Reviews / June 2014 (Issue 24)


Maori Voices: Reihana Robinson’s Auē Rona and Vaughan Rapatahana’s Schisms

by Michael Tsang

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Reihana Robinson, Auē Rona, Steele Roberts Publishers, 2012. 68 pgs.
Vaughan Rapatahana, Schisms, Lazarus Media, 2013. 113 pgs.

In this review, I will look at two poetry collections, which although they differ greatly in terms of style and motifs, both demonstrate the rich voices and depth of Maori culture. 

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Reihana Robinson's Auē Rona is a classic example of écriture féminine. In this, her debut collection, she uses the Maori myth of Rona as a motif to link the poems. According to the legend, the details of which are also presented in the first two poems, Rona went out to fill her water buckets one night but stumbled in the dark. When she cursed the moon for not lighting her path, it angrily lifted her up into the sky, separating her from her friends and children. Robinson, however, does not just offer a simple rendition of the tale but reimagines Rona's myth to address issues of motherhood and her relationship with men.

Throughout the collection, she uses descriptive verse and concise imagery to convey strong and sensitive emotions. The poem "Rona does the hula" contains a good example of her emotional intensity:

Instead, your love slunk a trail,
weaving limbs and heart as if
bat wings were my blanket,
my shawl.

The poem "He deserves my wrath" opens with similar emotional force:

In the wee small hours of the night
I dream of dissecting your mind,
I plan on brutalising your spirit.
[…]
my pulse starts to burn,
the heat is unbearable.

Here the fiery sentiment describes the battle between the genders, and shows how by weaving a Maori myth about motherhood into her poetry, Robinson suggests a need to recover the matrilineal voice central to Maori culture and seeks to counter the patriarchal culture that is still dominant in the world today. This culture is epitomised in the first poem of the collection, "How it all began":

Wrapped in my sensations,
my reflected-light limbs –
we become lovers.

The story is that she pines for her lost infants.

That's a lie.
[…]
Just ask her –

Rona, are you happy?

Oh yes, my love
Oh yes
Come lie with me
Take off your slippers.

Here, the speaker is the masculine moon that abducts Rona, and Rona's voice is excerpted in italics. The moon's narrative clearly shows male dominance, but the repetition of "oh yes" in Rona's speech hints at an insincerity in her words. Read this way, the rest of the collection is Rona's rebuttal. For example, the poem right after “How it all began” describes Rona’s "refugee status" and expresses her apprehension about being taken away:

Night owls caper, a ruru calls far off,
death nearby—
mine.
[…]
So my myth begins.
[…]
Who is robbed of children without tears? (“Refugee status”)

Her story remains a myth because it has yet to be interrogated, and because her voice, in death, does not get heard. This criticism of male privilege, however, is perhaps most directly expressed in "Maori creation": "Now men get to name a lot of new objects:/stars and moons and galaxies and soon/canoes and huts and tools and food."

However, Robison's use of Rona is not confined to the mythic. At one point, "[w]renched as I am to the sky," Rona wonders: "Will my boys be chastised,/be outcasts of an outcast nation?//How will they eat if the harvester has flown?" ("Rona worries") The phrase "outcast nation" shows Rona reincarnated as a persona in modern times, facing contemporary anxieties such as not being issued a visa or watching her children growing up to pimply adolescence. It is at these times—when "Rona mourns" for a brain-mapping analyst or "wants to testify on behalf of Baltasar Garzón," the outspoken, justice-seeking Spanish jurist—that we get a strong sense that Rona's persona is fused closely with Robinson's personal voice.

This creates an interesting variation of distances between Robinson, Rona and the reader. The Rona poems are often narrated by a first-person speaker, but their titles are always in the third person, as in "Rona mourns" instead of "I mourn." As the reader moves through the poem, she is thus invited to move from the external, objective viewpoint of the title into a more direct experience of Rona/Robinson's perspective.

Robison's social observations do not stop at gender relations, however, and the collection skilfully uses myth to explore Maori history and culture. "First immigrants" describes the lives of the Maori people up until British colonialism, and "Treaty" likely references the signing of unequal treaties between the settlers and the country's original inhabitants. The poem "Island girls," for example, portrays the negative effects of colonialism on Maori women:

You can recognise them —
padding about on the sea floor,
picking detritus from freighters

bargaining with their lives.

These bleak images, together with the plosive alliterations of the lines, complements the title of the collection well: Auē Rona (Oh Rona), which for Robinson can be extrapolated as "Oh grief. Oh sorrow." Robinson's work may have a gloomy and dark tone in general, but she also has a confident voice for expressing anger and a determination to be heard.

***

In Schisms, Vaughan Rapatahana is also not afraid to express fury in his poems; indeed, he even sees a kind of violence in his work as part of his poetic philosophy. In "poem should," he writes that a poem should "seize YOU/roughly," should "bruise you," and in "surely" the persona states that

good poetry is
                           an unsolved murder.

keeping you awake at night
restless in your bed
rattling through your head
about death & love & lust & war
mother, father, so much more,
making you sweat as you read each line
making you go back just one more time

In his work, Rapatahana does not shy away from addressing overtly political and historical conflicts and schisms, especially from New Zealand's colonial history. In many poems in the first half of the book, he applies his belief in an intense poetic language and style to offer statements on lust and war with respect to Maori history. In "homo sacer," for instance:

it's all white men writhing about brown men:

[…]

               the only good native is a dead one
as the outback became lemming black cliff loo
                                                                           mi
                                                                                   ng
in the blanched bourgeoise [sic] swim.

Another piece, "handleys woolshed, 1868," is written in memory of a group of unarmed Maori boys murdered by British colonialist militia. Its vivid, brutal language brings history to life, its fricative sounds mimick the violent bloodshed:

brave they were
kai iwi militia
slashing pre-pubescence
with scything saber,
their poltroon pale
raw fury
slitting & splitting

Rapatahana also focuses on less violent forms of colonial repression. "public colour bar" depicts Maori segregation, while "he whatinga" inspects English linguistic imperialism in the speaker's cry of "homai he whatinga no tēnei whare herehere o Ingarihi," which means "give me an escape from this prison of English." At these times, Rapatahana embraces the Maori language more fully than Robinson (perhaps because what Robinson is really writing against is the dominance of masculine language). Whereas Robinson occasionally uses Maori words to express cultural concepts, Rapatahana weaves chunks or even whole sentences of the language into his poems, turning the works into a flexible, hybrid artistic artefacts with a definitive Maori flavour. This use of language provides a more daring confrontation and resistance to English linguistic colonisation.

Rapatahana has visited parts of Asia and the Middle East, and some of his other poems note cultural similarities across the regions, such as the greeting act of nose-rubbing in both Arabic and Maori cultures ("in al ain"). However, he never loses sight of his emphasis on the schisms of our world. A few of the poems read like imaginary dialogues with the world's most famous contemporary philosophers, but the speaker also questions the effectiveness of philosophical debates, showing their inadequacies in addressing real problems:

yet outside in the carpark,
deep among the bins
BLACK/POOR/FEMALE
existents
were dying authentically  ("philosophy one")

Considering Rapatahana's doctorate in existential literary criticism, and the sandwiching of the word "dying" between the words "existents" and "authentically," both of which belong to the vocabulary of existentialism, the reader may perhaps register a sense of scorn towards empty philosophical claims.

In the latter half of the collection, Rapatahana moves away from the political to deal with schisms in death and love, and he proves that he is capable of writing in various styles and on a broad range of subject matter. Simple, little gems such as the poem "friend" are sincere and unpretending:

[…] on those dark days
when the hardness hits your heart
turn to me
&
I will soothe our path.

There are also poems which contemplate ageing and the loss of loved ones, and a string of poems exploring a haunting parent-child relationship. In "my mother killed me," we see a deeply personal form of violence:

my mother killed me
before I was born, &
continued to stab me
with her rapier tongue
for decades hence.

Although the poem's emotional impact is as strong as in other pieces, this kind of personal exploration was not apparent in china as kafka (one of his previous collections, which I also reviewed). The inclusion of such intimate works gives Schisms more depth and better balance.

Schisms is another challenging but enjoyable read from Rapatahana, not least because it is printed in full colour with occasional illustrations. It is never easy to read his poems, but it is worth the effort, as what you get from them is often very gratifying.

 
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