Wayfinder by Jan FitzGerald (Steele Roberts Aotearoa, 2017), 62 pp., $24.99; People from the Pit Stand Up by Sam Duckor-Jones (Victoria University Press, 2018), 112 pp., $30; Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, 2018), 80 pp., $20
In modern parlance, the word waka is used to describe your vehicle, your mode of transport, your craft, but it also refers to your ancestral canoe and your tribe; it can be the word used to indicate a flight of birds, and it can be the medium for atua or spirits. These three collections of poetry may initially seem to have little in common, yet once inside, you realise you are in each case afloat on a waka, carefully navigated by a deft hand. Navigation itself is one of the key preoccupations of any sea people, and is an apt metaphor for all three of these books. Jan FitzGerald’s Wayfinder calls directly on ancestral connections, both animate and inanimate, to point the way; Sam Duckor-Jones ‘paddles out at dawn’; and Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau o Apanui, Ngāti Porou) uses the significant refrain ‘Am I navigating correctly?’ as an innocent question loaded with defiant barb.
Poet Jan FitzGerald is also the illustrator of her third collection. Given the deep ancestral connections of her title Wayfinder, it is only apt that we begin with her. The importance of birdlore in Māoridom cannot be overstated. Birds were often messengers from the spirit world, harbingers of danger, heralds of seasonal information, and could take on the attributes of people. Gannets, cormorants, swallows, owls, rooks, dotterels and many more litter the stanzas of FitzGerald’s poems, carrying with them tidings of grief, hope, place and belonging. ‘War Pigeons’ juxtaposes the literal messengers of wartime with the grave loss of life that is the desperate outcome of such human folly:
You were birds to be reckoned with,
hurtling through fiery branches
of tracer bullets
and above machine gun nests.
The poem continues in stanzas dedicated to named pigeons that were casualties of war.
Death is a preoccupation of these works, and though some poems can be sharp in their grief, it’s the inevitable reality of nature’s cycles that leave the strongest impression. ‘Heaven has no favourites’ is an appropriate saying. FitzGerald maintains a melodious and lyric allegiance to nature in her magnificient and uncompromising glory, and especially to her role as mother, as the grand inevitable parent who cannot be contained by simplistic pastoral description, and to whom we all return.
Holding a Tuatara
Still as her two million years,
she lies in my hand.
One eye rolls back
to study me.
Any second now
she could flash that fossil head
and crack my wrist bone.
Birds are not the only creatures co-opted to freight in the majestic and universal themes that FitzGerald is addressing. Wildebeest appear ‘like clay drawings’ and cows move at their own determined pace, almost mocking the urgency of human life, imploring us to take note and learn from them, to ‘watch the marking of non-time/with our metronomic tails’. To emphasise that we take stock, and be accountable, FitzGerald’s grainy images are predominantly of animals that stare directly at us, inconsistent with the reflective cadence of her words.
This meditative and elegiac tone saves these poems from becoming grandiose and initiates the reader into one of life’s spiritual mysteries:
how to attend
in the pause before green,
in the space between raindrops,
how to listen with your feet
and hear the world stop.
The waka Sam Duckor-Jones carves is entirely different, and though he shares similarities with Jan FitzGerald in terms of temporal pace, his perspective is more achingly vulnerable, originating from an almost self-imposed isolation and sincere, recognisable awkwardness.
The title People From the Pit Stand Up sounds like a call to arms but it’s neither an attempt to incite riot nor to politicise. It’s a nod to the multitudes who persistently navigate their lives without fanfare but with a good deal of personal turmoil that, in a wry self-deprecating way, they probably think doesn’t matter to anyone else—except it does.
Sam Duckor-Jones is also both author and artist of his collection, and his understated line drawings of floating things perfectly emphasise and summarise his poetry. The cover of his work is so informal and understated that one could be forgiven for thinking it was unfinished. But make no mistake, this book is the equivalent of the film you almost didn’t go to because the promotional material paled in comparison to the gaudy showmanship just down the road, but when you did it wrecked you with its ‘tiny broken song’.
The sheer depth of this collection can be illustrated through the masterful use of white space in the work. These liminal spaces and the leaps of faith needed to spring from fragment to fragment highlight an awkward inevitability—not just of whether you’ll make it, but whether or not anyone will reply.
Loneliness is a startling theme in this work and though it is pepppered with humour, there is a sense that the poet is taunting himself. The opening entry of ‘Speaking Diary’ simply states:
hey buddy (to a dog)
If the waka analogy holds, then Duckor-Jones’s waka is his tribe, his allied kinship group, and in this case his golems. ‘Bloodwork’ is easily the most arresting piece. It’s a sequence of 20 poems that speak to the ‘making of a man’. Throughout his work, the poet evokes tropes of masculinity like lovers: dandies, brutes, pools boys, dudes, blokes, Jeff and more. These crowd his pages, but it’s the hoard of clay men that affix in my mind, along with the keen instructions on creation:
to wield the tools
to make an eight-foot man
to make him look like he’d sweat
The title ‘Nude’s on Loan’ describes exactly what it feels like to read Sam Duckor-Jones’s work. When the book’s dust jacket is removed it reveals a hot pink inside cover hiding playful, self-aware ‘Sensitive Boys’ alive with lexical architecture.
It’s a triumph
to build men who dream of
paddling out at dawn
Tayi Tibble’s first collection, Poūkahangatus, takes us far from the rural tones of Jan FitzGerald’s work, beyond the small-town familiarity of Sam Duckor-Jones, and leads us directly into a cosmopolitan, pop-cultured territory where mana wāhine speaks unswervingly to the politics of representation. Tibble’s poetry is ‘a new kind of beauty’ that employs clever image piling techniques, layering of ideas, registers and codes, and enables her to emerge as a new voice requiring the reader to look at all things afresh.
The titular poem, subtitled ‘An Essay about Indigenous Hair Do’s and Don’ts’, is made up of 12 vignettes, the aggregation of which pile up like a stack of returned blankets. Tikanga around hair for Māori relates to grief, mythology and tapu. The first stanza of this poem is the narrator’s earliest memory—of her great-grandmother cutting her own hair:
Remember the resistance. Imagine if the ropes of Māui had snapped and the world had been plunged back into the womb of darkness. After she died, you found it again, coiled and paled like the skin of an ancient snake. You held it to your throat, between her unwanted fur coats, and felt like Cleopatra deciding not to wait for the Romans.
This excerpt showcases in just a few sentences the incredible skill of this poet. She is invoking her ancestral relationships not just with her female line, but also with mythology, with Christianity, with capitalism, while simultaneously managing to recentre the imagined worldview of one of history’s most notorious women.
Again and again throughout this collection, Tibble disrupts notions of the female. The cover of her book is seductive, irreverent and modern, playing on tropes of the exotic other but forcing the viewer/reader to position themselves from a standpoint of female agency.
‘In the 1960s an Influx of Māori Women’ is a list of instructions on how to play at assimilation. It is intelligent, sharp in its observation, and cutting in its conclusion:
Keep quiet with their husbands’ blue-veined arms corseting their waists.
Remember the appointment they made to get their hair fixed on Lambton Quay.
Think about drowning themselves in the bathtub instead.
Resurface with clean skin, then rinse and repeat.
The mention of what must be done to the hair is not without significance, and nor is the bathtub. Bathtubs and watery floating are repeated motifs throughout the collection from the first startling mention:
When I lie in the bath, I fill up the tub with blue-black hair, bruised and swampy. I imagine that I am a nineteenth-century body of a mother in the Waikato, forced from my pā, fleeing in the forest. I am found swollen in a watery grave.
This book is surely the breakthrough collection of the year, if not the decade. It is unexpected, confounding, delightful, shocking. It neither harks back to a romanticised past, nor tries to foreground alternative political futures; it is deeply and consciously rooted in the present.
I wear it as a dress with thigh-high vinyl boots
and fishnets. I post a picture to Instagram.
Am I navigating correctly? Tell me,
which stars were my ancestors looking at?
All three of these collections unfold particular perspectives but, superimposed on each other, their power is amplified and they reveal an imbricated Aotearoa that is more accurate than any singular view.
ANAHERA GILDEA (Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-Tonga) is an essayist, poet, short story writer and ‘artivist’. She has been widely published in multiple journals and anthologies. Her first book, Poroporoaki to the Lord my God: Weaving the Via Dolorosa, was published by Seraph Press in 2016. She holds a BA in Art Theory, graduate diplomas in psychology, teaching and performing arts, and an MA in creative writing from Victoria University.