Meat Lovers by Rebecca Hawkes (Auckland University Press, 2022) 92pp, $24.99; Rangikura by Tayi Tibble (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2021) 96pp, $25.00; mō taku tama by Vaughan Rapatahana (Kilmog Press, 2021) 32pp, $38.50
Content warning: This review contains mention of suicide, disordered eating, and meat production.
Here are three collections of poetry, each devastating in its own way. Rangikura by Tayi Tibble and Meat Lovers by Rebeccas Hawkes each confront coming-of-age sexually in a complicated adult word. Rangikura is situated in the urban landscape, while Meat Lovers is a ‘hardcore pastoral’ that gets into both the grit and the wonder of growing up on a farm. Both books use the sensuality of food as thematic vessels and have a contemporary urgency. And both collections reflect how the romantic imaginations of girls are shaped and constrained by social expectations of who and how those girls will eventually love. mō taku tama, by Vaughan Rapatahana, is a different type of emotional gut punch: a series of poems that reflect on losing a son and how grief matures, though never lessens, over sixteen years.
Reading Rangikura and Meat Lovers in conversation with one another bears interesting fruit. Both collections are exuberant and embrace excess: they share an aesthetic of lush sensory detail that does not flinch from the idea of too much. This aesthetic excess is a political refutation of the expectation that women will fit themselves into a heteronormative life that idealises a constrained body, a polite restraint. Both collections tell the stories of girls turning into young women, simultaneously naive and aware of the threats of an adult world. There are reflections on childhood friendship, explosions of pop culture, and the cruelty of mercy gone wrong.
Meat Lovers grapples with the sexual politics of meat from the very first poem:
I am trying to go vegetarian but finding myself weak
week to week browsing the meat aisle at a linger
close enough to chill my arms to gooseflesh. (‘The Flexitarian’)
Meat is both husbandry and consumption, alluring and revolting in turns. Even the landscape resembles meat, with ‘luscious volcanics / the rhyolite rose-pink like raw flesh’. The hard details of birth, death and life on the farm are described in lurid detail, yet the poet remains aware that methods that seem cruel are ‘still more humane’ than the alternatives. In a prose poem called ‘Flesh tones’, Hawkes details docking the tails of lambs but considers the alternative of flystrike: ‘a squirming city beneath the green-stained wool. Eaten alive. Even meat doesn’t deserve that treatment.’
The poems juxtapose the human body with the animal body, mechanisation with natural production. Yet the morality remains both alluring and ambiguous. Meat Lovers is divided into two sections: ‘Meat’, which deals largely with growing up on the farm and discovering a youthful sexuality, and ‘Lovers’, which moves into a more urban environment, with mall car parks, girls’ dormitories and boring kink parties. Although there is a nostalgic lens, acknowledging that ‘my childhood was no longer a real place I could return to’, there is also a sense of rightful transformation. The final poem, ‘Death Imperative’, has the narrator feeding pork bones to eels, or ‘slimy puppies’, and states: ‘The more you know of the world … / the more you are compelled to devotion’.
Rangikura offers a similarly voyeuristic glimpse into a coming-of-age narrative. Tibble directs the reader’s gaze at the Era of the Skux (see Tibble’s essay ‘On Being Skux’ in The Pantograph Punch). Rangikura pulses with energy and vitality, offering musicality and rhythm. I read many of the poems aloud, and I highly recommend that experience: the words pull forward, gathering momentum like a steam train. Tibble’s poems are a complex reflection of the merging of global culture with locality, of sexuality that is delicately balanced between liberatory and the threat of violence. In this book, the body is essential and on the line. The collection starts with a bang:
Just like Papatūānuku / I breathe life / which is my mother tongue / can still sing despite / its history of whippings / I say
good on you babe.
This poem reminds me of M. NourbeSe Philip’s collection, She Tries her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, in the way that Tibble uses the sensuality and rhythm of language to expose the colonial gaze that sexualises and commodifies the bodies of Women of Colour. Tibble’s poems negotiate the violence that colonial legacy inflicts upon women, at times gleefully inhabiting sexuality, and at other times feeling the complication:
And I thought of Mary Magdalene, her beautiful hair
and how degraded she must have felt. Doesn’t matter
that it was Jesus. All men think they’re God’s gift.
Tibble’s poetry shifts linguistic registers and cultural references with agility, with the confidence to let juxtaposition do a lot of the work. Strong and sexy women weave through the poems: Aphrodite, Hine-nui-te-pō, Lil’ Kim. References to The Great Gatsby sidle up next to Kayne West and phrenology. The poem ‘Hōmiromiro’ lets the title allude to the sharp eyes of the tomtit without any further reference to the bird, but the whole poem is about how children allow dream vision to open the world and how, with age, looking becomes more guarded, less open.
If the first section of the book is hot, furious and frantic, the second section, ‘Little’, is quieter and melancholic, demonstrating another side to Tibble’s craft. ‘Little’ switches to a second-person narrative, creating distance between the reader and the woman at the heart of the short vignettes. This woman tries to shape herself to the man she is seeing, to the woman she thinks she ought to be. Food is a recurring theme: the Chinese food she eats with a fork because she is emulating the way he eats, the M&Ms she buys and throws away, the ‘slutty’ pineapple and strawberries she eats, and the pizza she eats only the mushrooms off. Food is pleasure and, more often, pleasure denied, as she tries to make herself small in search of acceptance, or companionship, or love. In restaurant scenes, there is often an outsider gazing at the relationship, intruding judgmentally. It reminds the reader to be gentle, to be aware of our own gaze. The third section of Rangikura roars back, returning to a first-person voice that refuses to compromise, to be small or meek:
God I’m a flex.
God I’m a flex.
I’m God’s best sex.
I’m God’s best sex. (‘A Karakia 4 a Humble Skux’)
Here the narrator is situated in the present and past, a tradition in conjunction with the ancestors, the land, old magic and the Creator. There is an anthemic quality to Tibble’s work that celebrates life in all its embodied messiness.
mō taku tama is a very different book. While Rangikura and Meat Lovers contain an element of nostalgia, they embody youth and look forward. mō taku tama looks back, caught in time because that’s what grief does. It is a beautful book produced by Kilmog Press in a limited run. The hardboard cover, with its tactile geometric designs and its striking black, red and clay colour, hints at what the edition contains: poems with the sharp corners and endless circles of grief. The book begins with an introduction that is also a lament:
These poems were written over several years in response to the suicide of my loved son, Blake, in October 2005.
I cannot cease writing about Blake.
In this way, I keep him alive.
The series of poems that follow turn grief around and examine its facets, its sharp edges, its smooth faces. Regret and love and anger ricochet around pages stretched by words that won’t stay still or stay lined up in orderly rows. I am reminded of Iona Winter’s recent Gaps in the Light, which also expresses a parent’s mourning after the loss of a child, with emotions that seem complicated, fraught, and fresh. mō taku tama is grief aged over time: it’s not that the feeling softens, but rather that as years ‘trundle by’, the parent feels that:
your death is my own l i f e l o n g transit.
Rapatahana demonstrates the virtuosity with language that he is known for. The book contains poems in English and te reo Māori, as well as English translations of the te reo poems. I am a beginner te reo learner, and so I am aware of how much poetic language and reference I must miss as a reader. At the same time, I can see poetic connections in phrases that I do recognise. For example, the title phrase ‘mō taku tama’ is translated as ‘for my son’, but also suggests the phrase ‘mō taku hē’, which means ‘my apologies’ or ‘my mistake’. The sentiment of apology or fault is echoed in lines like:
I should have done
I should have been
These poems offer a glimpse into what feels like a deeply personal and ongoing conversation between a father and son. This glimpse is a gift. mō taku tama represents endurance through tragedy, and it is the type of poetry that is both a legacy and a salve.
CLAIRE LACEY is a writer based in Ōtepoti. They are the author of two books: Twin Tongues and Selkie. They have recently completed a PhD at the University of Otago on the topic of poetry and brain injury. You can find more of Claire’s work at clairelacey.ca