Spoonbill 101 by Rangi Faith (Puriri Press, 2014), 66 pp., $25
Rangi Faith does not delight in massive amounts of wordplay, smart-arse allusions, graphological excursions across the page, postmodern hermaphroditism. There are no Notes at the back of this, his latest compilation of poems, and the first published by Puriri Press. There is no bullshit anywhere here, except when he writes about livestock.
Rangi Faith is a solid dude. His poetry is also solid and – almost all at one page a poem – compact; and it’s 99 per cent pure: simple, straightforward, honest and modest verse. Except for the very different poem ‘Txtbook Cook’, on page 28, where he writes completely off the pace of all the other poems in the book. That abbreviated SMS effort doesn’t work for me, unlike almost all the other staunch efforts within this well-built book.
So, these poems revolve around bedrock tropes: the rugged Aotearoa New Zealand physicality of landscape and man (‘the rocks, the trees, the animals’); Māori history and kaupapa; bruising World Wars, especially World War I, where those from his community went and died, including the poet’s own whanau; the environment or – more particularly – the savage beatings mankind gives it, as in the ultimate poem entitled ‘What are the Colours of the Beach?’; as well as ‘ordinary’ Kiwi scenes of rural life, often concretising vivid snippets from the nation’s fractured past, so as to incorporate not only museum artefacts, but also notorious fellows such as Stanley Graham. Lawyer and critic Tom Weston was right on the button when he described this latter strand of Faith’s work as ‘the unsettled scores of a colonial history’ – which in the poems are often ‘scores’ rested reflectively on a calm ‘scenic’ easel for us all – Māori, Pākehā – to view, think about, reflect on. Faith isn’t exactly impartial about his feelings and beliefs, particularly when it comes to destruction of living entities, but never forces his views on us either.
This, then, is a series of stanzas set soundly, by a stonemason poet, page by page. Faith’s vocabulary is neither extensive nor high-falutin’, but consists of hard, gritty words that ground the reader in the landscape of the poems. He can, and does, conjure up some great images; he also personifies a fair bit; dribs and drabs some te reo Māori throughout; and has one distinctive trait: his use of extended metaphors. All of this shows Faith to be at the top of his game, which in all fairness should propel his work further into public consciousness. But it more than likely will not, for Rangi Faith does not, indeed cannot, write for the ‘academic’ crowd; he obviously is not into long abstruse tracts about how to write poetry and what poetry is ‘meant to be’. He simply states what he sees and feels as economically as can be, and so it’s obvious to me that he doesn’t intend to leave much meat on any juicy poetic bone for critics to salivate over, and quarrel over, and to next thump out huge, footnoted theses on, savouring the flavours used. Indeed, a further hallmark of these poems is the stark clarity. Few adjectives are utilised throughout: ‘the strength to call a spade a spade’ may well be this poet’s mantra.
The lack of critical attention is a pity, because Rangi Faith has been writing such grist-of-the-mill poems for decades now – from waaaaaay back in Te Ao Hou and through to Puna Wai Kōrero – and I reckon he should be granted more focus, more accolades. I am certain that Rangi will not mind me mentioning Rowley Habib (Rore Hapipi) and Hal Hovell here, because they too are Māori poets who have been around for a long time, and write well as opposed to ‘swell’, but are not generally recognised as genuine Aotearoa poetry taonga. Their work should have long since been tapped away from the RSAs to effusively flood the great Aotearoa verse reservoir for all to draw on. I say: wake up fellow New Zealand poets and the gatekeeping poetry police!
Let me now present some of Faith’s fine verse as witness to what I testify. I will tabulate, just like the good schoolteacher Rangi Faith has always been.
First: extended metaphors. Let’s look at the titular poem, ‘Spoonbill 101’:
Local yokels have it
that in days of yore
when the lagoon birds
were lined up
for panel beating
& noses and names
handed out –
this kōtuku’s beak
was hammered flat …
in the spray chamber
he was finished off
with jet black legs …
under that white fuselage;
Readers should also seek out such parallelism in poems such as ‘Little Black Number’ and ‘Sunset CD’. Don’t overlook the clever echoes between gardening and a rugby match in ‘Semi-finals Day’ either.
Second: personification. As for instance in ‘Home Guard at the Pancake Rocks’, which also doubles as a further metaphorical parallel between infantry invaders and oceanic tides:
… the sea landing in the caves
the sea climbing the cliffs
the sea sneaking through the flax
and licking the moonshine off my boots.
And again in ‘Treaty Negotiations’:
… even the land cried
the words move violently
the ideas shift & the ink slide
down tear-stained pages
to the sound of the mountains
in the driving rain.
While ‘At Ngākawau’ resonates similarly:
… on windless nights
I hear the kelp sigh
as the sea licks the mussels
& massages the rocks
Third: as for a few killer images, just look at the following:
I have found this place
to remember you by –
on a bridge over a West Coast river
that is sneaking quietly out of the undergarments
of the bush:
(from ‘A Poem for Hone above the Buller River’)
And again, when he designates alpine characteristics to cattle attitudes:
… like sculptured hills
they stand –
snow draped across the ridges
the black pelts
falling into the sunless folds
of the mountains.
(from ‘A Fresh Look at Cattlebeasts’)
Rangi Faith, then, can certainly write fine poems; he is a quiet and accessible achiever. He offers nothing more or less than a good, thinking read to be had by all.
Kia ora mo tēnei pukapuka iti e hoa: ka nui te pai tau manawatanga tuwhera kei konei. [Thank you for this small book, mate: your open heartedness here is great.]
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA is a poet, novelist, anthologist and reviewer. He holds a PhD from the University of Auckland.