Kaitiaki o te Pō by John-Paul Powley (Seraph Press, 2018), 165 pp, $35
In his book of essays, Kaitiaki o te Pō, historian and teacher John-Paul Powley ruminates on self and a broader culture through the flow of his life, which eddies around the jut of histories and events that break a country’s current into caesurae. Each one is a stopping point full of personal refusals and tentative potentialities, poignant and sometimes rousing.
In ‘Nancy Boy’, for example, Powley reflects on ‘the machinery of masculinity’ as he winds his way around the story of ‘J’, a boy who was bullied at school for not being ‘what a boy is supposed to be’, and his own negotiation of bands, T-shirts, hairdos, ‘peach fluff’ and the male role models of his mother’s video collection that revered Nureyev. In there, too, is Wellington’s Chews Lane and its dichotomy of ‘suits’ and labourers (also once the site of Powley’s go at the Battle of the Bands), and his concern, as a dean, with ‘nowhere’ boys, those caught between stereotypes. Confluent with this is a discussion of a New Zealand society in which boys fit like cogs – or not: where being ‘beautifully attuned’ to relationships, love or dance is likely to result in the ‘social self-preserving’ process of revealing only some aspects of oneself while ‘pushing yourself down’.
Other machineries such as the New Zealand government’s effectuation of justice and environmental policies are subject to Powley’s telling of history. In ‘Opōtiki’, a class visits the church that displays the pardon for condemned Te Whakatōhea chief Mokomoko’s alleged part in the murder of missionary Carl Völkner in 1865. The details, such as the fact of the chief’s ownership of the offending rope, circle those of the government’s confiscation and colonisation of the iwi’s land through legalised military occupation. Mokomoko’s body, initially buried under the concrete of Mt Eden’s prison yard, was reclaimed in 1989 by Ngāti Patu hapū (one of the iwi’s six hapū that were shunted onto the land of Ngāti Rua hapū at Ōpape, an area representing five per cent of the iwi’s land) and buried on the flattened hump of a hill’s summit on that land. ‘What shall we make of it, Mokomoko?’ Powley asks, in an unsettled sunset moment at the Ngāti Patu marae where, as Pākehā, he observes the deep pull of whakapapa and rues the loss of a Māori community that once milled flour and operated its own ships for trade. Today, Opōtiki sits in the lowest decile of the New Zealand Index of Deprivation.
In ‘Walking the Beach’, Powley recounts a field trip to the Island Bay Marine Education Centre, along with Labour Day explorations of Petone foreshore and Bolton Street cemetery with his children, while he circulates the complicated legacies of founding figures and the vagaries of the Waste Management Act of 2008. Swiftly, he takes us from a protected sea’s flotsam of hundreds of coloured bottle-tops and through Wellington’s beginnings – including the fraught negotiations of Te Ātiawa leader, Te Puni; the vision of British colonial administrator, Edward Gibbon Wakefield; and Samuel Parnell’s creation of the eight-hour working day – to the closing statement of his own correspondence with the minister for the environment. ‘I am pleased to see the progress that has been made so far,’ says the minister, who is also ‘keen to see businesses and communities step up to reduce the environmental impacts of products and waste’.
Occupying a prominent position in Kaitiaki o te Pō is ‘Anzac Day’, because of its criticisms of existing narratives of nationhood. More directly, and with a greater sense of anger, Powley takes four themes that ‘come to us through TV and the newspaper’ and examines their language and assumptions. The first of these is that ‘New Zealand lost its innocence in Gallipoli’, which the writer links to the belief that our true sense of nationhood was formed after World War I: a troubling assertion given the way it obliterates what came before, namely the New Zealand Wars and the Boer War. Justifiably, Powley finds the New Zealand history foregrounded by this to be that of ‘white New Zealand’, and scathingly suggests that, if New Zealand as a nation was an innocent at the time of Gallipoli, then we need to redefine what ‘innocence’ is and consider, by contrast, ‘blithe imperial arrogance’ made manifest not only in our civil wars but also at Gallipoli. Otherwise, New Zealanders remain innocent of the colonial realities of past and continuing conflicts.
Other rhetorical themes concern the noble sacrifice of New Zealanders; remembering them; and the need for this so as to not repeat the past. As Powley recounts, the idea of ‘sacrifice’ is highly problematic because it can, by definition, refer to the slaughtering of an unwilling subject, or the voluntary relinquishment of what one would otherwise value for the sake of other ‘considerations’. Indeed, it is difficult to make a soldier’s loss of life at Gallipoli ‘noble’ according to either definition – in the first definition, because the social context throws the ‘willingness’ of the conscripted into serious question (particularly given the ‘strong hand’ Prime Minister William Massey took against any ‘pacifists and anti-militarists’ who were a ‘hindrance’ to the nation in 1918). And in the second definition, because the ‘considerations’ for which lives were voluntarily sacrificed only take us back to the troubling consideration of imperialism and the problems of a fractured Middle East.
As Powley points out, the crux of all of this is that, on Anzac Day, we are ultimately faced with the difficulty of finding a way to think about what happened in meaningful terms and ‘remember’ the many people throughout society who were involved in different ways.
And yet, something did happen at Chunuk Bair as soldiers went bodily into the line of fire, and we need texts that not only make us discuss this but also direct our anger, pain and grief towards other modes of consciousness. Powley’s frankness is important, but I want him to go further than his total refusal: ‘So I don’t go to, and probably never will attend, the dawn service on Anzac Day.’ I want more of the kind of snaggy yet deeply reaching storytelling that Kaitiaki o te Pō otherwise opens to us.
A favourite of mine is the essay ‘The March of Progress’ with its epigraph from the opening of S-Town, a seven-part podcast series about the life of John B. McLemore, an antiquarian horologist who lived in Woodstock, Alabama. ‘A clock that old doesn’t come with a manual. So instead, the few people left in the world who know how to do this kind of thing rely on what are called “witness marks” to guide their way.’ An apt metaphor for the parts of Powley’s essays, a witness mark is a mark left in a clock that shows where something was adjusted, added or removed in the past. Powley makes this essay, and his essays in general, a way of identifying and linking moments past and present to understand the way things turn now.
‘The March of Progress’ begins in autumn. Powley stands at his kitchen window musing on a magnolia tree in his Berhampore garden – part of a full-scale re-design of an urban landscape. The network of bare branches frames the birds that flit through it. He compares seeing into the tree to opening the back of a clock: the nature and interior workings of the larger landscape has become an ‘elaborate mess of cogs and springs’. The tree sits in the context of development still happening ‘at the speed of the bulldozer’, a signifier of a place marked by continual change. The landmarks of a previous era are gone: the Anglican St Cuthbert’s church, built in the 1950s, and the creeks and paths that were central to stories of Powley’s childhood habit of ‘roaming’.
Which leads me to the concept of ‘Kaitiaki o te Pō’ (guardian of the night) as I understand it here. It is a way of talking as to a dear friend who has died, as Powley does in his title essay in which he also recounts Justice Joe Williams’ use of the phrase to describe the role of the historian. Te pō, as it is in this collection, is a space of darkness – the night – in which narratives are wound and unwound in terms of loneliness, un-rootedness, government constructions, ecocide and death. It is a space in which a life ravels and unravels.
Traditionally, within the ambit of a kaitiaki, te pō is also a pathway, te ara, in which darkness is a depth that is entered and stepped through as a way to consider a current state of life.1 Such forms of tikanga Māori are, rightly, not claimed here, and neither is this collection a therapeutic framework lineally rooted in forms of kōrero. But it is, over its arc, an acceptance of a certain kind of responsibility for storytelling, from an identification with kaitiakitanga back to a darker beginning in which the writer, as a teacher, has burned out and quit his job in the face of repeatedly ‘watching a car crash in slow motion’. At its sombre end, I am brought back to thinking about how we might find ways to circulate the darker aspects of our society and the human condition, and the need to witness the moments from which stories gather and flow.
- Nadia Minee Sadler-Howe, ‘Kaitiakitanga: Notions of indigenous active care and guardianship’, in Indigenous Knowledge and Bi-Culturalism in a Global Context, Shahul Hameed, Siham El-Kafafi and Rawiri Waretini-Karena (eds), IGI Global, 2019, 341.
JODIE DALGLEISH is a writer, curator and sonic artist living in Luxembourg. She is returning to her own practice after more than a decade curating within New Zealand’s art museum sector. She has been published online and in print in numerous arts-related publications, including the Paris-based online visual arts platform Contemporary Hum.