Biographer Janet Hunt and writer Michael Morrissey attend Hone Tuwhare’s tangi.
In death, seen obliquely as he lay on the satin bed of his coffin, he was not himself. Oh, it was Tuwhare all right: there was the familiar thatch of thick white hair, the birthmark on the cheek, the generous lips and the boxer’s nose.
But the years of ageing had refined his bones and stolen his flesh. His jawline was keen like the blade of an adze, his nose narrowed and sharp as a Pakeha’s, the sparking black eyes banked down and turned inward to at last meet his old companion-adversary, Time. In his marble stillness, he resembled Molly MacAlister’s Maori chieftain cast in bronze that he once memorably recast in words.
Hone Tuwhare’s poroporaki mirrored the years in which he looped north–south, south–north in an eternal act of balance and recalibration, and in a wider sense, reflected the way he moved in life among and between cultures and worlds. He was always as evanescent, as difficult to pin down as a rainbow, its near terminal forever on the move and slightly out of reach and the other somewhere beyond the horizon; like that connecting arch, he was a fragile bridge that was nowhere and everywhere all at once.
The funeral process took place in two acts over six days, beginning in the south, his adopted stamping ground. The lounge of dear friends in Dunedin became a marae and for two days visitors came to mihi, tangi, korero, say good-bye. Then, on a splendid gizza-smile-sun-o sort of day there was a formal farewell in the city’s many-spired, elegant First Church. Hundreds of southern friends and writers, townspeople and Otakau iwi gathered in the timeless cool and peace of the aged stone walls to sing and pay tribute. When the service concluded, he was piped to the hearse by a kilted Scotsman, fitting for a man who celebrated family connections to Anderson/Anihana.
That was the moment the polarities shifted. The wail of bagpipes was replaced by a rising chant of voices, a spontaneous and heartfelt haka from three young Maori men, and it suddenly felt as though he had been let go, set free to soar, fly as he had done so many times, back to the north, to the Far North, to the arms of his whanau and the land of his tipuna. It was a fitting conjunction, a symbolic release and acceptance, a handing over from one island to another, from one world to another.
Act two of the farewell took place three days later. It was the antithesis of the first: the wharenui at Kaikohe’s Te Kotahitanga Marae is old, white, a little down-at-heel, simple and unadorned in the fashion of the north. It felt distant not only in geography but also in time from that earlier occasion, a deeper, older place and protocol. For two days, while the New Zealand flag flew at half-mast at the gate, he again lay with his whanau beside him at the head of the room, while people came and went to hongi good-bye and share parting words, and at last it was time for the final service. There were fewer people than in the south but the feeling was the same: family, friends, colleagues and well-wishers sat on benches around the walls and on mattresses on the floor, they listened, nodded, wept, smiled, sang, gave tribute, and finally followed him in a long procession to the small family urupa at Wharepaepae.
He was buried facing east just below the brow of a hill overlooking the curve of a stream and a fine stand of native bush. He lies among his people with his mother Mihipaea not far away and his sister Hoana nearby. He has come full-circle.
The life and work of Hone Tuwhare have been extraordinary for all sorts of reasons and attempting to define them is a bit like trying to hold his restless mate Tangaroa to account or to catch that rainbow. In the end, however, I come down to the way he created and defined himself as a writer. In the 1940s, when he timidly showed the poet R A K Mason one of his first poems, a sonnet composed with care and difficulty, it was Mason’s advice that defined his future direction as no other: “Just write as if you were writing a letter,” Mason said. “Write your thoughts, your best feelings, you know, about things … write freely and express yourself more without hedging yourself.”
And that is what he did. That is what he achieved: somewhere in the space that is the rainbow, over a lifetime of south–north and north–south, exploring, innovating and tinkering, he defined and redefined his own art and made it true in his own voice. It was a remarkable achievement.
Hone Tuwhare and Ed Hillary died the same day and their funerals clashed, so I had to choose which one to attend. I wasn’t an official guest at Hillary’s funeral so, like many, I would have wound up in the Domain watching the procession. Because I had met Hone several times and was instantly charmed, I chose to go to his tangi.
Hone had a warm, chocolatey voice and a broad smile. And he was the best reader of poetry I have heard – not just in New Zealand but in Australia, England and the US. He participated in a stage reading of my short story Jack Kerouac Sat Down Beside the Wanganui River and Wept. Later, when the poets were drinking, as poets are prone to do, Hone started to chat up my girlfriend at the time, 18-year old Stephanie Johnson, now a novelist of some repute. Hone liked fair play, equality, camaraderie – attitudes that may have had something to do with his once being a communist, though maybe more with the kind of guy he was – a working-class man who didn’t put on airs.
He had a playful side. One evening in the 80s, when I was listening to some blues at a new sound spot in Symonds Street, I felt my left buttock being squeezed. Looking around, I saw no one. Then across the smoky haze (they had smoky hazes then), I noticed Hone side on, with just the suspicion of a smirk on his face.
Since those early encounters, I discovered another intriguing connection with Hone. He had been a boilermaker apprentice at the Otahuhu Railway Workshops from 1939-1944. My father worked at the workshops during this time and he was a boiler engineer. So it seems reasonably certain they would have met and possibly worked together.
As I approached the Te Kotahitanga marae near Kaikohe, I was nervous for two reasons. First, I had never been on a marae before, let along attended a tangi. From Pakeha friends came words of warning and even alarm about breaching protocol. Second, it was possible I might encounter Arthur Harawira and his mother Titiwhai since they were Ngapuhi, and brother MP Hone Harawira had attended the first evening of the tangi.
Arthur had conducted a campaign of terror at the launch of my Paradise to Come at Narrow Neck beach back in 1997. When, as part of a mock battle between Spaniards and a Maori hapu, “conquistadors” landed, he buffeted five people with his taiaha, and also lunged at me. He seemed to be suffering from the delusion my book was a factual account of an alleged conquest of Maori by invading Spaniards, whereas it was a work of fiction. So if Arthur was on the marae, instead of exacting utu (presumably a breach of protocol at a tangi), I would have to hongi him. I decided in advance it would be cool. However, neither Arthur nor his mother was there.
On reaching the marae, I ran into Keir Volkerling whom I have known since Grafton student days. Though Pakeha, Keir can speak Maori and he introduced me onto the marae as a poet and friend of Hone who would like to speak. I also re-met Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, who was to speak movingly at the tangi’s end of Hone’s liberating effect on other Maori writers.
I was nervous about speaking on this, my first marae and first tangi, but was firmly resolved to do it. Marae kaumatua Wati Erueti, who did most of the talking and mostly in Maori, said the talking stick would eventually come to me. Then he rolled over onto the mattress at my feet for a catnap. I waited and waited. And waited. Dun Mihaka, the veteran protester, still possessed of a bone-crunching handshake, spoke at some length then he gave the stick to sculptor Chris Booth, who created the linked boulder archway at the base of Albert Park, but alas he did not hand it on to me. By one o’clock in the morning, I was dropping with tiredness so I asked for the tokotoku.
In line with all the other speakers, I decided to speak without the scrawled notes I was carrying or the book I was clutching – Shockwave, a graphic account of the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. The reason Hone’s most famous poem, “No Ordinary Sun”, was so titled was because a billionth of a second after the initial explosion the temperature reached 60 million degrees, 10,000 times hotter than the sun – so the bomb was no ordinary sun but an extra-ordinary one. Hone knew all about it because he had visited Japan in 1946 as part of the J force and seen the devastation first-hand.
I started by saying that, since Hone had such charm, warmth, charisma and skill with language, if he had entered politics he might have been our first Maori Prime Minister. The whanau wasn’t so keen on the idea – though the murmurs of dissent were amiable. The atmosphere throughout was one of warm sadness and irreverent humour.
I told them that whereas Hillary faced the finite whiteness of Everest, Hone faced the infinite whiteness of paper, which stretched endlessly into the distance. I spoke of the connection between my father and Hone at the Otahuhu Railway Workshops, which meant they both understood the magical properties of steam.
I mentioned that Hone had chatted up Stephanie Johnson and how, at the end of the evening, I wondered if she might become Hone’s girlfriend instead of mine. I said that Hone had – as a Maori carver might – apprenticed himself (as it were) to R A K Mason and the language of the Old Testament.
I asked Hone – though he did not answer – how come, being a poet who liked the amber fluid plus, according to the extraordinarily irreverent Reverend Wayne TeKaawa, gin, whiskey and vodka, how come he had lived so long when so many poets died young? Chatterton at 17, Keats at 25, Shelley at 30, Dylan Thomas at 39 (reputedly after downing 18 double whiskeys in one hour) and our own James K Baxter dead at 46. How come you lived so long, you pickled old boiler maker?
“Fish heads!” chipped in Rob, one of Hone’s sons.
When I finished talking, I hongi-ed Hone’s nose. This was quite a moment because I had never touched a dead person before. To my surprise and relief, his nose felt warm – not cold as expected. But then it was a warm night and maybe his nose had been warmed by many whanau giving it a farewell hongi.
Minister TeKaawa said Hone had taught him how to drink, and claimed Nga Puhi men were the world’s greatest lovers and – not to be outdone by such hyperbole – the minister acclaimed Hone as the world’s greatest poet. Hone seemed to be smiling at his extravagant words. It wasn’t all sweetness and light – Moana, one of his mokopunas, told him off for not being around enough of the time, though she still loved him.
I spoke with each of Hone’s three sons. I was surprised (though maybe shouldn’t have been) when Andy, a bricklayer, pulled out Cultural Amnesia, Clive James’s recent fat book of essays covering more than 100 of the century’s writers, artists and intellectuals. Since I had just reviewed it, we talked. I guess the bookish side of Hone had passed onto his sons. It was nice to run into Jean Tuwhare, Hone’s widow, still vibrant and, like Hone, possessed of a warm personality.
Hone was buried on a knoll on Wharepaepae Cemetery, surrounded by bush views. As I tossed a small chunk of earth onto the coffin lid, I said, “Thanks Hone for your warmth, your wit, and your poetry – No Ordinary Son.”