Night Swimming, by Kiri Piahana-Wong (Anahera Press, 2013), 50 pp., $24.99.
Ko he pukapuka o ngā whiti tuatahi tēnei nā he kaituhi ki te ingoa o Kiri Piahana-Wong. Ka nui te pai hoki kia titiro me kia rāhiri tēnei pukapuka.
[This is the first book of poems by a writer named Kiri Piahana-Wong. It’s excellent to have the opportunity to look at and appreciate this book.]
Thank you for publishing this, your first collection of poems, Kiri. I was pleasantly surprised. I think that there is certainly enough quality poetry inside the slim volume to warrant the collection too, given the inevitable first collection dilemma of whether or not a poem is quite ‘good enough’ to warrant inclusion. Some poems do struggle a bit to establish themselves either above or beneath the waves here, but there is so much more demonstrably power-swimming going on elsewhere that the book positively waves to you to dive in and wallow. And to publish via your own publishing house (Anahera Press), pushing out into the tide with some moolah from Creative New Zealand flung into the currents, is also an achievement I applaud.
Piahana-Wong’s prime fixation (that is, in 15 out of the 30 total poems included) is on a young person’s (i.e. her) relationships that have — generally — gone off the deep end and drowned, and there’s sufficient honest hurt at these many failed hopes and their consorts of dismal males to propel the poems emotionally above and beyond any stylistic stasis; in other words these poems can stand alone on the shoreline, dramatic in their impelled angst — simple, clear, direct. For these are primarily confessional poems.
Which is not to say that the poems are insufficiently crafted; no way, as there is some very concise writing here. For, when the agitation and agony segues with the poetic crafting, all manner of attention-getting seawrack sweeps in – as, for example, in one of the standouts – I miss you like, which in its tight brevity says it all. Here it is to savour in its entirety:
I miss you like
coffee – 10 cups
a day with
Springy, piquant, right on the button. A near-perfect 9.5 leap from the high board.
Now there is another fixation too, seeping through just about every poem like a life-force – and that is, of course, water, in all its many elements: a sustaining source of imagery. We have waves, tides, tepid baths, ocean, water, sand, shore, water, sea, pools, river, tide-keeper, water, surf, fish, waterfall, water, sharks, ships, bowsprit, gulls, shags, water, wharves, harbour – you will get the general drift… I think to myself that this poet must surely be herself an astrological water sign, as she replenishes herself continuously both figuratively and literally via the purgation and cathartic cleansing and cleaning that water brings about. When in doubt, swim. When in need, float. Plunge under the surface to find your own. Basking, floating, absorbing. Thus her further lines from At low tide:
I want to be a fish, or a
bird, or a person whose
job it is to float in the water
Even the vision Piahana-Wong has for her publishing house swims against the tide: Its vision is to provide a publication platform for authors writing outside the mainstream…we want to publish these stories, stories that the mainstream media does not always understand, value or appreciate.
Kia kaha. Kia toa. Kia manawanui Kiri.
And, once more, the poet shows us she can write impressively well, even as she navigates this oceanic and islanded melee. Take the following examples:
I sit on the beach of my relationship,
looking out at the horizon
when you drift away from me
it will be like Europe
I want it to take
There are some more formatting ploys and plays as well here, as for example in the poem You render me where there are two poems going on at the same time, each exemplified by italics and non-italics, while in The things people say, these striations return in a prose- line flow.
The ‘best’ poem is the mighty On the day you left me it was raining. This, to me anyway, is what poetry is ‘all about’. It relates the miscarriage the poet has suffered, endured, experienced. It is gutsy without being gutter-all. Personal, without being prosaic. Passionate, without being pretentious. Pained without being painful. I wrote recently in Towards an Aotearoa Poetic that such poems as this one typify New Zealand poetry at its best: a summoning up of real lived experience, ensconced in fine local vernacular as intended, and then laid bare for all to see and share. This sad but stoic poem does all this and more:
On the afternoon you left me it was raining
I lay on the bed bleeding you away in pieces
Asking you to please stay one minute longer
Asking you to please come back to me…
Precisely-wrought, and saying just enough: I feel the loss.
The fact that Piahana-Wong is Maori consolidates further an authentic Aotearoa voice – for throughout the collection we can also scan te reo Māori me ngā whakatauki Māori and sense this writer’s holistic call on the spirits of Nature. Thus the poem Matariki with its echoes of Rona and her interdependence with the Moon, as just one example.
So it is all good, and augurs exciting developments —I look forward to plunging headfirst into the next collection. It should be a little more even thematically overall too (for a few poems here do struggle to keep their heads above those ever-present waves.) Progress will be inevitable, as the poet matures into a long-distance marathon swimmer and surfaces breathless but buoyant and sure at the head of the poetry pool after years of practice, for this is her amphibian promise:
Every day I make new marks
imprints on the beach
lines on the page.
I walk and I string words in long lines in my head
I write and I skip words across the page like stones…
Kia ora anō.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA is a poet, writer and critic currently teaching in Hong Kong. His novel Toa was recently published by Atuanui Press, and his poetry collections include China as Kafka (Kilmog Press).
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