Galling truth, Megan Dunn

Kaitiaki o te Pō: Essays 
John-Paul Powley 
Seraph Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780994134592

I am in two minds about John-Paul Powley’s Kaitiaki o te Pō – this is a good essay collection, even really good. But goodness is also Powley’s Achilles heel. The collection, his first, contains 17 personal essays – some convey his perspective as both a high school teacher and a dean. The best of these, like “Pastoral Scene”, are a wrench. The sentences hit deep and low, and the truth rings out. But the catch? A touch of didacticism.

In “Pastoral Scene”, Powley chronicles the fates of several troubled students he encounters as a dean. But there are no easy lessons – for them or for him: “Too much is against it. History and today and tomorrow are against it.” True, and the truth is galling. Sarah is brought to the dean’s office for throwing her books on the floor. The teacher says she never does her work and has a bad attitude. Sarah says, “Bullshit!” This from Powley as dean:

Sarah comes and sees me later.
“Do you still like me mister?”
“Yes, I still like you.” 

I stopped reading, in tears. It was Sarah’s vulnerability – the sweetness of her question and the kindness that passes between them – that got me. Not Powley’s outrage towards the flawed school system. “Pastoral Scene” is about Powley’s understandable burn-out in the role of the dean and ends with his “unheard” address to the students, like Sarah, who have since dropped out of school: “You taught me almost everything I know about the country I live in, and I let you down. Over and over again.” 

Kaitiaki o te Pō is filled with uncomfortable truths about the privileges and contradictions of race and culture and class, and what better place to store them than an essay? Story is the salve. Kaitiaki o te Pō means the “Caretakers of the Night” and is also the title of the inaugural essay in the collection. This essay is set at a history teacher’s conference at which Justice Joe Williams describes historians as “caretakers of the night”. Powley writes, “Suddenly I felt honoured to be a teacher of history; honoured and charged with a great responsibility.” 

Powley’s essays answer that charge. He depicts caretakers in all their guises, from Vietnam and Japan to “Fucking Slatetown”, always taking care to convey the Māori perspective of Aotearoa. The title essay is partly a meditation on the sudden death of a friend, but also contemplates loss on a macro scale. The essay ends with a comment that Tāwhiao, the leader of the King movement, said to Te Whiti, after the Waikato Land Wars: “I will return to the valley of my birth, and sit, and eat tears of bitterness from sunrise to sunrise.” 

There are plenty of tears of bitterness here. “Anzac Day”, “Ōpōtiki”, “Walking the Beach” and “Digital Natives” also address the responsibilities and failures of the state and the effects of war. “Anzac Day”, for instance, details the reasons why Powley doesn’t attend the dawn service, but some points are better not hammered home. 

Yet Powley’s writing brought me up short several times, and I didn’t want to read on, to swallow the truth whole that was coming in the next line. The essay is often an elegiac form that suits the middle-aged writer. Powley’s sketches of his mother, gone too soon, are always achingly lovely. From “Time Never Cares”:

Like the moment I looked at the pictures of my mother and father’s wedding and realised she was beautiful; as if I had been all the time looking down at the stars thinking they were a phenomenon on the surface of a lake, and then by chance had looked up. 

I love it when the writing overtakes Powley and he stops making exact sense. 

Powley’s youthful song-writing skills show in these flashes of lyricism. Music is another thread. “I Loved My Leather Jacket” is really a prose poem about middle age that contains a nod to The Chills classic hit of the same name. “Nancy Boy” is a nuanced portrait of masculinity that interweaves everything from getting a perm – as a boy in high school – to knitted jumpers and Guns N’ Roses. Powley dissects the masochism in the Guns N’ Roses song “It’s so Easy”. The lyrics (“turn around bitch I’ve got a use for you”) make him uneasy, so he concludes “it didn’t matter how good the music sounded”. “Nancy Boy” is a stand-out essay that deserves a wide readership. 

A note on form: the majority of essays consist of numbered episodes and usually this works. However, some pieces, like “A Certain Alienated Majesty”, cover so many touchstones and reference points, from Powley’s grandmother to the suicides of Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain, that he cannot do them all justice. The ideas here have not yet found their most powerful form. 

On her NZ Poetry Shelf blog, Paula Green called Kaitiaki o te Pō “essential reading” and also “humble”. True, on both counts. Powley’s writing risks prosaicness, but still hits home about Aotearoa, as it is now. In “The March of Progress”, he watches the sparrows in his garden and wonders for the first time how long they live? Now, every time I see a sparrow I think: three years. 

Megan Dunn is the author of Tinderbox, an art writer and a mermaid enthusiast.

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