What Blooms Beneath a Blood-Red Sky: A Year in Aotearoa Poetry

By | 15 February 2023

Gildea’s charismatic poems are vivid and inventive, with a quick (and sometimes deliciously bawdy) wit. The Queen’s drawers rattle with phalli cut from statues by missionaries while the flamboyant cocks of peafowl run feral in her gardens, or the pawned bones of native birds are placed ‘upright like pricks’ on plinths in a feeding frenzy of cultural commodification. Poems respond to artworks and play with abecedarian formats, retell purakau and repurpose nursery rhymes to upend ‘the house that Jack built’:

I am the maiden all forlorn
raised and educated in our civilised nation
who got a degree in politicisation
from the blankets and muskets repeatedly thrown
as clever accusations by a colonial clone
knocking at the house that Jack built.

Michaela Keeble’s book Surrender speaks care-fully to lived entanglements with the building and dismantling of this colonial house, self-aware as a descendant of Australian settlers now living in Aotearoa. Keeble’s poems reflect deep engagement with te ao Māori and indigenous histories of land and loved ones here, but wear situated self-consciousness openly:

midday, low-tide dive
water clear and mind-numbing
snakestail star, brittle star, Cook’s
Turban. like the man himself 
i shouldn’t be here
well, i was invited
even if i’m unworthy
of the gift and hardly know
the rules. i’m paying this debt
with Hokoenga love poems

Surrender models a radical attentiveness, tending to tidepools and new tongues with a gratitude that never corrupts into entitlement. Less considerate approaches are humorously lambasted in pieces like white poem goes on:

white poem escapes heat
nice white holiday
nice white plastic
travel shop
nice big white plane
nice carbon
got the budget…

The beach Keeble flies us toward isn’t a white-sand resort, it’s something realer. An ocean hungry and unpredictable, a source of nourishment but also deep grief. Where Gildea’s poetry evokes the volcano, Keeble’s Surrender drew me to the sea. The writer longs to wash her dying mother’s wounds with saltwater, while her love fishes in the company of his ancestors, discussing the dealings of commercial trawlers and evidence-based fisheries policy. In the current of climate crisis that swells though Surrender, all dreams and nightmares are intertidal: the changing ocean is a promise and threat as scientists test the water’s ‘acid reflux’, the tide waits to reclaim the shoreline, and waves lap at the body like a lover.

Keeble writes with a steady flow. Brief lines stream down the page. Sorrow for earth and sea in ecological crisis and complicated histories flows alongside love for parents, children, partner and community. A long poem titled ‘expressway’ looks over the shoulder of the role of whānau monitor on the construction of a road – a project for which the Crown attempted to confiscate remaining Māori land holdings. This poem is a delicate portrait of the tensions at play, brief lines carrying rich meaning – ‘they use GPS / to cut the ground / but still can’t see / what’s plain in the dirt’ . Silt pours into the Waimeha river ‘so clean the eels are / jet black / even the kōura / sixty years old / as old and slick / as your motorbike in rain’. The progress of construction literally masks the history of the land it traverses – ‘the drive past Waikanae / is now so fast / but where are we going / and why’.

Both Sedition and Surrender are stirring and significant books in their own right, but the dual release of these titles places them in productive conversation – asking where we are going and how we got here, demonstrating the power of language to build realms or challenge narratives, and demanding mindfulness in how stories are spoken into the world. No easy outs here, or lazy metaphors, or thoughtless [ab]use of others’ tongues.

Another notable addition to this discussion of indigenous language sovereignty in Aotearoa poetry from 2022 is Te Āti Awa Taranaki scholar and poet Alice Te Punga Somerville’s Always Italicise: How to Write while Colonised, published by Auckland University Press. Always Italicise makes sharp-witted use of irksome advice to italicise words from ‘foreign’ languages – and puts the English throughout the book in an un-settling slant while the reo stands proud: ‘now all of my readers will be able to remember / which words truly belong in Aotearoa and which do not.’

On an Air New Zealand flight’s happy hour, Te Punga Somerville encounters ‘smiling people who can serve us in english, french or japanese / even though there’s a koru on the tail of this plane’. Carried by winds across the moana, these poems trace the joys and frustrations of family and scholarship, with particular insight into indigenous experience in academic institutions. The generosity of Te Punga Somerville’s work is a gentle tailwind, and she fills the sails of future generations and scholars in wise, embracing poems like ‘Anchor’ and ‘Firsts’. Her whole self is brought to these poems – in which she realises ‘the only worthwhile way to proceed anyway’ is:

All of me, all at once:
anger, frustration, cynicism, hope
and, in the centre as well as the outer reaches, love.

All three books examine the ways we place ourselves in these islands, and the ways in which love for those things that most matter can sometimes require the resources of anger. They are also moving works on mothering, and ethics of care that extend to our relationships with those whose lives we are lucky to share in the human and nonhuman world.

🔥 🔥 🔥

Another new indie publisher on the scene with an emphasis in voices from the Pacific is Saufo`i Press, founded by Faith Catherine Saufo`i Wilson. It is dedicated ‘to the formidable, wild, and fiercely loving matriarchs who guide us’ (especially her eponymous grandmother Saufo`i) and committed to the work of Pacific writers. The first release is HEAL! by Tongan and Pākehā poet Simone Kaho.

Flickering between first and third person, Kaho’s book traces a loose narrative of the event and aftermath of an attempted rape, contextualised in a lifetime’s violations and trauma casting shadows over even the brightest spring mornings – at the bus stop, the poetry reading, the workplace, the party, and always in the colony.

The imperative of HEAL! is not to erase the darkness behind soft pastels, but to set aside whitewash and live with the mess. Kaho’s poetry is felt in bodily pangs – I shiver when Kaho’s narrator rubs an exposed nerve in scar tissue left by a careless doctor, a handshake goes on too long, and a bad punch lets an arm fall sloppy in ranch slider glass. A breathing exercise recalls a set of sheep’s lungs in science class: ‘It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, better than a flower, or a whole field of flowers. Then Mrs Grant took her lips off the plastic tube, and the lungs blew the air right back in her face.’ The body is magic and bone in this flurry of untitled poems, yet healing happens even as the lacerations layer up. Signature scents emerge of sweet rot, post-sex, whiffs of whiskey. Kaho’s imagery is vivid, but loveliness flips so easily into danger and raucous, nervy comedy – anxious, bitter laughter, trying not to smile at the thought of pungent soily fruitcake in case of sparking an abusive boyfriend’s ire.

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