree, by Apirana Taylor (Canterbury University Press, 2014), 56 pp., $25.00; The Conch Trumpet, by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, 2015), 124 pp., $25.
Packing two books of poetry into the same waka can lead to conflicting points of view, but Apirana Taylor’s The Breathing Tree and David Eggleton’s The Conch Trumpet are, with their three-word, four-syllable titles, in tune from the get-go.
Both poets, in their early 60s, have Polynesian mothers: Taylor, born in Wellington, is ‘proudly’ affiliated to Ngāti Porou, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Ngāti Ruanui; and Eggleton’s mother was born in Fiji to a Tongan mother and a Polynesian father from the village of Motusa on the island of Rotuma, which was annexed as part of the Fiji Islands colony by the British in the 19th century. (Eggleton, born in Auckland, spent part of his childhood in Fiji.) And they both have European paternity: Taylor’s father was, among other things, a speechwriter for Prime Minister ‘Kiwi’ Keith Holyoake, and Eggleton’s father worked as a career soldier.
They are also acclaimed performance poets: Taylor (who, along with his siblings, was prominent in the Māori theatre cooperative Te Ohu Whakaari) is a well-rehearsed storyteller and a formidable kapa haka exponent; and Eggleton, ‘The Great Kiwi Ranter’, has verbal styles that range from pentecostal preacher to yawping man of letters, and when I read their work, I hear the grain of their respective voices.
My fledgling Voice Press published Eyes of the Ruru, Apirana Taylor’s first book, in 1979, which we launched at writer Bruce Stewart’s Tapu Te Ranga marae in Island Bay, Wellington, where Apirana was working with members of the Mongrel Mob digging out clay in preparation for the building of the multi-layered wharenui. In a poem in this latest collection, his sixth book of poetry, he re-imagines those days: ‘with these hands we built it / … me and Matt/ Hemi and Tai the boys in the mob // and the women Areta and Maggie // we dug and dug with muscle and blood // … we laid the foundations / raised the roof // worked with pride / on the inner decor the kowhaiwhai // with our own hands we built it / this kohanga reo // this language nest where / our children could speak’.
The Breathing Tree is a slim volume, (following on from the meaty A Canoe in Midstream, also published by Canterbury University Press, in 2009), and some of the poems read like language lessons:
tihei the first sneeze of life
the quintessential breath
tihei tihei tihei
the first life breath
tihei ki te taiao
the first breath
at the first glimmering of the light
tihei ki te whaiao
to the growing
the first breath at the gaining of light
tihei ki te ao mārama
to the birth
to the world of understanding
tihei tihei tihei
to the first breath
the eternal force
‘tihei mauri ora!’
At the heart of the collection is the interconnectedness of things linked to the Māori gods, such as: ‘Tāne-mahuta … sentient lord of a once great forest’. There’s anger at the European settlers and farmers for felling native trees, scarring the body of earth-mother Papatūānuku. There’s strength in things Māori for those disenfranchised by a Eurocentric system:
breathe move dance
these rangatira mountains are within you
the soft breeze that combs your hair
the breath of your ancestors
the river that flows like shining water
the mauri that grows from within
‘tihei tihei tihei mauri ora!’
In Eyes of the Ruru Taylor posited: ‘I am Maori / nothing more or less / have I wished to be // For though I am of mixed blood / it is the darkest / that runs deep in me.’ The Breathing Tree is a continuation of that journey, and he has dedicated the book to his youngest sister, Haina, who passed away suddenly a few years ago:
is it true what the kaumātua say
we become stars
at the end of this life
the sky is adorned with loved ones
which star are you
He finds her in a companion poem:
toheti toheta tupuānuku tupuārangi
six of the seven sister stars
the little eyes who twinkle in the night
bringing memories and stories
you are the seventh star
If the gods are all in all, then the devils – or alternatively – the angels, are in the detail in David Eggleton’s The Conch Trumpet, which is beautifully designed, including six exquisite woodblock prints by his brother Tonu Shane Eggleton. Even the blurb on the back cover is delightfully trippy, and given the work it is commenting on, by calling the poet a ‘court jester/philosopher/lyricist, and a kind of male Cassandra’, he is suitably heralded.
The Conch Trumpet is built in five sections – titled Shore, Inland, Waitaha (an early South Island tribe), Erewhon Unearthed (Erewhon is an approximation of ‘nowhere’ backwards, and the title of a novel by Samuel Butler that in part relates his experiences of sheep farming in New Zealand/Aotearoa in the 1860s), and Fire. It travels from a sparsely Homo sapiens-populated South Pacific to the towers of babble and the sweat shops of late capitalism.
As part of a promotional drive to announce the publication of the book, Eggleton spoke to Liam Butler at Eldernet Gazette, saying that his poetic process involves ‘shuffling and reshuffling a pack of cherished images, dealing them out and gathering them in again, as a kind of disguised or ventriloquised autobiography’.
So, you won’t find Eggleton writing about his personal life in the close-to-the-bone way of the late great Allen Ginsberg, an early influence, but he writes lovingly about nature and landscape: ‘Slid beneath a sparse quilt of snow, / the land’s skeleton reaches to hug you’. He’s gone into the backblocks of Aotearoa, returning to describe what he’s seen and calibrating that to tangata whenua mythology and New Zealand history:
A hawk tumbles through a helix of light,
but the legless lizard waits under schist,
beneath mountains’ plumed albatross wings.
Rangi, uplifted, wearing a mist mantle,
floats on bier, on waka, on mana reo,
to music sweet as marrow from the bone.
In dustbowl cemeteries of flyblown carcass paddocks,
skeleton thistles and the rabbits’ gibbet wire fence,
everything that stinks is holy; Bible’s seven-year drought
wavering through bubbled glass of farm windows:
rusted bouquets of ironmongery, car hulks overgrown.
Picturesque classics of ruination, unsettlement,
a Budget black as burnt stubble on a Canterbury run,
black as coal in rail wagons rumbling to Lyttelton;
then a day when shepherds survey the blue horizon
like Prince Aragon from the peak of a wool-boom.
This is Eggleton at the top of his game, and deserving of the accolades his latest offering is receiving. In recent times he called himself a neo-nationalist, which, as well as celebrating our culture, means taking it to task over things like our dodgy dairy industry:
Where thousands of moa once stalked, cows now move to stand,
big bladders on legs, bagpipes of udders in sway.
Then there’s the playful, energetic bard who’ll roll up his sleeves to perform a bit of doggerel:
Ruamoko slaps thumps
torso, and groans heavily,
busting moves to rattle gravity;
needle-scratches a seismograph,
making dolphins leap for the starry.
And the observant versifier on the lookout for passing pilgrims:
The mystic courses of camper vans might follow
bird snare of Tāne-mahuta, and find kea
on the spree, skirling with glee on updraughts,
might find river-bird nests wrybill plovers flee,
and strutting pūkeko in cloud-cuckoo heaven,
as lizards furl tongues by forks of Rangitata.
And the universal poet riffing on end times:
Neptune’s a whistleblower obliterated
by oil slicks that saturate the internet.
Rogue brokers ride each turbo market.
Psychotherapists stay hotwired to debt
We ascend where gods live, as dog days blend
and universal heat death waits out the End.
We all come home to our own mortality, to whānau, to family, and it seems appropriate to end this review with stanzas from two of my favourite Eggleton poems … ‘Untold’ is a repetitive and beautifully haunting poem with a killer ending. It’s been doing the rounds as part of the Phantom Billstickers poetry-on-posters series:
untold those years that rung as gold
like gold poured out of a crucible
the yellow lure of sky ablaze
cracked clay’s cliff-edge crumble
flung dust in a stinging haze
perfume stealing good as gold
the song of lilies sun-showers …
… gold a broken-handled axehead
that only yesterday it seems
split the felled tōtara trunk
for five hundred fenceposts
and an old man’s coffin.
And, finally, ‘Between two harbours’, dedicated to the poet’s father who died before Labour Weekend in 2013:
Saltwater shawls fall. Tears, spray and foam
curl cold and grey to scud as veils of wet,
running down reflections in corroded chrome.
Wraiths I pursue till sightless with my heart.
Your spirit walked north across the brine –
so home the sailor, the airman home for tea.
With isthmus for compass, skies are clearing,
full-sail blue, like proud regatta clippers.
Dolphins breach in arabesques to tumble
through bubble towers lit up. Dungeon
torches burn with green flames at depth.
Aureoles crown absinthe’s sorrow.
From seaweed tangles I woke this morning.
Flying boat engines chatter their reverie
White terns are wind-swept in accelerando.
In slow formations of gulls that follow,
I trace your wake on echoes of the sea.
LINDSAY RABBITT’s poems, reviews, essays and arts journalism have appeared in publications such as the NZ Listener, Landfall, Landfall Review Online and Cordite Poetry Review. His most recent books are These Lives I Have Buried, published as part of the Montana Estates Essay series in 2004, and a chapbook, A Wake, in 2006. He is based on the Kapiti Coast.
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