Vaughan Rapatahana (editor)
This is, as the editor says, the “first collection of poets from te rohe o Waikato,” people who lived in Waikato for at least a year and who “were still with us” – 39 poets in all. Pauline Canlas Wu’s cover nicely symbolises the contents: there is a lush riverbank and a broad water surface undefined enough to cover a multitude of memories, histories and descriptions but most assuredly The River; in the foreground, a dairy cow, not at all vague, serves as a reality check, lest we forget entirely where we are.
There are long-established poets and newer ones. Dean Ballinger’s ‘Paterangi Pastoral’ (p9) is written in a nearly Anglo-Saxon style:
After the ditch came the match.
They burnt the bush and the land
burned. Under their feet
the drifts of peat smouldering,
drowned forests coughing up smoke,
choking on kahikatea ghosts,
they wet their handkerchiefs and sowed grass.
Vincent O’Sullivan’s 1982 ‘Waikato-Taniwha-Rau’ (p66) speaks to our sense of the river:
We have a fiction that we live by: it is the river
that steps down, always down, from the pale lake
to the open jaws of land where the sea receives it.
There is a variety of poetic styles, including concrete poems by Rapatahana and Terry Moyle. I would count Mohamad Atif Slim’s ‘Frost’ (pp41-2) as another one, the way the words go down the left margin like frost condensed on glass:
a dusting of
Turkish delight. ...
Past and present are happy to mingle in Olivia Macassey’s ‘At Kuaotunu’ (pp37-8), presenting memories of a summer in which you can almost taste the dust:
The migratory teenage boys so wished-for in my youth are the
flocks of native gulls I want to return now, perching on posts
with the same alertness and hunger
and summer people are become silence and wind and tumbling spinifex
running their relentless diagonal.
It is Kuaotunu and it is not.
And ‘Te Whare o Waikato’, by Mere Taito (p84), is most definitely in the present:
Walk out of the meeting room
to a sheltered landing
in Bullshit Block.
Pass the makeshift container rooms.
Walk into your office.
Blast the volume of
‘this is my whare’
The wānanga hears you.
Beyond personal memories, the bloody history of the Waikato features in many of the poems. Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor, essa may ranapiri and Loren Thomas – as a joint exercise – wrote ‘In the river’ (p88), which begins:
The Rangiriri was built
shallow and thin
to hold rifles and turn around quickly.
We’ve seen the current slow,
heard it quicken,
felt the skin recede from the river breeze
like souls swept through drifting rafts
by the time
they pieced it together they said the fight was over ...
This poem and a pair of responsive tanka sequences end the volume, the group voices providing an appropriate and fitting conclusion to the book. The tanka sequences – by Celia Hope, AndréSurrridge, Barry Smith, Elaine Riddell, Jenny Fraser, Mac Miller – reference other battles (quoted only in part, p90):
my mother’s poems
about the Waikato slipping
into hidden whirlpools
dragging down its victims
she didn’t know the taniwha ...
her father wouldn’t talk
about the war
at the dawn ceremony
she proudly wears his medals.
It’s an interesting and readable collection. The editor’s notes imply that it is first of several, or is this reading too much into his comments? Given the fuss made over the Whanganui River, it’s amazing that this is the first time the Waikato has had a book of its own.
And given the value of the individual contributions, it’s astonishing that so little attention was paid to the appearance of the book. It’s all in one type face, of a size appropriate for footnotes, no titles stand out, and it’s often difficult to attribute particular poems to their authors. A table of contents would have helped, but there is none. The type itself is greyed-down; this plus the small size makes the book as a whole unpleasant to read – a collection of this significance needs to look good, not just read well.
Comparable books from university or trade publishers run to $20-$25; $15 is astonishingly cheap, and unfortunately the anthology looks it. If this is in fact the first book of a series, it’s devoutly to be hoped that a bit of attention go to book layout and design. That way, we would have a book that was a pleasure to look at as well as to read.
Editor: Vaughan Rapatahana
Publisher: Waikato Press (Mangakino and Morrinsville)
Available: via email@example.com