Somewhere a Cleaner, edited by Andrienne Jansen, Te Rongomai Tipene-Matua, Joan Begg, Wesley Hollis and Nicky Subono (Landing Press, 2020), 184pp., $25; Second Person by Rata Gordon (Victoria University Press, 2020), 80pp., $25; Ngā Whakamatuatanga / Interludes by Vaughan Rapatahana (CyberWit, 2019), 136pp., US$15
Somewhere a Cleaner is an anthology from Landing Press, whose kaupapa is to make poetry part of everyday life and to give a voice to people who don’t have much voice. This unique collection fulfils that aim by bringing together mostly unknown and novice writers to share their stories about that most universal of acts: cleaning. The book’s framework is not dissimilar to the one Landing Press used in All of Us and More of Us, two collections that focused on the stories of New Zealanders from migrant and refugee backgrounds. There is some crossover with those earlier books in Somewhere a Cleaner, which includes contributors who have settled in New Zealand from places as far-flung as West Siberia, Syria, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. You’ll spot a few familiar names when scanning the contents list—Lynn Jenner, Siobhan Harvey, Tina Shaw, Joanna Cho, Johanna Aitchison and Vaughan Rapatahana—but the book’s contributors’ list is dominated by new or novice writers. This is rather refreshing. The editors accepted open submissions and actively sought people to include to ensure that the book accurately reflected the diverse backgrounds and experiences of cleaners in New Zealand. The result is a mix of poetry and short prose pieces that shine a light on a topic and occupation that has been politicised in recent years.
Cleaners were among the unsung heroes during the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, at a time when hygiene and safety became two of the main pillars of stopping the virus from spreading. Hand sanitiser rivalled flour and toilet paper as one of the most sought-after commodities, and our suspicion and paranoia about just how clean the public world is went into overdrive. The fact is, those supermarket trolley handles and elevator buttons have probably never been cleaner. We place so much expectation on our offices and shared public spaces being spotless, yet cleaners, like many employed in essential services, are some of our lowest-paid workers in Aotearoa. The stigma of being a cleaner is a recurring topic in many of the pieces. Although there is some frustration expressed about the downsides of the job (long hours, ungrateful customers), most of the writers speak of their pride in being cleaners and their contribution to others’ daily lives.
The editors’ introduction notes that more than 38,000 people were working as cleaners in Aotearoa in 2018. By way of comparison, that’s more than double the number of registered doctors (16,292 in 2018 according to the Medical Council of New Zealand). Somewhere a Cleaner includes contributions from just a fraction of these, as well as writing from those who have had some sort of cleaning job during their working life. Whether its cleaning hotel rooms, hospitals, offices or their own homes, the people in this book write candidly about their experiences and offer up much in relatability. After all, as the book’s blurb states upfront, ‘cleaning is universal’ as much as it is personal, particularly for those of us who find the chore of cleaning intolerable. Joanna Cho’s ‘A Winning Attitude’ captures how the inhabitants of one household can have differing approaches to cleaning (‘What did you do in there, that what takes me ten minutes, / took you thirty? Why did you / heave?’). Elsewhere, in her poem ‘Formica’, Edna Heled recounts her parents’ obsession with cleanliness to the point where it adversely shaped her childhood and, later, her thoughts as an adult about cleaning (‘I cry formica tears / shiny tears. Pristine.’).
Although the collection is broken into several loosely themed sections, for the most part the poems fall into two main camps: those that are about cleaning as an occupation, and those set in a domestic or personal space. There are war stories that range from the humorous (Christopher Maoate’s ‘The High School, the Toilet, the Legend’) to the humbling (Jesse-Ana Harris’s ‘Unmasked—Covid Conversations’). One of the risks of publishing an anthology with a very concrete theme is that individual poems can become less discernible from other similar poems, which is something I did notice as I progressed through the book, particularly with the poems that were about the act of cleaning. These began to blur into one another or had their impact softened because I’d already read a similar poem.
The pieces that ultimately stood out for me were the ones where cleaning isn’t the central focus. These were more philosophical in outlook and explore what it means to be a migrant in Aotearoa. Im Touch’s moving story about fleeing war-torn Cambodia and earning enough as a cleaner to buy a house and pay off a mortgage starts off like a refugee success story, but ends with Touch being ‘more scared of people than [she] was of the bullets’. Other pieces take a swipe at the classist assumptions people have of cleaners, their backgrounds and their ‘low-skill’ status. Although the book includes contributors from all walks of life who have wide-ranging reasons for being cleaners, there is the perennial elephant in the room that these jobs are often left to those from migrant or lower socioeconomic backgrounds because it’s considered demeaning work. The topic of race is never tackled head-on, but it is the unwashable stain that lingers between the lines in some poems, like ‘Cleaning Career, 1983’, in which Jeremy Roberts writes of the guilt he felt when he was offered a promotion over his Pasifika colleagues despite being much less experienced than them.
Where Somewhere a Cleaner really takes flight is in the moments captured that result from cleaning—the fleeting friendships that cleaners form with clients and patients in hospitals, or how the ritual of cleaning a particular object can transport you back in time or across the world to a treasured childhood memory. The voices collected here remind us that cleaning isn’t just good for our health—sometimes it can be good for our soul.
On her website, Rata Gordon describes herself as a writer, arts therapist and embodiment teacher. The internet tells me that the practice of embodiment is a focus on attending to your sensations and developing an awareness of your body to aid in the healing process. Those who are more familiar with embodiment should forgive my crude simplification, but my cursory internet search did help me as a reader to unlock some of the mysteries contained in Gordon’s poetry, which digs deep into themes of being and body memory.
The title of Gordon’s debut collection, Second Person, suggests the grammatical person in narrative story-telling, or the existence of another being. In this book, the body is both vessel and vehicle—something that can trap and be trapped. But our body can be unpredictable and weak, betraying us when we rely on it to keep us alive or create new life:
is a carriage,
it is drawn by two dark horses.
The contents of the carriage
spilled into the toilet bowl.
Throughout the book, Gordon utilises the body as a narrative framework to explore identity, motherhood and our relationship with the natural world. Flora and fauna can be found spilling out of many of the poems, creating a rich environmental setting for the book. Black mushrooms bloom in the dark under a bed, and wild strawberries take over a garden in another. The intersection between the natural world and the body is keenly felt throughout:
my legs are made of soil
can you see the sponginess
of my thighs?
The way the rain just sinks right in?
The collection’s opening pair of poems traces a line from a pregnant pioneer woman overlooking the Waikato River ‘leaking gorse seeds’ from her pocket to a poem featuring a speaker recounting their own birth. Recurring questions are raised about how lines of ancestry and what we inherit play a role in determining our own actions or direction of travel in life. In ‘Full Stop’ Gordon notes the difference between tree and human DNA (ours deteriorates; tree DNA doesn’t), before turning her attention to the ‘eggs stacked inside my ovaries like coins’. The eggs are also ‘as big as a full stop’, a reminder that even if we do pass our DNA on through our offspring, our bodies and biological functions are programmed with endings that are beyond our control.
A significant number of the poems allude to the difficulties of becoming pregnant and bringing a child into the world: ‘I want to make a baby out of one peach and one prickle … I want to make a baby’ (‘A Baby’). The book’s final section traces a pregnancy and birth using images of space and celestial bodies forming inside a void, before bringing things back down to Earth where mother and child are sea and grain of sand respectively, meeting ‘at the seam / skin to skin / eye to eye’ (‘Shoreline’).
Although the themes of Second Person lend themselves to a more guarded approach, Gordon’s strength as a writer is in how she imbues her poems with a crackling, sometimes disruptive energy. Poems like ‘Why?’, ‘How I Arrived’ and ‘But What Should I Do With Rata Gordon?’ show off the poet’s wit and provide sparks of humour and joy. The poem ‘Eggs’ is a particular highlight, recounting the time the speaker:
… took six raw eggs to the lesbian
bar in San Francisco and drank
until I didn’t know how
to recognise a quarter
for the bus driver
Soon after, the poem becomes its own origin story when the speaker jots those opening lines down on a napkin, impressing a bar patron she’s just met. After discussing Orlando and the speaker’s current relationship conundrum, she finds herself stumbling home, relying on directions scrawled on her poem-napkin: ‘at the bus stop / I was taller / than I expected’. There are times when we’re faced with a situation or decision that causes us to shrink into ourselves. This poem, like others in Second Person, reminds us that our internalised fears or worries should have no bearing on how we feel in the body we inhabit. In ‘Pacing’, Gordon wishes to unshackle herself from the confines of her body and the monotony of daily life. She will become an apparition, something bodiless that doesn’t need to worry about being a woman and all that comes with it: ‘I float through it all, with my skin, my diaphragm, / my fury, letting it all slip off me.’
Second Person is a thought-provoking debut from a writer with a unique view of the world, which forms the foundation of an impressive ability to conjure up indelible and sometimes unsettling images of the familiar. I look forward to seeing what Gordon comes up with next.
Throughout his extensive writing career, Vaughan Rapatahana has published poetry, novels, short stories, literary criticism and education resources. He is a major champion of contemporary poetry and poets from Aotearoa, and has written many articles for international publications about the not-so-usual suspects. His seventh and most recent collection Ngā Whakamatuatanga / Interludes was published in 2019 by Indian publishing house CyberWit.net, but has received little attention in his native Aotearoa.
Rapatahana’s poetry is characterised by its palpable rhythms and intense engagement with the modern world’s complexities. There’s a constant push and pull as you read his work, between poet and reader, the personal and the political, and lost and found. Ngā Whakamatuatanga / Interludes covers a lot of ground and groups its poems into six distinct sections. They reflect Rapatahana’s interests and engagement with a variety of topical issues, including place, relationships, politics and philosophy (Rapatahana’s PhD is in existential philosophy and English literature). His poems feature both te reo Māori and English, with some poems switching effortlessly between the two languages, while others are written entirely in te reo Māori (translations for all words and phrases are provided). There is a sense throughout that Rapatahana is making a concerted effort to write more in te reo Māori. In ‘I’m Having Trouble with Words’ he writes about his ‘worries with the many english words not segueing into my brain’, and unpicks the tension between his two tongues. In ‘The Supervisor Called’, he is castigated for speaking te reo Māori in the workplace and speaks of his whakamā at not having a comeback.
Elsewhere, snippets of Samoan, French, Mandarin and Tagalog are also woven into poems, remnants of Rapatahana’s life spent living and teaching abroad. This worldview positions him somewhat as an insider/outsider, someone who can look upon his home country in all its light and shade without being blinded by patriotism. In ‘Aotearoa New Zealand’, he presents a vision of a future of a country with a new name, ‘stressing our interconnections’:
we are birds singing different waiata
tui, takahē, kōkako, kiwi
striving to make one mighty nest;
our own place for all—
one of a kind, a very rare huia.
a heaven on earth.
This diversity of cultures and the ways in which they merge and clash is brought closer to home in Rapatahana’s own personal life. The poems ‘Father was a White Man’ and ‘Asian Fathers’ explore what happens when families are made up of different cultures, and the way our cultural upbringings can define our relationships with our parents. ‘Asian Fathers’ tells of Rapatahana’s last encounter with his daughter-in-law, who leaves her husband’s (Rapatahana’s son’s) tangi to return to her estranged Korean father. This prompts Rapatahana to think about his own fractured relationship with his daughter (‘our communication lines desultory / ever since her brother’s tangi’), and his wife’s relationship to her father:
my wife, born in pampanga,
lights a candle every death anniversary
of her filipino father.
These two poems feature in the section ‘Ngā Whanaungatanga / Relationships’, which is among the strongest in the collection.
Rapatahana employs a number of tricks from the school of concrete poetry. He is fond of using the visual tics of different fonts and s t r e t c h i n g words out for exaggerated emphasis that, in my opinion, he does tend to overuse in this book, which dilutes its effect in some poems. I could see how it might be used as a way to engage those who find poetry on the page dull or impenetrable, but there were instances where it felt unnecessary, too obvious or even inappropriate. This is particularly so in ‘The Man in the Room’, an otherwise powerful poem about sexual assault that is undermined by some of the typographic treatments of the text. It’s an extreme example of telling rather than showing, where the poet forces the reader to read the poem in a very particular way.
These stylistic missteps are aberrations from Rapatahana’s gifts as a storyteller with a vivid and compelling voice. When Rapatahana writes without these distractions he is at his most direct and potent:
I don’t want to hear any more prattling lyrics about
verdant trees dancing beneath scudding clouds
screw that shit
kinfolk are being massacred in christchurch
ko te toikupu te waha, te kaha
kia kōrero te tika mō ā tātou ao
āke ake ake
[poetry is the voice, the force
to speak the truth about our world
forever and ever and ever
CHRIS TSE is the author of How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes and HE’S SO MASC. He and Emma Barnes co-edited Out Here: An anthology of takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ writers from Aotearoa, which will be published by Auckland University Press in October 2021. He is The Spinoff’s poetry editor.