Hone Tuwhare’s thirteenth collection is the result of his time as Te Mata Estate poet laureate. It isn’t his most consistent vintage, and I have some reservations about a corked poem or two, but my reservations are balanced both by the collection’s expert blending, and its final sweet emotional botrytis. What it loses on the savvies it gains on the sauternes.
Piggy-back Moon opens with an epigraph and an invocation of sorts. “Ode to the South Wind” has a reluctant bard awoken by te hau tonga, the south wind, which appears as an unwanted muse. The hau tonga awaits an uplifting greeting and lofty praise – a mihi whakahonore, appropriate kupu whakateitei. Instead the wind is met with invective: “shithead”. The ode of the title promises lyricism, the final curse grumpily breaks the bardic lute.
“Ode to the South Wind” is the only poem substantially composed in Maori. It’s a shame that editorial and typographical conventions so closely followed elsewhere in the collection are here eschewed, for they cork a good poem. There are unorthodox spellings and line breaks (“whaka-tei-tei”, “wha- / ka honore”, “ki aia”), and closed em-dashes – used elsewhere in the collection to indicate changes in sense – aren’t used in this poem. Errant hyphens appear instead of dashes, compounding unrelated words (“kuaha-kia”, “rawa atu-mihi”).
When a reader of poetry meets linguistic deviation, the general response is to mutter something like “aha! a textual strategy”, and set about seeing how the poem means what it means. But the deviations don’t seem that strategic. Accumulatively, they dam the poem’s flow. It’s a real contrast to Tuwhare’s previously published Maori-language poems. “Ode to the South Wind” appears before Paula Hunt’s brief thematic introduction. It is, in effect, an epigraph and is corralled off by the introduction from the main four-part body of the collection; it has mana motuhake, yet it is removed from the same level of care that marks the rest of the collection.
The introduction itself is thematic and concise, but occasionally portentous. Of the poet, phrases like “as he enters his last years” and “as age claims him, his world and his poetry has spiralled slowly inwards” are unpleasant – they have an Exhibit A tone which ignores the living man. They also raise fears that this collection is by the elder Wordsworth of Maori literature and he somehow needs his pillow smoothed.
Thankfully, not so: this collection is alive and kicking (read: cursing, farting and leering; eating, praying and loving; and grieving). Of Piggy-back Moon’s four sections, the first addresses Tangaroa and his fruits; the second is a miscellany; the third is a brief journal of lust (“I am / entranced by the flow of your / silken thighs …/ as you sit down to write out / my prescription for Zestril” (“For Linda”)); and the fourth mainly contains eulogistic love poems addressed to Kereihi, Shirley Grace, who passed away in 1999.
The poems share techniques that readers of Tuwhare’s previous work will find familiar. Many poems are divided into verse paragraphs, typographically distinguished by the use of the hanging indent. Their lyrical cadences shift between formal and informal registers, and they code switch between the English and Maori languages:
In the Po Neke-neke, I am sleep-starved, and
pissed off. The next time around, I drift
off into a climaxing-stirred pool,
that is a soundless water-fall
In performance, Tuwhare is a showman, his orotund delivery at times akin to a circus ringmaster’s. In Piggy-back Moon’s poetry of place and appetite, groper heads are part of the greatest show on earth: “Indubitably, // they are Tangaroa’s erotic gift to us— / supremely nutritious, Love-and- / Life-lengtheners!” (“For the Furtherance, in the Refinements of the Ancient Techniques of Groping”). But poems which could fill a marquee when voiced don’t always find breath on the printed page. On the beach there’s a “scintillating variety of fish-flesh, unscaled, / shelled or un-shelled, but palpitatingly / succulent, seductively shiny and moist” (“For You, Qualmful I’m Not, Tangaroa”). The ringmaster’s carnival here meets a fishmonger’s advertorial.
Many of the poems are cluttered, and some generously include extra adverbial and adjectival servings. There’s nothing innately wrong with clutter or extra servings, but they do have their dangers: clutter can lead to surprising juxtapositions, but a reader can be stung by a “yellow, zebra-striped / bumble-bee” (“For Linda”); extra servings can show manaakitanga, but may lead to disappointing disproportion – the rare fruit cannot be seen because it’s covered in extra cream; fresh kai moana is drowned in a flavoured sauce.
Piggy-back Moon’s poems often take a direct route. They make the complex seem simple so that the simple can be explored. Form is not often placed to the fore. Why have thirteen ways of looking at a mutton-bird when one will do?
[D]ealing with surface existence
simple phenomena is less hurtful
doesn’t require a mental
complex depth of
may cause you to lose—
regurgitate your precious
dinner of mutton-bird & kumara.
(“A Prepared Banquet of Sea Animals”)
But it’s what appears simple in Tuwhare’s poetry which is crucial. The collection inhabits a world where human boundaries are semi-permeable, where things are unexpectedly animated – a tree’s cupped hands can fail to catch the sinking moon, waves hongi, and worms become a musical memento mori that carries with it the Elizabethan connotation of sexual release as death:
twisting & necklacing
together & loosening
the soil, to bring in
light & air
in a skidding
of sensuality and joy
Section four’s eulogistic poems add contemplative depth for times when “mutton-bird & kumara” won’t do. The atua who appears in this section is Whiro, not Tangaroa, and the music is no longer by the Miles Davis of section two. “When Time Withdraws his Sponsorship”, the tune goes, “you are / crossed, eye-to-eye, dead; / cross-eyed-to-eyed dead …Ooooo! / diddly-eye, dyed-in-the-wool dead”.
Far from looking at “simple phenomena”, section four’s poems engage with a “complex depth”. And the energy infusing them is from the liminal areas where destruction and creation converge, where stillness is at once an end, and a prelude to action:
Listlessness isn’t a reflection of the heart’s inaction
On the contrary, when grief inhabits the desolate
house, the heart is at its most irrepressible.
I mentioned emotional botrytis earlier, and it warrants further explanation. Botrytis cinerea is a mould that, given the right conditions, causes ripe grapes to shrivel. Their juices become concentrated, and wine made from these grapes has a honeyed sweetness. The collection’s final poems have this quality. “I love you, love you –I / love you”, repeats Tuwhare to Kereihi in “I Love You Porky … (Porgy!)”. Incantatory repetition like this could be seen as a failure of poetic language when faced with finality. But in context, sweetness wins out.
John Huria is a Wellington editor.