new zealand electronic poetry centre

 

Murray Edmond


essays
[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, footnotes]

    

THEN IT WAS NOW AGAIN:
NEW ZEALAND POETRIES AND COLONIAL HISTORIES


continued

 

And, equally, an historan can intervene in poetry. Judith Binney's monumental work, Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki (1995) makes a strong case for Te Kooti, the prophet whose miltary resistance and religion (Ringatu) emerged most directly from Te Ua and Pai Marire, to be seen as a major nineteenth century poet. In an Appendix she lists almost 100 compositions by Te Kooti and comments: 'He [Te Kooti] is rightly remembered as a subtle and complex poet'. (47) This is a literary bid by an historian for recognition of Te Kooti as a poet, whereas, previously another learned Pakeha commentator, Margaret Orbell, had presented Te Kooti as, at best, a clever pasticher, or, barely an author at all: 'While he [Te Kooti] was not himself a poet he made clever use of existing songs, modifying them where necessary to convey his ideas, and these adapted songs were often thought to have been composed by him'. (48) Contemporary, post-modernist ideas of what poetry is and what authorship is might suggest that Te Kooti was only doing what any good poet would do.

Wedde and McQueen saw fit to include one Te Kooti poem, 'He waiata tohutohu', in their 1985 anthology. And Binney not only included many extracts from Te Kooti's 'redemption songs' in her life of Te Kooti as well as the Appendix listing all his known waiata, but included also a further Appendix of 'Songs for Te Kooti', thirteen poems, written between 1870 and the 1990s, predominantly in English, by a number of Maori and Pakeha poets, ranging from Anonymous to well-known names from the canon such as Kendrick Smithyman and C.K.Stead. Her gesture acknowledges the knowledge poems carry, the kind of knowing such language embodies. In his Poetics Aristotle usefully categorised Western knowledge, and distinguished poetry as 'more concerned with the universal, and history more with the individual.' (49) This distinction in Western culture was virtually reversed with the advent of Romanticism in the arts and democractic movements in politics. But Binney's historiographic strategy allows the two worlds, of history and poetry, to flow together.

Kendrick Smithyman's posthumously published, book-length poem Atua Wera treats the life, work, and historical puzzle of the earliest of the syncretist Maori prophets, Papahurihia (also known as Te Atua Wera) in a series of nearly 300 poetic fragments. One of the more complete of these pieces is the second-to-last, 'Night Riding', where manifestations and reappearances in the present by Papahurihia draw the poem on to its droll, yet pointed conclusion:

that he is dead a hundred and more years is
not relevant. Of course there are people who doubt or deny him,
some who do not. (50)

Can uncertainty, indefinteness, doubt, and doubleness be part of historic record? Do they exist more comfortably inside the discourse of poetry?

What we do not know, we live. Later, after we are dead, the historian will write it down and it will make sense; except most of what we lived will be absent, lost on a turmoil of voices or hidden in a silence:

Every catastrophe of politics and knowledge is abolished in this equivalence of ignorance and death that the historian the son, the survivor quite naturally quells: by adding to past life, ignorant of itself, the knowledge the supplement of life that its sum lacked; but also, on the other hand, by giving the discourse of history the dimension of absence and concealment that alone lifts it out of the platitude of chronicling. (51)

Perhaps this is why geneaology is written down the page (begat upon begat, as poems are also written down the page, line upon line), to show the daughter or son as survivor can be named historian. Genealogy, after all, could also be written sideways sister and brother, cousin, second cousin, third cousin, cousin of third cousin spreading out in the moment in which we live. To create my thin line of Trevarthens, pluck William Trevarthen (b. 1802) fourth child of Elizabeth Bucket and Thomas Treverton, tinner (b. 1771), first child of Ann Hoskin and Richard Trevartin, tinner (b. 1748), second child of Elizabeth Phillips and Henry Trevarton (b. 1710) . . . before which I know nothing:

There is history because there is a past and a specific passion for the past. And there is history because there is an absence of things in words, of the denominated in names. The status of history depends on this twofold absence of the "thing itself" that is no longer there that is in the past; and that never was because it never was such as it was told. Historical affect is bound to the personal absence of what the names name. (52)

Michele Leggott's trilogy of poems called 'Tigers' is a record of genealogy (father, brother, son) and absence written in the shadow of the mountain Taranaki ('rising with beautiful regularity of form'); or rather, one should say that these are poems which cast the shape of the mountain on the page like a shadow. It is not the symmetrical cone of Heaphy's iconic painting, the view of the person standing in the landscape, which we see in 'Tigers'. Instead Leggott gives us the map of the mountain, the aerial view, the bird's eye, the symmetry of the mountain when looking down from above, where it describes a circle on the land, a circle created by a century of dairy farming on the illegally obtained land, taken in confiscations and forced perpetual leases after the fighting ended and after the peaceful resistance of Te Ua's inheritors, Te Whiti and Tohu (both of whom had been at Sentry Hill) was broken by force of arms, pillage, rape and imprisonment. The perpetual leases, with low and stable rentals, served to keep almost all of Taranaki land alienated from Maori, even when it was still under Maori ownership the leases were also necessary to allow Pakeha dairy farming to succeed, because Heaphy's 'slightly undulating surface' required many costly and unproductive years to clear of dense bush and turn into productive, economic holdings.

The three parts of Leggott's 'Tigers', one each composed for her brother, her father, and her son in that order three generations of men, are each written in the shape of a circle, the shape of the mountain. Perhaps the ideal presentation of these poems might be on transparencies which lie on top of each other, so the circular shape is accentuated by darkening of the overlaying, and the words float up through each other to the reader's eye in a turbulence of blind and blinding speech. For the circular shapes of these poems are also eyes on the page that look back at the reader looking. Insight, foresight, vision: 'Mercator's world isn't everything there is'. (53)

The way these poems are written makes them hard to quote from because you can read the poem in at least two ways, either across the circle (a linear or progressive reading) or round the edges of the circle (a circular, repetitive reading). For example, in the second poem, which is about the poet's father and evokes the moment of his dying, through the mother's experience ('she was the only one saw him go'), if you read across the whole circle, you come quickly upon an evocation of the mountain itself:

you could reach out and touch the mountain bare maybe   funny and 
unpredictable   or snow down to the ranges (54)

But you can also read the poem by reading round the circumference of the circle/mountain. If you do this, you find the father's world in his own words, up early in the morning with a cup of tea and a cigarette:

a pot of tea/at six o'clock/ a quiet smoke looking at/  the day
beginning/ black as the proverbial . . . (p. 53.)

The left hand side of the poem is all male, the west, tai tane, the male coast, which is where Taranaki stands. But if you read down the right hand side you can hear the father address his daughter by her nick-name, 'dear Phoeb it's/almost sunrise' and increasingly the right hand side, the female, tai wahine, the east coast, takes over as her father departs into the land of the dead, 'goes west', and poet daughter and mother remain behind among the living:

but he's gone/she was the only one saw him go/break apart in her
arms/ the tears/came/ into her heart/ then she called us/ these
shapes (snarl)/ reading them/ around/ don't/ cry now/ Phoebe dear (p. 53.)

The first poem in the trilogy, the one for 'tiger brother', evokes the moment of the mother's death; so that, though these are poems 'about' men, the mother is everywhere, and in the third poem (the third eye) we find the poet herself as mother, giving birth to one of her own little tigers. The language in these poems relies upon the shape the words make on the page, and the shape on the page evokes the land, Taranaki, which is where Leggott herself grew up.

In the 'Ua Rongopai' notebook, there is a passage which reads: 'Koia ko teehea ko te aahua i Taranaki maunga, koia teehea maa, mangu? Ki te maa o te peepa, ina tuhituhia nei a Hemi-kaka-tohu raaua ko Te Ao Katoa', which L.F.Head, in her thesis, 'Te Ua and the Hauhau Faith in the Light of the Ua Gospel Notebook', translates as, 'For what does Taranaki mountain look like which is it, white or black? If it has the whiteness of paper, then it can be written upon by Hemi-kaka-tohu and Te Ao Katoa'. (56) Head comments that this passage, in complete contrast to the language of the Hauhau chants, is 'in the cryptic, oracular style of Maori speech making'. She identifies Te Ao Katoa as 'a chief' and says that the identity of Hemi-kaka-tohu 'is unknown'. I certainly have no competence to gloss the passage or understand it beyond being struck so vividly by that image of the mountain as a piece of paper and how that image has reappeared in the present, both in the mountain of paper that makes up the claim for the return of the land and in Michele Leggott's map-thin poems.

Taranaki stands in the west. As the land lies. The west is wild wet, windy, black sands, huge seas the west coast is where the prevailing westerly winds strike these long, thin southern Pacific islands, Te Ika a Maui (fish of Maui) and Te Waka a Maui (Maui's canoe), whereas the east is softer, Pacific in all senses, golden, blue. In Western culture, in English, the 'west' gives the diurnal metaphor 'to go west' for 'to die', but it also gives us 'to go west' for 'to seek adventure and fortune', especially as in the landscape of the American frontier where young men going west would encounter, beyond the Mississippi, Indian territory, with all that followed in terms of vision, loss, guilt, fantasy and commercial myth, as Lyn Hejinian notes:

Knowledge in the West is incorporated into visions of the West and visions of the West have tended to be put into action generally, I would say, for the worse, which is sadly part of our story. It is guilty knowledge that may lie at the heart of our fantasies. The fact that our knowledge of gain is suffused with knowledge of loss may account in part for the anxious circumspection and endemic nostalgia that inform our sense of time and our sense of time's effect on place. (57)

The West, in this sense, has never gone away, as Hejinian points out, locating herself, where she lives in California, as inhabiting the end point of the historical Western push:

I live in the literal West . . . the farthest reaches of the geographical West . . . . so far West that one has all but overleaped the cowboys and landed instead in Hollywood or in Disneyland . . . created places . . . worlds of fantasies, of extremes . . . . which in turn have . . . the appearance of comprising bodies of knowledge. (58)

As a participant in the nineteenth century, Western colonising enterprise, New Zealand, in fact, lies further west of 'the farthest reaches of the geographical West', west of West, yet also east of East, in some distance where the two directions and/or locations become knotted together, a mythical 'Weast', wrapped so far round the planet that we have fallen off the conceptual edge. For Maori, who are part of the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific, one of the later ocean-sailing settler groups, the Polynesian geographical push is east, not west.

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Last updated 11 July, 2001