Whai by Nicole Titihuia Hawkins (We Are Babies Press, 2021), 84pp, $25; Tōku Pāpā by Ruby Solly (Te Herenga Waka Press, 2021), 80pp, $24.99; AUP New Poets 8 by Lily Holloway, Tru Paraha and Modi Deng, ed. Anna Jackson (Auckland University Press, 2021), 120pp, $29.99
Nicole Titihuia Hawkins’ debut collection Whai is not only the winner of the 2022 Jessie Mackay Prize for a best first book of poetry at this year’s Ockham awards but also the first offering from new indie publisher, We Are Babies Press. It is not difficult to see why they chose Whai as their gateway into the world. It is a multidimensional collection that was clearly years in the making. It demonstrates a poet who has used time and space to build her world on the page through poetry—a world filled with whānau, friends, warmth, absurdity, sharp edges, uncertainty, things that can’t be forgotten, things that can; all the things that have made this poet who she is today.
He took his last drag then I drove him to the hospital
blood clots in his arteries almost killed him
Mum saw him for the first time at the wedding—
You’re not still smoking are you?
(‘The separation of Rangi and Papa’)
You still refuse
to use my first name
call me only Titihuia
a name you won’t see
me love up to
This whakapapa is always present in the collection, even if it isn’t a poem’s primary focus, woven throughout to help build a picture of Hawkins the person, the poet. It informs stories and anecdotes that are both intimate and universal; it gives us a glimpse into the fire within that has burned and will continue to burn for a long time.
My aunt and my cousin tell me
it’s just how our whānau are,
Nan was a heavy bleeder
had to use rags made from towels.
(‘Rua tekau mā waru’)
Interspersed in this book is humour in unexpected situations. Sometimes this humour acts as a microscope, with racism and colonisation firmly in its sight:
I want Shortland Street
to cast us a girl gang of Māori women
who eat the weight
of their feelings in cheese
at wainanga & help each other
craft responses to
cultural appropriation, govt. depts & fuckbois
Other times it holds a reimagining of history, a breath, a pause, a reminder of the interpersonal and the joy and playfulness that can exist between us as people.
WTF! Got pics?
Ooosh well look at you aye girl.
That’s a big kapu ti you spilling.
That’s what she said.
Yeah, something tells me it’s not
his kapu ti she’s interested
(‘Hine-puariari admins a group chat’)
It was such a pleasure to see this collection recognised at the Ockham awards. Not that awards are the be-all-end-all of literary success—far from it. But it was comforting to see Whai celebrated for what it is: an audacious, fluid collection from a poet who has spent years working on her craft and style to elevate her storytelling. This is a poet who has found the best way to represent herself and all those who are a part of her—it is specific in that way. And yet, there is something universal about the lines, too, reaching out as much as it’s looking in: here we have a stunning, memorable collection that anyone can find a home in.
Ruby Solly’s collection Tōku Pāpā is another brilliant arrival from a debut poet. Solly is well known already, not only for her breathtaking poetry but also for her skills as a classical musician and taonga puoro player. She is quite possibly one of the hardest-working people in Aotearoa literature, and this collection is a testament to that dedication.
The collection opens with memory and nostalgia: a challenge to the poet’s titular father in an untitled poem. It features a shift in mood and perspective that becomes common throughout the book:
Here you are.
Here is how I saw you,
trapped in your own amber.
Now it’s time
for you to believe me.
There is swiftness in language. There are turns and flips and movements that mirror the speaker’s multifaceted mood and perspective and also demonstrate an ability for finding beauty in nuance:
and then I know
why we are named after prey
and not predators.
Pāpā you are dog-eared and brittle,
finger-printed and water-damaged.
While how I know you blooms
as ribs off a central spine.
(‘Oral Language Written Down’)
Solly’s father and his relationship to the poet is pulled apart and put back together in such a compelling way, mapping enigmas and Rorschach tests of a man and a relationship as layered and complex as the poems themselves:
As a child
whenever I was angry,
my father would tell me to write a eulogy
to the person who had caused me pain.
He said that by the end of it
I would see
that even those who cause us pain
are precious to the world.
Solly’s brilliance lies in her ability to thrust the reader into a world where all our senses are engaged by our new surroundings. Reading this collection, we can start to hear the music of rivers, the heartbeat of birds; trees and forests open up before our eyes. There’s a vibrancy in the detail—which always avoids overstaying its welcome—that allows the perfect moment to look, listen, reflect.
Tōku Pāpā is a coherent and complex statement about the poet’s father, and the space the poet and father occupy in and with each other—and a fitting display of the talents and gifts Solly has at her disposal.
AUP New Poets 8 offers up another tasting platter of new and exciting voices in Aotearoa poetry. Editor Anna Jackson, who revived the series a couple of years ago, has a particular curatorial knack for bringing together a wide range of poets with different obsessions, strengths and styles. With AUP New Poets 8 we have the arrival of three very different poets whose work speaks and sings in conversation with each other.
The first section is from prolific writer and editor Lily Holloway. Holloway has been a force in Aotearoa poetry in the last couple of years, publishing widely and co-founding Aotearoa’s first queer poetry journal, Eel Magazine (the first issue has just been released—worth noting here for its depth and breadth). Holloway’s section in this book, ‘a child in the alcove’, gives us insight into the little things that move them: Velma and the mystery machine, Sistema lunch boxes, starfish and crustaceans. These little pockets of refuge amidst a storm of heavy subject matter provide a deft balance of the light and the heavy.
In their early twenties, Holloway writes like someone beyond their years. A lot of the work inspects and reflects on temporality, on what it means to rewind or return or repeat:
you are standing over
standing over my river
in the same spot each time
There is no real certainty of origin.
I see you at 3am.
in the Four Square carpark
howling with your animal mask on
I am stuck in the car and you are approaching
I know because the camera focuses
on the rearview mirror.
The timeline is elusive.
(‘Is any of this relevant’)
Next in the volume is Tru Paraha’s expansive section, ‘my darkling universe’. Paraha is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work in this collection is sprawling and inventive. While some may baulk at the experimental formatting, the shifting from portrait to landscape, the lack of titles, those who take the time to sit with it on its own terms will be rewarded. Take in these lines (and space), for example:
luminosity rotisserie turns quantum fuzz
you know its spin its soft emissions
infinitely compressed bright meat
we slow-moed we sped
lasso-wrangled bouncy castles rogue
fully ascendant & frame-dragging
ultraviolet violence like there’s no tomorrow
Paraha has a talent for creating a constant reimagining of images and moments within her poems. They appear, disappear, recontextualise, disintegrate and reintegrate like shooting stars. They are most effective when not looked at directly. I recently listened to Paraha reading from the collection, and it was striking how the words were brought to life, how the reading propelled the work into the quantum realm that so much of her poetry focuses on. A truly out of this world experience.
e ipo (I te pō ask sky
alien awaken her) e ?
slayed rapture 0
death s cent
Poet and concert pianist, Modi Deng, ends the book. Modi’s work features a quiet poise, a stillness that holds strength and memory beneath it. While these poems don’t have the formal experimentalism of Paraha’s work, they are just as expansive, roaming between countries and connections, tracing lines of memory through the past to the present:
The prognosis for unrest
is poor, says the pendulum traveller
(he’s swung here before).
Longer than months stretching
to noon, longer than putting words
to a tune.
Modi’s poems brim with musicality, which is unsurprising considering her other life. But there is still such a clear abundance of care and restraint that doesn’t muzzle this rhythm; instead, it preserves it in perfect form for us all to stare at like we’re in a museum.
lovers pass through her ghost arms, till at last their
catch, their legs an arabesque
crescent around each other. finding themselves
if only as night breathes its while.
JORDAN HAMEL is a Pōneke-based writer, poet and performer. He was the 2018 New Zealand Poetry Slam champion and represented New Zealand at the World Poetry Slam Champs in the United States in 2019. He is the co-editor of Stasis Journal and co-editor of a forthcoming NZ Climate Change Poetry Anthology from Auckland University Press. His debut poetry collection Everyone is Everyone Except You has just been published by Dead Bird Books.