new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Eggleton


Review of Atua Wera by Kendrick Smithyman

First published Evening Post (19 Sep 1997): 3


According to James Belich’s Making Peoples: A History of New Zealanders, there were over 50 Maori prophetic movements in 19 th century New Zealand, each of them an attempt to deal with futureshock brought on by contact with the Pakeha world-view. The most famous of the early prophets was Papahurihia, or Te Atua Wera, whose Te Nakahi movement was active in the region between the Hokianga Harbour and the Bay of Islands. Kendrick Smithyman, born and bred in Northland, has written, in Atua Wera (Auckland University Press) a verse biography. Papahurihia was a tohunga descended from tohunga. His father Te Whareti was said to be able to travel from place to place as swift as the wind, possessing the equivalent of seven-league boots. His mother, Tuhoehoe, was an oracle, a priestess, a spirit-wife. Papahurihia, spirit-channeller, held seances with the dead. Some of his teachings were based on the Bible and he modelled his life on that of Christ, drawing accusations of blasphemy from Pakeha settlers. He was said to possess the cloak of invisibility, and in fact was rarely seen by Europeans. Changing his name to Te Atua Wera, or ‘Burning Serpent’ he became Hone Heke’s war tohunga, overseeing various attempts to chop down the flagpole at Russell.

Following decades of sporadic guerrilla warfare, Papahurihia converted to Christianity, continuing to hold tremendous mana amongst both Maori and Pakeha. After his death, members of the so-called Blackout Movement held seances to commune with the spirit of Te Atua Wera, and even today he has followers in his old stamping ground.

Smithyman’s long poem, his last testament, is woven out of bits and bobs. A magpie collector, he muses over hearsay, keepsakes, and intertextual chunks of letters and journals. He is the scribe penning whakapapa, a finger tentatively tracing bloodlines, a modern-day medium for ancestral voices. Smithyman excavates place with great industry, digging a mineshaft down between archaeological layers of local history.

This is an intense book, years in the making, allowing few concessions to the casual browser. You must latch onto his rhythms of thought, his way of saying things. Smithyman is a prose Browning, up to his elbows in the old colonial dust, breaking up the reportage into cryptic fragments, into crabbed lines scattered across the page. A master-ventriloquist, like his subject, he uses James Busby, Thomas Kendall and Frederick Maning to tell us about Yankee sailors encountering Moriori voodoo, and about the Garden of Eden snake in Genesis being transformed into a lizard, then a dragon, then ‘a fiery flying serpent’ – Te Atua Wera himself.

This is a poem of ghost-riders and millennial portents, of the phantom canoe on Lake Tarawera before the eruption, and of a light in the sky which turns out to be a TV repeater mast. The presentation of anecdotal evidence is magisterial. There's a bit of a wobble to the poem maybe, with all its questions – but it’s an epic to put a spin on: a palimpsest which will endure.




Last updated 12 April, 2006