Goddess Muscle by Karlo Mila (Huia Publishers, 2020), 220pp, $35; The Surgeon’s Brain by Oscar Upperton (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), 96pp, $25; Home Base by Keith Westwater (The Cuba Press, 2021), 184pp, $25
On first inspection, including reading the cover blurbs, I saw that these were three very different books. Indeed, the only common thread seemed that all were published by separate Wellington-based publishers. Each one is particular in its own way. Two are poetry collections, while the third—Westwater’s—has more prose and realia than poetry crammed regimentally inside and deals solely with his army cadet years of 1964–1966. Upperton’s intriguing rich runnel of poetry never touches on Aotearoa New Zealand, contemporary or otherwise. Mila’s longer collection spans her mahi internationally from over a decade, across a variety of sectioned topoi.
I wondered what themes or threads I’d find to connect them. On diving deeper between the covers, what became clearer was a search for identity running strongly through all of the books. Upperton’s quest is a mise-en-scene, a surgical inspection of sexuality via the personality of a gender-indeterminate and long since deceased Irish doctor. Westwater’s quest is to find a cogent life path during his teenage years. And Mila displays an established and strong voice still dealing with aspects of self-determination inside her more widely evoked world. On further reflection, I also saw that, despite the disparities, each book presents its material in an honest, up-front manner, unpretentious and exploratory in both form and content.
Mila is a powerful poet, never afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve. In this especially well-prepared and presented kaleidoscopic collection, replete with multi-hued pages and colourful artwork, she rails sometimes against white patriarchy and its expressway, the English language, and is angry at our continued environmental destructions. She offers staunch tautoko for all women and caresses her own sexual and relational escapades. She also addresses issues arising from her stint in Hawaii. At the same time, she completely embodies and expresses her Polynesian heritage and its manifest ties to Māori tikanga, manaakitanga and the holistic worldview whereby there is mighty wairua springing through all living things. Relatedly, there are a series of dedications to literary luminaries such as JC Sturm, Hone Tuwhare, Teresia Teaiwa, Epeli Hau’ofa and Albert Wendt.
Mila crafts long poems, some several pages in length, yet they generally fly free of repetition. Given that this collection is her first for several years, there are also a lot of poems—and indeed she alludes to this herself as she provides further answers as to why:
You’ve written a lot of poems
It’s how I turn mess
How I organise chaos
It’s how I turn
on white page.
(‘You’ve written a lot of poems, he said’)
These lines precisely sum up the collection; it is a cathartic self-examination as much as an expedition into social issues, political ideologies, historical malfeasance and linguistic sublimation. The latter is acutely enunciated in her poem ‘Son, for the return home’:
We are made for long-distance travelling.
Even if this is fed to us as fat
through the language of obesity,
I imagine us
resisting the passive aggression
of an English-speaking world
that would cast us as overweight third persons
in our own story.
As a theme, the complete domination and associated irrelevance of the English language is also well enunciated in the fiery barb that comes later with ‘Lost and Found’: ‘We found ourselves dictated to by a language / that names all else as foreign— / a Queenly mother-tongue / that beats itself into a thousand tiny mouths / with whips and straps, punishment and slaps.’
Yet Mila is not always striving at lengths to depict the oppressors, the suppressors, or the repressors. She can express herself in sweet koan-like lines, as in a poem such as ‘What trees will say’:
lean towards the light,
reach towards everything.
And such rootedness in Papatūānuku pervades the final titular piece, ‘Goddess Muscle’, whereby the poet finds final succour in the arms of Mother Earth, in the Eternal Feminine, in Being Herself:
the full circle
of the centre.
I feel her
If Mila offers a profound philosophical pavlova, Westwater’s collection concentrates on a smaller slice of a life and, accordingly, his testament to two years pales a little in direct contrast to Mila’s massive bible. But this is in no way knocking his reminiscences and the manner in which he has pulled them together. His variegated compilation of prose, poetry and prose poetry evokes well the stark, sometimes brutal, cold realities of surviving (or not) the regimented vicissitudes of cadet training in the wilderness of Waiōuru.
Whatever genre, Westwater writes well—and his taut poetic reflections rank the highest here. In the brief ‘My Hunger’, he encapsulates not only the spartan army regime but more the unhappy rationale for his initial enlistment at such a young age:
The longing I craved to be sated
was not for our daily top up
of three square meat and drink.
It was the need to slake my thirst
for approval and belonging.
Westwater’s prose tracts are also worthy of promotion. He advances such rich imagery as ‘hill scars that had been raked by the rain’s fingernails’—in ‘My first big empty’. And in the same piece: ‘This fawn panorama with wiry skin was naked and limitless. It speared my soul.’
And often, as with Mila, there is an iterative awa streaming throughout these pages, a search for a sure, centred self. In a poem titled ‘The making of me’, Westwater summarises what his uncle felt army life meant for his nephew, and in the final file in the book, in a piece titled ‘The best and the worst of it’, Westwater answers, ‘It wasn’t such a bad place’. Like Mila, Westwater ultimately provides a positive spin on everything.
In a more tangential direction than the two books mentioned above, Upperton resurrects Dr James Barry, an Irish doctor with medical ideas ahead of the time she/he found him/herself in, stationed across various global locales. The poet rarely intrudes into his pages but does consistently question the motivations of his doctor, and ruminates on occasion about the underlying sexuality of this intriguing protagonist, especially in the piece titled ‘Rorschach’, which is a litany of quotations from other writers about this topic.
Throughout this historical timeline, as we progress from Barry’s destitute birth through to his/her slightly distraught death throes, Upperton, imagining Barry, frequently pens pensive lines. Here, for example:
British soldiers set fire to churches
and the next day are brought to me trembling.
Doctor, what is wrong with me?
Doctor, may I please be sent home?
Their fingers are still black with soot,
Rope-burned from pulling men to the scaffold.
The collection is ultimately a portrayal of an enigma wrapped inside generally straightforward poetry, a hunt for ipseity, as well as a reflective and refractive consideration about both the medical achievements and the blurred china-box boundaries of Barry—a deep probe that concludes:
We will never know all we want to about James Barry
for the simple reason that he did not wish us to know
… He had begged to be buried
The body is Rorschach.
without any post-mortem examination of any sort.
What motivated the New Zealand poet to write about the Irish doctor? Certainly, in concretising Barry’s transgender soul in the pages of this book, Upperton is cementing his own flourishing poetic operation. The Surgeon’s Brain, with its marvellous cover of a two-faced entity, is both a fascinating visit to the past and a tasty contemporary repast, a clever book that soon draws in the reader as it skilfully sketches the main actress/actor. And with its oblique approach, it succinctly succeeds in centring this collection firmly in the mainstream of Aotearoa poetry, a deep flowing river that also includes the buoyant craft of Mila and Westwater.
While the covers are perfectly well designed—especially the Upperton—there is little to indicate that all three books have a focus on identity and self-determination. It goes to show, then, from all three collections, that a cover cannot be judged by its book.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA (Te Ātiawa) commutes between homes in Hong Kong, Philippines and Aotearoa New Zealand. He is widely published across several genres in both his main languages, te reo Māori and English, and his work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Italian, French, Mandarin, Romanian and Spanish.