Being human, Cyril Childs

The Art of Walking Upright
Glenn Colquhoun
Steele Roberts, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877228 20 6

“Glenn Colquhoun is a doctor in Northland”, the back over explains. Having grown up “looking over the fence” in the cultural blend of South Auckland, Colquhoun took a year off during his medical training to live in Te Tii, home of Ngati Rehia of Ngapuhi in the Bay of Islands: “It is a place … I finally went to learn things Maori.” Colquhoun has had poetry published in several journals, and a children’s book is due for release this year, but this is his first book of poems: “These poems are about … discovering a place to stand within a Maori world. Ultimately for me they are about … what it means to be Pakeha and what it means to be human.”

The book is not one of your usual poetry volumes – being larger in format and including 21 sepia-toned photographs, all but one by the writer – and is a pleasure to hold. The 50 poems, arranged in four sections, are printed on heavy semi-gloss paper, their titles in red. The attractive cover is designed by Lynn Peck.

The poems themselves exhibit a high degree of experimentation with form that adds surprise to a first reading. Some have concrete elements, some are solid blocks of text. One is a one-page novel of nine chapters. Another contrasts two terse paraphrases of the Treaty of Waitangi – one version Pakeha, the other Maori. Yet another is in the form of a glossary:

Hangi, n. Earth oven. The old man’s skin clung like sacks on a hangi. His eyes steamed. His lips were leaves of cabbage. His tongue was a shovel…

This compares favourably with the real glossary at the end of the book which largely offers, for example, no more than “Pakeha – a New Zealander of European descent”; “Tena koe – a greeting”; and “Tui – a bird”. One wonders what purpose this glossary serves: terms warranting explanation might have been more conveniently defined in footnotes.

“Waves of settlement” is wordplay that, for me, becomes overdone:

There could then be settlement
of the settlement and settlement
of any breaches of the settlement
for settling the settlement
of settling …

Perhaps it attempts to portray the one-sided European “legalistic” attitude towards the treaty document; perhaps it raises the question of whether anything can ever be truly “settled”.

A few of the poems contain memorable lines, none more so than those from which the book takes its title:

The art of walking upright here
is the art of using both feet.
One is for holding on.
One is for letting go.

And from “Mihi”, a gem on recycling:

And to this breath
all breathed before.
Be breathed again.

But this book should be judged not by its memorable lines nor the literary quality of individual poems but as a whole. As the account of a European New Zealander reaching out to and being accepted into a remote Maori community, it deserves to be valued for the understanding, human respect and inspiration it offers. Bridge-building is something to which we all might aspire.

Cyril Childs edited The Second New Zealand Haiku Anthology, which won the Haiku Society of America’s award for best anthology for 1998.

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