ināianei/now by Vaughan Rapatahana (Cyberwit, 2021), 170pp, $25; Formica by Maggie Rainey-Smith (The Cuba Press, 2022), 86pp, $25
Among those who care about poetry in Aotearoa, Vaughan Rapatahana should be known particularly for two things. First, he is the most daring poet we have when it comes to seasoning his work with sesquipedalian lingo (that is, million-dollar words). Second, he has a more developed practice than anyone else when it comes to writing translingual poems in te reo Māori and English. His new collection, ināianei/now, offers plenty of examples of both modes, in poems that explore our fractured geopolitics, the dispossession and cultural losses of Māori, and the experience of dividing a life between different countries, as Rapatahana does.
First, let’s address the big words. Some writers use them gratuitously. Other writers, sadly, use them incorrectly. Rapatahana does what you’re supposed to do: he uses the dead-right word for his purpose, even if it’s a bit crazy and you have to look it up. Irruptive, gravamen, ambagious, fissiparous, finifugal, tergiversated, agelast, canicule, purblind, cicatrix. Take my word for it, please—almost all of these are effective in context. Look at how he deploys ‘finifugal’ in a poem called ‘mangakino’:
nearer the lake
the moneyed ones.
an ostentatious boat or two
witness to their weekend jaunts
as part time summer-lovers;
swanky SUV & trendy trucks.
Mangakino, near Taupō, is, for Rapatahana, ‘a magnifying glass / for our asymmetry / as a nation’. Your classic locale that’s got rich holidaying idiots and the people who’ve got to put up with them. In the verses I’ve quoted, we’re dealing with the posh-noxious half of the town, people who’ve built the meanings of their lives on the quicksand foundations of wealth. So of course they’re afraid of the good times ceasing, of being reduced to the level of those they look down on. They are finifugal, ‘afraid of endings’. How else would you say this? Having edited some of Rapatahana’s critical prose before, my opinion is that this tendency towards the rococo works better in his poetry; although it may not be to everyone’s taste, it is a unique asset.
And what of Rapatahana’s ‘translingual’ poems? In this collection, there are two distinct approaches. Some of the poems exist in two versions, in Māori and English, presented sequentially. They are essentially translations rather than truly translingual poems, and the effect is sometimes of being granted access to secret communications from beyond a language frontier. Rapatahana Englishes the title ‘kāore ahau he kaikai ngā pākehā’ as ‘i don’t want to eat the pākehā’, and the poem is both as funny and as deadly serious as you can imagine. It sends up the savage cannibal trope of the writings of panic-bedevilled nineteenth-century colonisers while speaking to lingering and real grievances against Pākehā who ‘think their language / is also god’s’:
kāore āku wā mō te maha ngā tāne mā
me kāore ahau e hiahia ki te korero ki a rātau
kāore ahau e pai he maha o ngā tāngata mā
engari kāore ahau e hiahia ke te kai i rātau
. . .
I don’t have time for many white men
& I don’t want to talk with them.
I do not like many white people,
but I don’t want to eat them.
The other type of multilingual poem Rapatahana writes is genuinely translingual, i.e., using more than one language, and/or using a language other than the writer’s primary language. ‘tongues’, set in the Philippines, features English, Tagalog, romanised Mandarin and te reo Māori, and it further reports that characters are speaking Kapampangan and Cantonese.
no one around here speaks english
not because they cannot
but because they don’t need to.
. . .
why should they prate in an alien tongue
when i could learn their own?
One of Rapatahana’s projects, in this latest book and elsewhere, is to advocate for linguistic self-determination, both for individuals and for cultures. Want to write using words from seldom-visited underground chambers of the dictionary? Go for it. Want to put forward a twenty-first-century political programme for Māori through literature? Use the reo then. He goes so far as to say ‘ki te kāore tāu reo / kāore e taea koe te Māori’ (‘without your language / you cannot be Māori’), which is a controversial statement given that so many Māori are ‘without the language’ because it was taken from them, but this is a measure of how strongly Rapatahana feels about language’s purposes and power. No one can accuse him of not living up to his own ideals, however demanding they may be.
Rapatahana is a prolific writer who has been on the scene for years, but the other poet under consideration here, although also an old hand, has, incredibly, not published a book of poems until now. Primarily a novelist, Maggie Rainey-Smith brings narrative surefootedness as well as lyricism to her first collection, Formica. The book is, loosely, a march-of-progress story—a journey from the suffocating patriarchy of 1950s Richmond to a world where men can cook (!). But Rainey-Smith treats the idea of progress with wry irreverence. A men-can-cook world is hardly a utopia as the men are still a bit hapless, so fingers that have been chopping chillis + post-meal sex = unintentional comedy:
and now the lubricant
and we are
both on fire
and we laugh because
at our age sex is as funny
The poems set in the fifties and sixties are also quite multidimensional. They don’t flatten out the past’s complexities, and they show that traditional gender roles were propping up a not entirely stable balance of power. It’s not as simple as ‘men were oppressive oafs’. Sure, we have mothers receiving ‘kitchenware / for Mother’s Day’, as if, you know, you’ll be in the kitchen anyway. But Rainey-Smith also tells us stories of male trauma, of a father who came back not quite right from his years as a POW (captured on Crete in 1941) and of a brother who committed suicide with poison. Oh, and to top it all off the family was Catholic, so she writes of her first sexual experiences like this:
and I was grateful as a Catholic
to lose my virginity while saying no
because I really wanted it but
was too afraid to say yes
I’m reminded of the therapy adage ‘hurt people hurt people’. In Rainey-Smith’s world, there are plenty of damaged individuals floating about, and it’s up to the least-affected members of the community to provide social cohesion: ‘the locals / conspired to contain the secrets / known as the fabric of society’.
Rainey-Smith’s middle years take up less real estate. There is quite a good poem about working, during her OE, at the iconic North British Hotel (now the Balmoral) in Edinburgh. Predictably, she knocks on the door of a couple spending all day amorously in bed, and she gets a ticking-off for that as well as for her ignorance of other high-end chambermaid trade secrets:
That a strewn newspaper on a
lover’s bed was for folding
for rereading and not for rubbish
was news for me
There are two poems about the Katherine Mansfield stories ‘Her First Ball’ and ‘At the Bay’ (‘How Too Weird’ and ‘At Katherine’s Bay’) and how they seep into the poet’s life. (And they do seep into her life—her Twitter name is @atthebay.) These depend quite a lot on detailed recall of the stories—to the extent that you probably need to re-read them even if you already know them. This is not something every reader will do, and the presence of poems that rely on extra-textual information in a book that otherwise doesn’t demand special knowledge is surprising.
The book’s final poems bring us to the present moment, with its greatly increased social and geographical mobility, at least compared to the South Island in the fifties. Rainey-Smith is the halmoni (grandmother) of grandchildren who live in Seoul, and cosmopolitan cultural cross-pollination features prominently in this work. She lives out on the leading edge of intergenerational communication as she talks with her granddaughter, who is ‘muddling two languages to make a new word for water’, but then she is perceived as an oddball for giving her hard-boiled eggs in a South Korean park. You win some, you lose some. The Covid pandemic up-ends everything and sends Rainey-Smith into a concluding meditation, called ‘Who Am I?’, about time spent and ground covered. ‘These poems are my life in contrast to my fiction which has only parts of me,’ she told Read NZ in a recent interview. It is a life that is still being lived and written:
as the rafters soften
the walls seem closer
the floor keeps shifting
the light’s playing tricks
There will be new experiences, of course—after all, Rainey-Smith is only just over seventy—but memories are going to keep resurfacing and reshaping the narrative, and these changing memories will themselves be new experiences, too.
ERIK KENNEDY is the author of, most recently, Another Beautiful Day Indoors (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), and he co-edited No Other Place to Stand (Auckland University Press, 2022), an anthology of climate change poetry from Aotearoa and the Pacific. He lives in Ōtautahi Christchurch.