Sedition by Anahera Maire Gildea (Taraheke | BushLawyer, 2022), 150pp, $30; A Book of Rongo and Te Rangahau by Briar Wood (Anahera Press, 2022), 85pp, $30
Ka maumahara te awa.
The river is memory,
Letters and feathers swim it,
(‘Channelling Rongo’ by Briar Wood)
If water is our memory, its every iteration has existed before, has informed us and becomes us. When we look at history and the notion i te ao Māori that we move into the future facing our past, whatever we embody and create is because of what and, particularly, who has gone before us. What we know about history documentation in the western world is that, like our awa that have been piped, diverted and polluted, so too have our stories. Records were inherently marred with racism and sexism, and many stories were altered or lost. Ka maumahara tātou. Let us remember like water. Let us flow memories like words through time. Let our memories flow like cool water, like hot lava; let them flow to meet us.
There are two incredible poetry collections out in the world that are like a karanga through time. A Book of Rongo and Te Rangahau by Briar Wood is a collection inspired by two of Wood’s Ngā Puhi tīpuna wāhine. It seeks to imagine, restore and retell their stories. We feel what their lives were like by hearing how they softly whisper to her in the quiet.
Sedition by Anahera Maire Gildea is an ode to those that fought before us. It is fighting talk but also the quiet that follows, tired of fighting. In Sedition we hear of the mother role, both Gildea’s mother and the mother she is to her own sons. We are let into a quiet world where her first son didn’t continue his requests of her mothering in this world, but took them into te taha wairua, into te pō and held her there at times too.
Both these books are poetry written across time. The poems span whakapapa and ask the unanswerable … What would have been?
The breath of Tāwhirimātea beneath newly formed feathers / you didn’t mean free
like / to jump
(‘Herekorenga / Freedom’)
In this enquiry, the feathers of many experiences span out on the wind of remembrance. The many stories that were erased or made invisible are given wings on which to fly. The memories or pondered realities are held fast by the rhythmic body of the authors. In these powerful collections, both wāhine navigate this flight of historical erasure with warm-blooded feeling.
Gildea opens Sedition with a story in te reo Māori of Hinewaiapu, born of Mahuika, raised in Papatūānuku. She is fire, she is solid, she is igneous rock, she is obsidian. And these elements sum up this collection. Gildea performs her work with fire, but it’s deeply channelled through the rock of life experience, and her written words hold this duality. Sedition is conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch. These poems are just that: though they start with bones, with history, with the uprising anarchy of being that comes from those experiences, there is a flick of the tongue, the pen that makes them burn with a call to keep reading. There is an immediacy in some, a depth in all.
‘Ahi kā’ is one of my favourites of Gildea’s. It takes us down the road near her marae through the lens of a child. The memories of ice blocks and jandals are juxtaposed with a tree where an uncle died. The wrongness and the rightness are placed together. The line ‘The whole damn road is a gauntlet of Aunties’ gives us the uniquely child-oriented sense of both the inconvenience and the safety of this.
The title poem, a letter to the writer from Meri Mangakāhia, is a beautiful letter to self. A call to stand in the image of our own feminist, hero and change-maker.
Get your sedition on girl, your agitator, your defiant speak
To each other eye to eye
This is a theme throughout the book, the author almost calling to herself ‘get up’. In some of the poems, Gildea speaks of the intense loss of her first son, and it is often what she doesn’t say that leaves us with our hearts ripped out. The poem ‘Resort’ is a short and visceral example of this and reminds me of our rangatira author Renee’s advice on speaking volumes with few words.
Here we are at NICU
Our last resort
A series of poems show us the perspective of loss over time and how this morphs from a river to something more underground.
You who live safe hold me together. Wrapped in your will so my sides don’t come away
My arms float free, and the stars inside my belly reintegrate with the night sky they come from
From this understandable collapse there is a turning. A burning fire, the ahi kā of the heart, calling, again and again, to keep standing, keep fighting, despite it all.
The poem ‘Tekau’ takes us on this road of grief, through rage and returning. It embodies the process of standing up in sedition despite it all:
I’m ready. The weight of the tomahawk gives me unusual strength. The strength to turn back.
The poem ‘Speaking rights’ caused a wildfire on the internet when it was published on Newsroom. It eloquently unpacks the paralysis of our tongues from genealogical trauma, and the way we watch as those that walk into a classroom untethered by whakapapa might speak our reo before us, despite us. It is cynical and scathing as well as painful and achingly beautiful. And this is Gildea’s art.
The final poems of the book are not shrouded: they are louder, more defiant. The poem ‘So the missionaries cut the penises off statues’ reads like a brilliant satirical letter to the queen. In her response to Brett Graham’s exhibition, Tai Moana Tai Tangata, her words become the fluidity to his solid form. Her poem to Moana Jackson is tidal. A piece for Waitangi and Ihumātao are the words to stitch the earth to the sky again. These poems are in the world to be heard now.
We, girl, are attached in lines
No sleight of hand can break or rend.
When we bleed we do not die.
(from ‘In search of mana wahine’)
A Book of Rongo and Te Rangahau, while specific in its focus on two important Ngā Puhi wāhine, is like an image of the author—and her relationship with home—placed over the perceived lives of her tīpuna. Beautiful arcs of historical work alternate with pieces that are clearly present-day. ‘Satellite city’ is full of sound-inducing onomatopoeia and perfectly positions a small town with the growing pains of an expanding population.
In ‘Skep’, there is a dance between current elections and the signing or not of Te Tiriti o Waitangi:
Patuone Heke, Rongo—tamumu
(in my ear, tell me your whakaaro about
The sovereignty you did not sign away.)
This weaving of past and present is a beautiful way to keep the warmth of reality in this exploration of the past. In the poem ‘Rongo as Superwonderwoman’, we pull the starlight from the past into an imagined supernova of the future:
Now she zooms across rooftops,
Arorangi, watches over kūmara,
Plants growing in heaped rows,
Strolls through streets, traverses
Rivers in a shimmer of light,
Lives where fern-dark crevices
Protect the next generation.
Her handle @RongoRiotgrrrl
Other poems stick with the past and paint pictures of the difficulty of life in the early 1820s, as the church, guns and disease pull the stories into a future that could have been different. The pain of these travesties is felt in poems like ‘Rerenga’, ‘Kororipo’ and ‘Turikatuku’.
The poems ‘Lean to (1834)’ and ‘Hōne (1837)’ are like the extraction Rongo felt as her mother Turikatuku died and her father Hongi Hika tried to marry her off, but instead she married in love to Hōne Heke. There are many beautiful stanzas that seem to heal the ones previously offered, as the pain of the past is somehow given salve by Wood’s reflections. Rongo is explored as a symbol of peace as well as the woman within the pain of land confiscation and war:
It is the moment where the lightning charges
It is the moment the storm stops
It is the moment of quiet in the garden
(from ‘Rongo i te waengarahi o te tētēkura’)
In the final section, Wood speaks of our planet as if it was a personal muse:
It’s a vast ask that the entire population
on a comet-blasted, spy-crammed planet
makes pace towards persistence,
in a world of life-thrusts and cusps.
(from ‘Atheist Praise Song’)
Wood’s poems are intelligent, warm and expansive. They wrap around you like a feathered korowai.
This call to speak to each other of the past, to remedy it with our words, is something both of these poets call for. Speak up and keep the memories of those who have passed alive with our observations, our dreams, our hopes and our promises. These books are rivers of memory, their letters and feathers swimming with strength and wisdom.
ARIHIA LATHAM (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha) is a writer rongoā practitioner in Te Whanganui a Tara. Her work has been widely anthologised and she presents often at arts and writing festivals. Her poetry collection Birdspeak is coming out in 2023.