Rāwāhi by Briar Wood (Anahera Press, 2017), 70 pp., $25; Ternion by Vaughan Rapatahana (erbacce-press, 2017) 98 pp., $17.50; My Wide White Bed by Trish Harris (Landing Press, 2017), 76 pp., $22
Imagine yourself the kaiwhakahaere o te waka.
You are the navigator and here lies an ocean defined by its vastness, its myriad pathways, its unfathomed depths. You are drawn by the promise of legend, the guidance of stars and planets, the variant winds, the cloud shapes and currents, the travel of birds and the movement of fishes, of air breathing dolphins as tohu and kaitiaki, of symbol and guardian, wherein you will discover new and ancient islands, there to begin and end, to fulfill and toil and plunder and continuously wonder why.
Briar Wood and Rāwāhi invite you to navigate these pathways, discover pearls and long-forgotten wisdoms. The root of the word is wāhi, firm in its meaning: place. Rāwāhi is a place over yonder, a place not here, overseas, far away yet somehow present, immediate, even familiar.
With this book, Anahera Press, the little poetry engine that could, has once again delivered a collection of intriguing beauty, playful at times, even cheeky, always controlled. This book deserves its place on the Ockham poetry shortlist.
I delight at ‘Scrimshaw’, a wonderful shanty deftly constructed:
… on the island of Terceira
his birthplace in the blue Azores,
last taste of home, the seafarer’s
journey in search of fertile shores.
It reminds us that we who call Aotearoa home are children of the sea and sky, every last one of us; and it’s a long, long way from anywhere to here.
Indeed, no te timatanga, from the beginning, Kupe’s missus reassesses her choices:
Yet even an inveterate traveller
might become weary in a waka
on the open sea
looking out for landfall
What else is there to do, facing the vastness of an ocean that offers no respite, but to reassess your choices? It’s either that or say ‘to hell with it’ and throw yourself overboard, which has been known to occur on great journeys across the sea, where the mind becomes lost in the seeming emptiness of it all. Briar Wood would save us from such a fate within these pages and realise ‘… the resilient poet working in all weathers, among the honesty of sea dogs …’ And her work shows us that anyway, an ocean of possibilities is never empty.
To me, the heart of this book is ‘aroha across oceans’ beating with a soft and steady assonance, certain in its application, sure in its assertions, and embracing five generations of the poet’s whakapapa.
Briar Wood weaves narrative and metaphor with all the skill of the manu kōrero. Her imagery carries naturally on the cadence and rhythm of language; and she is skilled, too, at succinct description, such as this of a Parisian evening, ‘licked clean by the light’ after rain in the Marais.
Rāwāhi, overseas, a place over there, a place that is not here yet always a place, he wāhi. We cannot escape our places. Yet with Rāwāhi the poet is in tune.
‘Ternion’ is an archaic word that suggests a triad, a trinity, ‘tripartite’ as the high vaults of a Gothic cathedral, held fast at the apex by the weight of its own structure. Matua, Tama, Wairua Tapu: all one and the same divinity; three nails in the rood, three denials before sunset; morning, noon and night. Three places in time: the past, the future, the NOW – I am, I was, I will be. Three sneezes in a row from which good luck will flow – Tihei! Tihei! Tihei! Three blind mice. Three wise monkeys …
It needs to be said at this point, Vaughan Rapatahana is not blind, deaf or silent. My impression of him is that of a restless soul, an explorer, inquisitive, constantly moving, always working. He’s a new-world, old-world, third-world poet for whom place is elastic and transience seems an inevitable state of being.
Rapatahana divides his time between Aotearoa, Hong Kong and the Philippines. While he is published across many genres, poetry seems to be his lingua franca.
Paradoxically, while three tongues might inhabit the same mouth at any given time, it is the language of the ‘Hydra’ that is the primary tool of literary expression in this collection. So it is that Filipino, Cantonese and te reo Māori are given uniformity of purpose within English, the language of the coloniser, the idiom of irony.
Rapatahana is able to assert his ideas and observations with an easy confidence, clearly delighting in the scope afforded him in choosing the Bastard Thief of all languages to construct his work.
Bastard Thieves play fast and loose with the rules.
There is often a visual aspect to his writing, occasionally jarring, often whimsical, always intriguing. Witness ‘railing against’:
Love, death, transition, power, even poetry itself, get a thorough thematic workout in what Murray Edmond describes as a ‘bristling, bustling, bursting assemblage’.
I carry a rage e pīkau ana ahau he riri
it gnarls my shoulders kua rerehe taku pokihiwi tēnei
and corkscrews my eyes me e wairori taku mata
into a question mark ki he tohu pātai
of conniption o te keka …
This poem is as much a lament of frustration at linguistic misinterpretations as it is an expression of genuine rage against the plunderers of history; especially when read against the more overt backdrop of ‘before the whiteman came’, a straight up in-your-face indictment.
Yet Rapatahana can equally ‘carry a rage’ more intimately as dead love turns to bitterness in three spare lines without discretion ‘to an ex-wife, some years later’:
… the day lingers
a deaf dog
Magical imagery in seven simple words of veiled contempt. There is economy here, taut, short lines, one word lines c o n j u g a t i n g, empty spaces as a kind of emphasis, suggesting the void of the ‘endgame’ where nobody wins and
… any birds left
& their odd sarcastic stares …
Rapatahana is not afraid to experiment or to play, dribbling letters across the page like Jackson Pollock painting, or sparing all for the visual metaphor of space and therefore silence, or shoehorning sentences and phrases into a crucifix form, stigmata’s easel, every letter a nail, every word a hammer, overkill till it really hurts. By his own admission, he doesn’t mind ‘clever-dick tricks’ when it suits, when ‘the boil up’ demands more salt, more meat, more secret herbs chopped finely in the doughboys. Sometimes it works; sometimes, well, it’s just a little overcooked.
In Trish Harris’s My Wide White Bed, we are invited to take a walk down a hospital corridor, so to speak:
the sky whispers
heal your rift
heal your rift
to the ranges
split down either side
of the valley floor
Some years ago, 2001 judging from the book’s dedication, Harris spent eight weeks as a patient in Hutt Valley Hospital. Broken bones and time to reflect. Lots of time. ‘The room is full of all the places we cannot go.’ That’s what the world looks like from a hospital bed. I can vouch for that. And I’ll cut to the chase: this book is a gem.
Behind the ache, the pain, the flinching, the fear and the uncertain heartbeat, there is a gentle, knowing smile, a wry chuckle even, a salve for old wounds. Hospitals have the capacity to refine your thinking. Generally speaking there are only two ways out. In her delightfully insightful way, Harris shows us a possible third: ‘Part of me is desperately trying to have an out of body experience.’
The poet reflects on the gift of a journal left by a visitor one day. ‘A journal can be like adding a new room to your house; it gives you private space.’ If you are an inpatient, private space is at a premium in hospital. Thankfully, Harris found the new room and began her jottings, notes and observations in a voice I imagine not too far removed from that of the wide white bed.
There are drawings here as well; the titular bed, a wide blue ocean, a lifeboat adrift, a tea lady’s kettle, seagulls wheeling across the sky outside the window, simple little sketches delightfully executed. They are small moments of escape offering further illumination. Of the book itself, Trish Harris says, ‘As a reader I like it when poets notice and bring back. My wide white bed is what I’ve brought back.’
Brought back with a light, even delicate touch (as should be the way when handling wounds), Harris engages us conversationally as she might her unseen neighbour beyond the curtain.
This book is a remedy, cathartic perhaps, ‘… in many ways a medicine’, according to Glen Colquhoun, GP and poet. Call it a sequence, a soliloquy, a memoir, a novella even, My Wide White Bed has the deft touch of someone familiar with pain and more importantly, the myriad ways of dealing with it. Pain brings with it an economy of movement, of usage. Harris chooses her words with exquisite care.
BEN BROWN is an award-winning children’s author, a short story/non-fiction/freelance writer, and a poet for stage and page.