Engaging all the senses, Robert Sullivan

Shape-Shifter
Hone Tuwhare
Steele Roberts $29.95
ISBN 0 9583712 1 0

In Hone Tuwhare’s work all senses are engaged – tasting, sniffing, visualising, touching and hearing the world of the poem – each poem generates atmosphere through the powerhouse of Tuwhare’s lyrical/idiomatic/mythological/ bell-like resonances:

Salt-inspired, the symphonic voices of the Sea chant
a chorus of ingenuous lies in my ear. And in her
boisterous pee green garment secretes a million
anonymous hulks of ghostly truths absolutely without
pity or remorse.

(“Big Whale Itch”)

Other writers have talked about the many voices of Tuwhare, how he uses a chorus of registers, often within the same sentence. Even within the high language of the extract above, “pee green” brings nursery-rhyme into contemplations of the sea as if the voice of a child has been snatched from the air filled with “symphonic voices”. The phrase also makes up part of the description of a lament that enfolds a “million” more anonymous voices, a collective pool from which we can draw meaning. The juxtaposition of size, between child’s voice and ocean, “big whale” and “itch”, reflects the vastness of the contributions that small individuals can make, and in the scratching that we, as Tuwhare’s individual readers, can bring to his body of work!

Tuwhare is a master of sounds and metre. The poem’s first line, “Current, moon and wind conspire, to incite the waves”, relies on the different lengths of its vowels for rhythm. The sibilant second half of the line whispers like conspiracies. It’s a dramatic line, a roll-call of the elements of the poem, and a set-up. Buried in the third stanza is a reference to the fiscal envelope, the land giving the sea “three billion grains of sand / to shut up”.

In the last stanza the poet, teetering on self-deprecation, hopes for a bit of action, musing that perhaps he’ll see a whale with an itch emerge from the sea, asking the sky for a scratch. It’s a twist to the poem’s big ending. There’s a further twist to the poem, a sequel or companion poem later in the book, “Tangaroa: Sea-Food Provider”, in which each stanza is similarly indented, and the final stanza, as in “Big Whale Itch”, begins with the poet filling his electric jug. The companion poem expands the poet’s horizon to Chile and Japan, encompassing the Pacific and its “vast, complex, congregation of human voices all /trying to say hello – in Maori. The Japanese come close: /haro!” Chile (also mentioned in “Kaka Point”) may refer to the influence of

Pablo Neruda, whose qualities of clarity and sensuality are displayed abundantly in Tuwhare’s work.

Hone Tuwhare received his first critical reviews in the mid-1960s. More than 30 years after the first edition of No Ordinary Sun and after a good many more reviews, his work still excites local and international interest, his readings still draw acclaim and admiration (the Dominion raved about his recent reading of his poem “Hotere” at an exhibition launch of the painters), and he continues to retain his pre-eminent position in contemporary Maori literature. All Maori writers, and artists, must come to grips with Tuwhare’s work if they are to have a sense of what it is to be a writer, an artist. His influence extends to the very mythology of what it is to be a Maori today, gauging contemporary social mores against the archetypal cores of Maori cultural existence, in such poems as “We, who live in darkness”, “Papa-tu-a-nuku”, and “Tangi-hanga”.

In Shape-Shifter the poet strokes the libidinous and humorous aspects of life, turning out deeply felt statements: “I recognise my real mates. Maori AND Pakeha” (“Fifteen Minutes in the Life of Johannes Jean H. Ivanovich”); “Forlornly I chant glory glory to your lips your eyes /your hair – and yes – to your increase and kia ora” (“Waiata Aroha”); “Come, Sooty Shearwater, harbinger of good medicinal tucker. /Eat well – and mate well – so that your woolly, roly-poly progeny will thrive” (“Kaka Point”). Some of the poems are housed in Tuwhare’s Kaka Point crib, with its sixth of an acre section (“I cant get used to it. Earth Mum can’t be owned by selfish individuals”),”Rain – intermittently – spotting the glass . . . ./Unlike Tee-Vee, the view does not do / your thinking for you.” His meditations include then necessary chores of living – he hangs out his laundry for instance – which also grounds the poems in experience and Tuwhare’s personality.

Other flavours in this book are salty, the new poems being transported from the edge of the ocean. He doctors and cajoles the god of the sea in “I peer down Tangaroa’s throat”, giving Tangaroa (and us) a treat:

      A pink tongue of Sea-mist drifts
shoreward licking the land like
a multicoloured ice-cream – dipped in melted chocolate.

When sunlight is absent in “The Sun is a Truant”, the sea is serious, deferential to the poet, who allows its weightiness an audience: “Presently, I shall hold / rhetorical hands with it: kia ora, Ancestor.” Often there isn’t an overt message in these new poems, especially those about the sea. The great pleasure in reading them is the feeling they convey, in this case the need to share the sea’s beauty (with the sun), or a bloke’s longing for the warmer companionship of the sun, coupled with seemingly throwaway stanzas displaying that beauty and the poet’s excellent skills:

At Kaka Point, he [Tangaroa] has permitted the ceaseless
movements of dark banks of tens of thousands of
Sooty Shearwater to settle excitedly on his
heaving chest to feed on parasitical small
fish lodged in his green body-hair waltzing and
swaying to the pull & shove of tide.

Look at the pace of this stanza, the absence of commas underlining the poet’s wish to get the description of the sea over so that he can look for the sun.

Janet Hunt, in her perceptive 1995 MA dissertation on Tuwhare’s work, The Paua’s Stout Kiss, sums up the New Zealand critical reaction to his poetry as one of ambivalence. It wasn’t hard to verify her point, using the “New Zealand literature file” at the University of Auckland Library. Baxter’s favourable 1964 review of No Ordinary Sun was completely undone by his (perhaps innocent) backhanded compliment, “there is no middle road of the merely competent”. Barry Mitcalfe, that year, and Jack Lasenby in 1973, also found serious faults – in some fine poems too, such as “Nocturne”, “Spring Song”, and “Study in Black and White”. Hunt points out that the tide has already turned in regard to literary approbation, for there have been some outstanding reviews, and deservedly so. Bill Manhire’s comments about Tuwhare’s code-shifting in Dirty Silence and Ronda Cooper’s reviews being approbatory cases in point.

One has to wonder aloud, then, why it was so very difficult for Tuwhare to establish himself earlier. Was there a cultural bridge to cross? Did the reviewers possess enough objectivity, even humility, while passing off their pronouncements as praise? I say this with some feeling. Like others I have written at least one review in a tone I have later regretted, and I have been on the receiving end myself. But some early reviews of Tuwhare clobbered plainly good work. I don’t know what to ascribe it to, given the longevity and influence of No Ordinary Sun, a work reprinted twelve times in various editions – perhaps an automatic need to balance praise?

C K Stead, in his moving essay after Baxter’s death “Towards Jerusalem”, talked about the great care he took to write a review, as compared to writing his own creative work. I agree with him. It’s a painstaking task to criticise the life’s work – the inner life – of another individual. When the individual draws on the experience of another culture, isn’t it better to acknowledge that experience, to accept that the difference has validity, rather than dismissing the culture out of hand because its world view can’t be verified by the reviewer? As an example of that, I can think of Jenny Jones’s recent review of John Pule’s new novel in The New Zealand Herald, in which she expressed dismay at the large number of Niuean words in the text. It essentially confuses the distinction between the text’s aesthetic qualities and the reviewer’s sociological expectations. There are many more demanding texts in the canon of modern literature, Ulysses being just one that requires its own concordance.

I salute Tuwhare, the warm personality of his poems, and I congratulate him on a very fine twelfth book.

Robert Sullivan is an Auckland poet and librarian. He is this year’s Writer in Residence at the University of Auckland.

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