Deep River Talk: Collected Poems
Godwit, $49.95 hbk, $29.95 pbk
Hone Tuwhare’s Collected Poems, drawn from eight previous volumes of poetry, spans thirty years of writing. This in itself represents a problem for the reviewer. There is something of the grand old man about a collected works, and Hone Tuwhare’s poetry eludes simple analysis. Within this volume there are many voices and influences, through all of which sound the common themes of landscape, spirituality and lament (as one might expect from a Maori poet). The highly polished patina and pared-down style of poems like ‘Haiku (1)’ and ‘Bird of Prayer’, among others, reveal the poet’s conscious sampling of another tradition, and contrast strongly with the laid-back nuances of the beat generation and the street voice of the poet. This aspect of Hone Tuwhare’s verse is worked with great assurance; a voice slangy, free-wheeling and down to earth. Poems like ‘Pension day blues’:
At noon today a sneak-thief dawn wearing dark
glasses sidled up to me and said.. Can I
buy you a drink?
Outside there’s a hell of a
struggle going on between my
cabbage tree and the wind.
The sun has already decided
to hit the sack early …
establish his mastery of the Kiwi idiom, invested with a racy authenticity, within which he is able to glissade from one tone to another with great and often comic facility:
Your granite words remain.
Austere fare, but nonetheless adequate for the
honest sustenance they give.
And for myself a challenge.
A preoccupation now more intensely felt, to tilt
a broken taiaha inexpertly
to my old lady, Hine-nui-te-po, bless the old
bitch … (‘Ron Mason’).
At best, his creative distortions of language invest the landscape (the poet’s stock-in-trade) with vigorous metaphor and imagery:
saw a nonchalant sky
shrug into a blue-dark
denim coat. (‘The girl in the park’)
This sureness of touch slackens, however, in some of the self-consciously political poems. Creative distortion becomes mere contortion. When the poet dons his hard hat, the reader may well cower from bullets of overblown and somewhat naive leftist rhetoric, which articulate an enthusiasm; satisfying the demands of polemic rather than poetic. Lines like
… When you slumped down, mankind
was hurled back a billion years, to a
jellyfish. (‘Martin Luther King’)
That day in the streets, batons whistled just
like a tui strangling, a wharfie crumpled
in the gutter with blood rushing to his face. (‘After 151 days of rain …’)
suffer from the twin faults of cliché and bathos, and do no more for the cause than inch-high headlines in the Daily Worker.
Naiveté is not a charge that could be levelled against the love poems, apart perhaps from the fundamental naivete of perceiving women as simple concatenations of flesh. These poems are nonetheless an erotic feast; harvest of a sophisticated sensuality which, while wryly acknowledging the losses and defeats of the condition, is at base both joyous and funny ‑ perhaps most convincingly expressed in ‘He pao reka mo Huaonia’, an erotic parody of the blazon, in which a lover’s physical attributes are detailed from head to toe; here operating as a comic celebration of soixante-neuf. Maori is the chosen language. Could one get away with it in English?
… Kua tae atu oku ngutu
ngote-ngote whakareka atu ana i o Uu … mmm
… E tangi mai ana koe? Ha! mo te aha?
Ko te reka o te hari? ‘Kii mai ana koe me hurry-hurry up?
My only comment would be, Ru ana te whenua!
The bluff, man of the streets posture is not specious but somewhat misleading. This is the work of a seasoned and urbane poet, much published internationally, an old habitué of the bitchy arts clubs of this country, who well understands the sniping games, but reserves the right to walk away with a mocking gesture. Hone Tuwhare claims a deeper authenticity than that conferred by the approbation of the literati, derived rather from his tribal identity as a man of the northern blood of Nga Puhi.
Farewelling the dead is a central poetic impulse in this verse. Roughly half the poems in the collection are laments. Tangihanga is the great central ritual at the heart of Maori life and, in this respect, the poet reflects a preoccupation and a poetic tradition that is characteristically Maori. The manner of these poems is as various as those farewelled, ranging in tone from the almost jocular language of ‘The Sport’, to the plain valedictory of poems like ‘Ron Mason’, the formal elegiac of complaint in ‘Tangi-hanga’, the honed-down spareness of the lyrics in ‘A fall of rain at Mitimiti: Hokianga’:
At your feet two candles puff the
stained faces of the whanau, the vigil of the bright madonna …
And to a dark song lulling: e te whaea, sleep.
A distinction needs to be drawn between these statements of personal loss, and the anger and desolation of the disenfranchised, a note which sounds again and again in this work, and which itself echoes the language and the imagery of the indigenous tradition.
the tussock grass –
Of voiceless land, let me echo your desolation.
The mana of my house has fled. . . (‘Not by wind ravaged’)
The voice of protest arises more naturally from within this context as well, when permitted inflections of irony and humour absent in those poems where politics is the primary focus and the stilted cadences of ideological commitment are more typical.
For this beautiful piece of land/seascape, I will
start the bidding at twenty falling axes per square
centimetre, said the sun looking hard at me for an
earlobe twitch, or other sign.
Get stuffed, I reply, holding my middle finger
straight up – turning it. Slowly.
Idly, I think, that after the eleven o’clock prayers
tomorrow (and before lunch) my cousin will have
gone to ground. (‘A talk with my cousin, alone’)
Hone Tuwhare is a Maori poet who has chosen to work in a Pakeha forum, and his approach to the Maori themes in his work chronicles changing attitudes to te reo Maori and to the mana of te reo, and displays the developing authenticity of his voice. The early work, ‘Lament (1)’, for example, demonstrates the attempt to make the classical Maori tradition accessible to a largely English-speaking audience. Praiseworthy at the time, much of it reads like bad early Victoriana. ‘He waiata whakahōnore atu ki a Haki rāua ko Hōhepa’, on the other hand, is a lament in classical form, retaining the language, rhythms and figures of this tradition, as well as employing the idioms of contemporary speech in a radical and highly successful departure from the strictures of the form.
Reference to this poem emphasises the point that we possess in this country a great and living poetic tradition, on a par with that of Greece or Rome, as potent in metaphor as the work of the Renaissance and much closer to us than either of these. Maori poetry should require neither annotation nor translation for any genuine aficionado of the art in this country, and an understanding of New Zealand literature presupposes an understanding of our indigenous literature, which has been largely disregarded by Pakeha.
Hone Tuwhare has emerged from the serene altar-boy certitudes of an early Europeanised spirituality (‘Disciple dreams’) to the reeling cynicism of ‘Cross-eyed’, and, ultimately, a closer identification with wairua Maori.
– and I tell you if all heaven and earth
is a holy parenthesis
then I shouldn’t mind one bit if my tapu my mana
my ihi and my soul were encompassed by it Nor would
I want to add another thing except to listen to a
crazy poet singing off-key off-beat hymns of
dubious character as I choke in vast merriment;
my sober translation – a misting away into
that which is both mystical and magical
and beyond folklore. (‘Status-seeker’)
This could stand as Hone Tuwhare’s credo for his own work, informed by his consistent perception of the divine comedy and himself as jester within it.
E kore e taka te parapara a ōna tupuna; tukua iho ki a ia.
Juliet Raven is a style editor with Learning Media.