Speaking in a new language, Anahera Gildea

Puna Wai Kōrero: An Anthology of Māori Poetry in English
Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan (eds)
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869408176

To my nieces and nephews,

Some of you speak English and some of you are bilingual but, either way, all of you are Māori.

By the time you’re grown, things may have changed so radically that wars, racism, fundamentalism, terrorism, sexism, and all the isms have receded, along with an ignorant past (fingers crossed). Regardless, you will have been shaped by your ancestors, parents, teachers, neighbours, celebrities, and influences of every kind, including the entire history of human thought delivered via the English canon. You will have access to multiple canons but, here in the former colonies, it’s compulsory to absorb the history of western thought specifically. You get marked on it.

When you’ve had enough of that (it takes perseverance to keep on trying to learn about another culture, especially if it feels different from your own), find Puna Wai Kōrero, because inside the covers of this taonga you can hear the collected voices of your whakapapa: a thousand eyewitnesses to this crucial period of time.

All of the beings called up in these poems are our ancestors. All the poets our whanaunga. They are the arbiters of a new language – English stretched to articulate an alternative universe of ideas. When the next New Zealand dictionary is published, it will have English and Māori words in it. It has to – which Kiwi doesn’t know what “kia ora” means? Puna Wai Kōrero is at the forefront of this nuanced dialect of English.

The time-span of this book ranges from the 1907 publication of Apirana Ngata’s poem “A Scene from the Past”, through to the present, allowing the reader to journey through more than 100 years of poetic responses to both the macro and micro aspects of lives changed irrevocably by colonisation. Since we now understand that so much of a culture is embedded within its native tongue, being privy to the emergence of voices grappling with overwhelming change is an honour. Even though the book is not organised chronologically, the sheer span of its coverage illuminates both the political and social landscape that our people have dealt with (so far), and the ways in which they have had to distend the English language to make it their own.

When you read the poetry contained in Puna Wai Kōrero, your education and exposure to the English canon will have saddled you with terms like “pastoral”, “Romantic”, “modern”, “postmodern”, and umpteen others. These stylistic definitions allow us to see Māori poetry (in English) in relief alongside contemporaries both in New Zealand and overseas. And when discussing the history of New Zealand poetry, the persistent and often fraught conversation between Pākehā and Māori is ever present. But to see Māori poetry gathered here in isolation of Pākehā poetry is a revelation. Literary critics have pointed out that both our relationship with the elemental world and the supernatural require descriptions beyond “pastoral”, and that to contend that ancestors are merely ghosts is woefully inadequate. Here, at last, is the raw material needed to look deeply at those contentions.

Other commentators highlight the political themes and concerns of Māori poetry, some empathetically and others with disdain; linguistic acrobatics seeming to have less merit if powered by a political motor. But these poems cannot be seen as mere political reactions. These are the records of our history. They are the archives of our colonised selves (well, some of them). It is not a matter of a few reactions to some tragic events; the history of our colonisation is an integral and permanent characteristic of our identity. To read this work, dismissing or ignoring that context, can only lead to an enfeebled understanding.

Puna Wai Kōrero is not only a short course in recent Māori political and social history, it is also a short course in poetry itself. The political movements aside, there are visible relationships parallelling literary movements across Pākehā New Zealand as well as in Europe, the United States of America and Australia. Thematically, isolation and the search for unique identity is reflected in the writings of contemporaries, like J K Baxter with his self-exile, the mythic work of Allen Curnow, the provocation of Kendrick Smithyman, and so on. Each poet has wrestled with the constraints of the English language to express the reality of their experiences.

However, the rise of the vernacular in the American and European movements of the late 1970s freed the language to stretch in new ways and take on new forms. Through the poetry in Puna Wai Kōrero, we can see how that linguistic permission liberated a Māori voice that could operate outside the echo-chamber of Pākehādom. The long afternoons, the nostalgic celebration of Ngata’s poem practically bleed with trying to contain his prosody within the Romantic form he was working with. Modernism made way for new voices to break through, new tones, new metres and new lyricisms.

The binaries of Māori/Pākehā, past/present, rural/urban that permeated the poetry of the 1970s and 1980s gave way to a more consciousness-raising and didactic 1990s, which, in turn, evolved into the hybrid voice of the 21st century. The persistent songs of loss and grief are still evident, but the “othering”, the need for self-definition and boundary-setting, has quietened.

These poems from the 2000s represent the bulk of the selection (for various complex reasons), and the emergent voices are overwhelmingly accomplished. Despite having to navigate literary obsessions such as the “pathetic fallacy” of the past, Māori have emerged as architects of a hybrid voice. An exciting voice. More hopeful in general. And confident. And determined. There is a vanguard here. A marshalling of words and waiata like I’ve never heard; the ancestors of every iwi and every waka calling and talking, laughing and crying. The sheer musicality and lyricism is a testament to the control these poets have of the English language; mastering the pace of the reader in innovative ways. It’s as if there is a spiritual takahi going on in there somewhere, the sound of a piu piu in the wind.

The glossary alone is a wealth of linguistic insight. And of heartbreak. Here, translated for the reader, are all the lines and words these poets, across more than 100 years, chose to leave in te reo. Or had to leave in te reo, because there were no English equivalents that could render enough truth.

What becomes clear as you read Puna Wai Kōrero is that the ability to be wantonly taken from, in the 2000s, has been somewhat cauterised; there is not the same dissonance of time and place as in the 20th century, but it is still deeply political. Power in word has been reset; these poets are the visible heralds of a colonised people; they are the orator returned replete with memory of our turbulent histories, our world wars, our kitchen complexities, all collected as a resource for future generations to access.

We can look at the influences of the Georgians or modernism or postmodernism on our poetry, but it is the immediacy of these poems in Puna Wai Kōrero that dominates. These histories are close. Identifying a clutch of verse that may pass the prosaic “test of time” seems utterly moot from this distance, if not counterproductive. They are certainly there, but I would argue that visibility is a more crucial factor at this juncture than receiving the establishment seal of approval.

And, my nieces and nephews, if you are still uncertain about whether the politics matter, or that this book is a crucial addition to New Zealand’s literary canon, consider this: Puna Wai Kōrero was published in 2014, two years ago, and it is only now being reviewed by New Zealand Books. It was widely reviewed at publication by various bastions of the New Zealand literary scene which, due to the lapse in time, I have had the luxury of reading. It did not escape notice that the reviewers were predominantly tauiwi. Their readings are interesting and valid and generally complimentary, but I can’t help but wonder if there are better, deeper, more complete interpretations waiting to happen.

The politics matter. The literary gatekeepers have seen fit to postpone reviewing this seminal text (in the case of New Zealand Books) and, even when reviewed, one has to wonder at their choice of reviewer. In Māoridom (if not elsewhere), there is a “rightness” to who speaks for what and where. And our ancestors whisper in our ears when we ignore that “rightness”. Some of the previous reviews have cited the importance of having poets introduce their whakapapa, their genealogical foundations, before their work, verifying the integrity of their voice. And yet, reviewers for New Zealand Books seem required to offer no such resumé. How is it that a relative nobody, somebody’s Auntie, an emerging writer such as myself, has come to be reviewing one of the most important books in New Zealand Māori literature so far, two years after the fact, when there are individuals far more qualified and with positively excoriating intellects and expertise out there in the academic and non-academic community who could illuminate this book for readers in ways that I can only touch on?

This is not a self-deprecating wheeze on my behalf, this is an acknowledgement of a faux pas, an insult to the gravity of the work collected and presented in Puna Wai Kōrero. This is a book filled with ancestors, and tapu, and mana. How can the entire history of ka whawhai tonu matou be rendered in a few insipid sentences and vague observations about the standout wordsmiths whose versification tickled a particular reviewer’s subjective fancy? This is a work of history; a collection of cultural pioneers who have been forced to bestride two radically different cultures.

I hear you nieces and nephews wondering, after reading this letter, if a book this relevant, this meaningful, this far-reaching, will be too hard for you to take in, too overwhelming.

Let me reassure you, ngā kare, “Aunties are Boss” (Maraea Raukuraku), and it isn’t.

It’s just one word beside another beside another. In English. There’s no rush. Take your time and savour it. Wear it. Put this whakapapa on. It is yours. Take a year reading one page a day if you like.

Hell, take two years. New Zealand Books did.

Anahera Gildea, Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-Tonga, Kāi Tahu, Ngāi te Rangi, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira BA (Art Theory/Drama), Dip Writing, GDip Tchg, PGDipSc (Psychology), MA Creative Writing

[We regret the delay in publishing a review of this important anthology: as occasionally happens, an earlier commissioned review failed to eventuate. Anahera Gildea was recommended to us as a reviewer by a much respected Māori writer. Eds]

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Literature, Poetry
Search the archive
Search by category