Puna Wai Kōrero: An Anthology of Māori Poetry in English, edited by Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan (Auckland University Press, 2014), 420 pp., $49.99
All important poetry anthologies are partisan, based on agendas; they express fierce likes, and equally fierce dislikes – albeit sometimes disguised – which are demonstrated by their choices. Their literary politics invariably provoke critical counterblasts, and eventually revisionist follow-up anthologies. In Puna Wai Kōrero: An Anthology of Māori Poetry in English, the agenda is laid out in the Introduction by the editors where they argue: ‘In most previous anthologies of New Zealand poetry, Māori poets, while there, have been given only cursory acknowledgement.’ Perhaps, though by their very nature, anthologies tend to give almost everyone included ‘only cursory acknowledgement’, leaving readers to follow up elsewhere for more poems by any given author.
Yet, in a way, this anthology is altogether more radical than most, and you need to go back to Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960–1975, edited by Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond and Michele Leggott, published in 2000, also by AUP, to find something comparable. That anthology, too, sought to assert a viable alternative tradition of gritty, vernacular, less pious, less class-bound poetry. Before that, there were the challenging feminist anthologies Yellow Pencils: Contemporary Poetry by New Zealand Women, edited by Lydia Wevers in 1988, and Private Gardens, edited by Riemke Ensing in 1977, that bid comparison as more than special pleading and actually offer evidence of a paradigm shift in cultural evaluation.
Poetry is ‘news that stays news’, wrote Ezra Pound, meaning that after the elapse of time burns away the circumstances that provide the impetus for a given poem, it endures and remains alive and kicking because of its own linguistic energies. Fossicking around in the archives of little magazines, Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan have found a number of poems that remain alive, while the core of the book is made up of literary establishment poets: Hinemoana Baker, Rangi Faith, Keri Hulme, J.C. Sturm, Robert Sullivan, Apirana Taylor, and of course Hone Tuwhare, whose brilliantly burnished imagist verses would soar effortlessly into the heavens in any company:
On the skyline
a hunting poem
with its wings.
(‘Bird of prayer’)
Beyond that, this anthology asserts the new Māori poets, a community of poets channelling ancestral voices for contemporary times – though some of them have been around for a while, better known for writing in other genres: Briar Grace-Smith, Witi Ihimaera, Paula Morris, Kelly Ana Morey, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. In sum, the editors have assembled 78 poets of Māori heritage: the crew of a mighty waka rowing in unison, and mostly chanting rhythmically and in harmony – a polyphony of voices, as focused as any Māori delegation to the world.
This implies a certain amount of structuring and arranging since, as Robert Sullivan has pointed out, the notion of one united tribe of Aotearoa is a recent artificial construct. Formerly, this archipelago was made up of tribal lands controlled by a variety of autonomous iwi, often warring or competing with each other.
What unites the present cast is an implicit celebration of their inheritance of Māoritanga – once repressed and thought destined for museum-stuffing – and the effects of that on today’s notions of bicultural identity. These poets are by and large a stroppy bunch; not always loud or rowdy, indeed frequently they are subdued and subtle, but if gladness and self-affirmation are dominant motifs, so are iterations of historical and contemporary grievances – and a sense of previously suppressed voices busting out, bringing the news that stays news.
The paternalistic past is repudiated, and Māori creation myths are taken as holy writ and given expressive reinvention. Colonialism and neo-colonialism are addressed with emotional directness as evils – necessary or otherwise – and shifting power relations and the emergence of the born-again sensibility are explored, not always with blanket approval.
As gatekeepers, Whaitiri and Sullivan generously admit voluble advocates along with vociferous protagonists for conflicting ideas about where Māoridom has come from and where it might be headed, with the only required qualification for those with Māori whakapapa (genealogy) being poetic eloquence. With considerable craft many of these poets integrate Māori phrases and concepts in local, demotic English. Some disown, or seek to disabuse, the fancy-pants literati conjuring theories of pre-Modernist, Modernist and post-Modernist New Zealand literature, while others embrace these academic causes, and indeed proselytise for them as middle-class academics themselves.
Here and there, the usurpations of the Pākehā are berated and the sins of the fathers are laid at the doors of the great great grandchildren, but this book is much more than a catalogue of wrongs in free-verse stanzas. Just as the resonant chest of Hone Tuwhare continues to breathe on, every time his poems are recited somewhere in the nation, at stations both high and low, so too the utterances of tohunga mākutu, struck by lightning, creak back to life in the slogans of the mokopuna of the revolution. Ancestors rattle their bones in the revivication of Māori etymologies, as explored in the poems of Puna Wai Kōrero. These poets declare Māori poetry on the page a self-raising language, full of macrons; and when spoken aloud, a consciousness-raising language that sparks fire in the soul. Their hybridities are sensorily infused with the mythopoeic and reverberate as confessional, cathartic, redemptive.
Occasionally some poets employ cloying New Age idioms, or even imitate a kind of computerese gobbledygook, as if overly impressed by the possibilities of randomly generated phrasing, smearing dollops of language like a piquant sauce across the page. But most in this by-and-large shrewdly chosen and apposite anthology reward rereading. Puna Wai Kōrero is another New Zealand literary turning-point, uncovering a flourishing neo-tradition of rhetorical skills aplenty, ranging from parody that deftly deconstructs dominant discourses, to laments for historical and personal trauma that cleverly repudiate the simplistic by interweaving cross-cultural associations with a kind of phantasmagorical intensity.
The communality for all the poets in Puna Wai Kōrero (which means, literally, ‘wellspring memory speech’, or in Hone Tuwhare’s words, ‘deep river talk’) is made up of narratives of origin, tales of early navigators and voyagers, the loss of lands, the Māori Battalion, the Māori Women’s Welfare League, struggles with racial discrimination, and then the Māori Renaissance of the 1970s. This cultural reassertion was followed by hīkoi from 1975 onwards that led, via land occupations such as Bastion Point in 1978 and 1982, to the Waitangi Tribunal and kōhanga reo.
Post-World War Two there was a drift from Māori rural settlements to the big towns, leading to alienation, disaffection and sometimes prison. Henare Dewes writes in ‘Tihei mauriora!’:
Strange thing happened today
applied for a flat in Remuera
got knocked back
cause I’m a Māori,
Hell, I can’t even speak the lingo
don’t even know my māoritanga …
In another 1960s-era poem, ‘The street’, Norman Te Whata writes:
guy over there?
his Afro hair now grey
he lives like a cowhide drying
wrinkled old and hiding
from his shame
even from his name …
And in his poem ‘For my father in prison 1965’, Michael O’Leary writes:
He entered through
the heavily bolted steel door they held open
And when he emerged
he had a matchstick table and was very quiet.
Other poets commemorate the mid-twentieth-century rural experience with sometimes sardonic humour, as in Arapera Hineira Blank’s ‘Rangitukia, soul place’:
Three miles south of Te Uranga
a battered one-way bridge still stands,
monument to frequent bashings
by way-out drivers soaked in booze
at way-out cost in the Tiki pub
‘Bloody hell I must be pissed!’
Splintering wood and scrunching metal
echo on the wind …
But if there are laments and fraught psychodramas, there’s also a spirit of resilience and affirmation, buoyed by comedy:
It doesn’t matter how many babies you have, how many times you marry
or divorce, how skinny or fat you become, how many degrees hang on
your wall, how flash your car or house is or how old you get,
Aunties are Boss …
(‘Aunties are Boss’, by Maraea Rakuraku)
Rowley Habib, of an older generation, acknowledges the 1970s and 1980s warriors of the struggle for social justice, equality and self-determination in his poem for Tame Iti: they are ‘kindred spirits’. In ‘Our watch now’, Keri Hulme revisits the losses of the past as the wish-fulfilments of the present:
If New Zealand had been Aotearoa
just imagine …
we would have heard huia still singing today
or seas would flourish with the thunder of sounding whales
Matariki would usher in Aotearoa New Year …
Apirana Taylor delineates the landscape as a netherworld populated by ghosts, demons, gods and monsters. ‘I suck on your bodies / as if they were lollipops,’ he writes in his poem ‘The womb’, ventriloquising the living earth as the realm of Rūaumoko. Robert Sullivan, whose poems sometimes use thoroughly modern terminology grafted onto storylines of creation myths in order to reboot ancient legends for a twenty-first-century audience, seditiously undermines the past and present’s idolatry of Captain Cook, declaring in his poem ‘Captain Cook’: ‘Didn’t we get rid of him? There are far too many statues, operas / and histories …’
But of course being Māori today is not one thing; it’s a complex polyvalent, many-splendoured, many-sided state of being which blends with things Pākehā. Roma Potiki brings into view feminist principles in her poem ‘Speaking out’:
To all the smug men
who think that speaking the reo is going to save them
who think that language makes them one better than someone else
To all the men who think that just being born
and speaking our own language
I’m telling you it’s not.
Sam Jackson posits that one aspect of being Māori is about being trapped in various kinds of double-bind:
Being Māori is
an expectation from others
that you are fluent in English (or you’re dumb)
and Māori (or you’re not a real Māori)
but no other language.
Because then you’re really not a real Māori.
However, Ben Brown confirms that being Māori today is a matter of eluding stereotypes, when he tells us:
I am the Māori jesus …
and i don’t like
mussels and paraoa
Give me fish’n’chips
with tomato sauce …
My father Hōhepa
worked at Watties
where they made the sauce
at least until redundancy …
And Hinemoana Baker confounds stereotypes by proving Māori poets are no longer lexically estranged or ineluctably marginalised in their choice of linguistic registers. She executes a sophisticated and musical use of global English, turning it into a kind of performative magic:
The wind makes a sound through eight different chimes.
It’s not the fault of the game, says Peace. I draw the ferns
in a chart alongside mucus and masturbation.
I put down the books and say a prayer for concentration.
That place online where you can listen
to thousands of crickets slowed down and
they sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Yes, and a Lakota soprano sings with them in Italian.
(‘My life part II: I think you’re on your own with that one, bro’)
David Eggleton is the editor of Landfall Review Online. His latest collection of poems, The Conch Trumpet, has just been published by Otago University Press.