TEXT review

He waiatanui kia Aotearoa

review by Jörg-Dieter Riemenschneider


Puna Wai Kōrero: An Anthology of Māori Poetry in English
Reina Whaitiri, Robert Sullivan (eds)
Auckland University Press, Auckland 2014
ISBN 9781869408176
Pb 420pp AUD48.50


It is to their great merit that Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan have assembled a large number of Māori poems in English in their path-finding anthology Puna Wai Kōrero, the first comprehensive collection of its kind ever published. By slightly altering the title of Michael O’Leary’s 2003 poem ‘He waiatanui kia Aroha’ (189-198), or: ‘A great song to love’, I’d like to rename it ‘He waiatanui kia Aotearoa’, or: ‘A great song to Aotearoa’. Indeed, close to three hundred poems composed by nearly eighty writers, with a large majority of them being women, sing of tāngata and whenua, the people and the land. This anthology is composed of different voices: old and young; female and male; politically engaged as well as distinctly private; nostalgic, sad or even resigned as well as assertive and peremptory; at times ponderous, at others subtle; many of them emotionally charged and full of empathy, others intellectually detached and analytical. In short, this anthology offers a multi-voiced choir chanting and singing a wide range of lyrics and melodies in honour of Aotearoa.

The two editors are intimately knowledgeable about Māori history, culture and literary traditions. They are expert teachers and researchers and, not to forget, practicing poets themselves who wanted, as they say, ‘to provide a space for as many poets as possible of Māori descent’ (2). Yet they concede that ‘the work collected here […] is but a fraction of what has been produced over the years’ (1). ‘Māori descent’, they continue, points at the important place whakapapa or genealogy has always played in asserting Māori identity; and indeed, whakapapa is ‘the source from which we draw inspiration. Everyone and everything, including poetry, has whakapapa…’ (1).

Interestingly, and perhaps unexpectedly, in their brief biographies quite a few poets do not just mention their Māori whakapapa but also refer to their European forebears. Reina, for example, is ‘of Māori and Pākehā descent’ (355), while Robert is ‘a poet of Ngāpuhi/Irish descent’ (291). Māori descent then denotes an inclusive rather than an exclusive, let alone a purist concept of ethnic identity, taking account of the transcultural roots of the country’s population. Nonetheless, many poets refine their Māori whakapapa by mentioning not only their iwi or nation affiliation but also their hapū or clan backgrounds. Hone Tuwhare (1922-2008) for example, the outstanding Māori poet – to whom Puna Wai Kōrero pays tribute ‘as Aotearoa’s poet laureate’ (1) – ‘was a poet of Ngāpuhi iwi – hapū Ngāti Korokoro, Ngāti Tautahi, Te Popoto and Te Uri-o-Hau’ (336).

As little as her or his multiethnic descent appears to be problematic to the individual Māori poet’s projection on her or his identity, as little does the – often widely differing – employment of the two national languages of New Zealand, Māori and English, appear to raise questions of ethnic identity; it remains a matter of personal choice and educational background on the one hand and of a writer’s stance taken up over a political, a historical or a cultural issue on the other, as a few examples chosen at random will illustrate.

Alice te Punga Somerville’s long poem ‘mad ave’ (324-328) contains just one Māori word, taurere, the name of a mountain; while spoken, even colloquial New Zealand English characterises her poetically rendered story of the fate of her childhood street, nicknamed ‘mad ave’. Incidentally, I chose the word story because here as elsewhere in Puna Wai Kōrero we encounter narrative features in Māori poems which remind us of the oral nature not only of traditional story-telling but also of poems and songs. ‘mad ave’, composed in 2003, is a contemporary poem and one could argue that its recognisable colloquial New Zealand English points at its modernity. However, Tuwhare’s ‘The Old Place’ (349-350), published close to forty years earlier and addressing the same theme of change and loss does not contain a single Māori word either. What the two poems have in common though, and what reflects their Māori sensibility, is the insight into the inevitability of loss they convey, of a mood close to resignation; an experience the persona in Harry Dansey’s 1964 poem ‘The Old Place’ (68-69) phrases as:

I […] hope for a sign from the past  
from the old dead people
but there is no comfort here  
in the fierce bright silence […]

However, in contrast to Somerville and Tuwhare, Dansey’s use of Māori words emphasises the cultural side of loss:

Here came Uenuku, broke the tapu
of the chief’s spring, left his
deed in a proverb. Here the
old man hauled a tōtara, with
his own hands hewed a ridge-pole
fifty feet from the sound red heart. (69)

Altogether then, the use or absence of Māori words or phrases is no yardstick with which to measure Māori poetic sensibility. It may express an individual poet’s temperament; which we encounter, for example, in several of Apirana Taylor’s poems, almost all of which date back to the 1980s and 1990s. In order to communicate the mood of rejoicing in ‘Te ihi’ (317), the life breath, the poet takes recourse to Māori words and phrases, these being the most appropriate signifiers at his disposal – which in this case also confronts him with a dilemma. To those new to Māori they would hardly be intelligible if the poet had not glossed words like ihi, te hā, whaikōrero, ka ea, kia mau, or a phrase like ‘he pāua mura ahi ngā kanohi o Tūmatauenga’ – ‘the flashing eyes of Tū’ (317). It is a dilemma Taylor’s generation of the Māori renaissance had to solve one way or the other because of the comparatively small number of Māori speakers on the one hand and publishing necessities on the other; in any case, it is a stylistic device much less noticeable with younger poets.

The use of Māori words and phrases may also grant insight into a momentary, if not a transitory state of mind; for example, in Robert Sullivan’s 2005 poem ‘Ahi kā – the house of Ngā Puhi’ (291-292). Observing ahi, the home fire that symbolises the inherited right to live in this place, ahi kā, actuates the poet to re-affirm his tribal, clan and family identity, his Ngāpuhi descent. With its emphatic repetitions of ‘Ahi kā’ the poem not only turns into song, waiata, but returns to mythology:

We light the poem and breathe out
           the growing flames. Ahi kā. This
                       is our home – our fire. Hot tongues out
– pūkana – turn words to steam. This
           fish heart is a great lake on a
skillet. Ahi kā! Ahi kā!
Keep the fire. The sun’s rays are ropes
            held down by Maui’s brothers.
                        They handed down ray by burning

ray to each other every
day – we keep the home fires burning
every day. […]   (291)

Inseparable from their attention to the language is the poets’ commitment to reaffirm māoritanga, the value of cultural ideas and concepts like ihi and ahi, of practices like the haka, the dance of defiance, of rituals like tangi, funeral, or kai karanga, welcome to the marae; and further, of places like marae, the centre of the community, or urupā, burial grounds. Even myths and legends are retold, for example in Rewa Worley’s ‘The separation’ (379-380) of ‘Ranginui the sky father and the earth Papatūānuku beneath him’:    

the story of how our world was made
and in it,  
the void, Te Kore,
an empty silhouette of what would be
filled its emptiness with the essence of the night,
Te Pō-tahuri-mai-ki-taiao. (379)         

Compared to Worley’s traditional, serious approach, Reihana Robinson’s ‘How it all began’ (258-260) ‘writes back’ ironically to a myth of cosmology and uses a mixture of soliloquy, dialogue and comment. Rona, a woman looking for food for her children at night, is not pulled up by the male moon clinging to a tree but returns his love and follows him on her own:

Rona, are you happy?
oh yes
come lie with me
take off your slippers. (259)

A happy ending, it appears, if the commentator does not conclude:

Her brats grow, invent haka. 
You know where that got them – 

no land, no language. 
Free entertainment every rugby match. (360)

Does he mean to censure Rona’s deviation from the traditional gender path? Or doesn’t the poem simply show ‘How it all began’; that is, a step taken even more determinedly in Jacq Carter’s ‘Me aro koe kit e hā o Hineahuone’ (66-67) – which translates as ‘The guidance from the breath of Hineahuone’. The speaker affirms her female power, mana wahine, by modelling herself after such powerful mythological and legendary women as Hine-nui-te-pō, the goddess of death, who killed the great Māori hero Maui; or tūpuna wāhine, ancestral women who left their ‘homelands in search of new homes’; and Wairaka, who had the strength to save a legendary waka or canoe, a task only men were considered to be strong enough to accomplish.
Irony may not figure prominently when thematising Maori beliefs and rituals but it certainly does when questioning Pākeha rituals, a tone of voice often employed by Tuwhare, as when he lends a voice to a Māori bronze figure soliloquising about the circumstances of its ‘daily life’ in his 1972 poem ‘To a Maori figure cast in bronze outside the Chief Post Office, Auckland’ (338-339); or, thirty years later, when a Māori comments on the ritual at a Pākehā honours ceremony with:

the Governor-General,
Dame Silvia [pinning]  
a round, green-stoned-
cored badge on our
plumped-up chests to a series
of comedically repressed ‘Ow-ouches’. (‘On becoming an icon’, 353)

Myths and legends are replaced by historical events in poems focusing on the encounter between Māori and Pākehā, the resistance of tāngata whenua to the Pākehā settlers and their loss of land and independence. There is no room for humour, let alone irony; instead the tone ranges from appreciating the qualities of courage (‘Ōrākau’, 99-100) and hope (‘Bastion Point – Koha 22/5/88’, 199-200), to documenting in detail the Māori defeat at Parihaka (‘Forget about Guy Fawkes (Parihaka)’, 265-266), and to praising people’s non-violent resistance (‘He waiata tenei mo Parihaka’, 284-285). On the other hand, a feeling of anxiety controls the people ready to begin their historical march in ‘The New Zealand land march on Wellington, Hepetema 14 – Oketopa 17, 1975’, 346-347). Experiences such as these are deeply embedded in the collective memory of Māori people, and the two editors have appropriately included quite a few poems commemorating these events, to which poets have returned again and again over the last half century.

Poems addressing māoritanga, Māori culture and cultural practices, make up a substantial portion of Puna Wai Kōrero. Nonetheless, examples highlighting the topos of Nature as well as underlining the close relationship between tāngata and whenua that has formed part and parcel of Māori life over centuries play an equally important part in the anthology. It is not unusual to come across poems celebrating Nature as nearly perfect or the relationship of people and their natural surroundings as harmonious and at times even symbiotic. Why so, one wonders. Do they reflect a romantic sensibility, or a need to find solace, look at nature as refuge vis-à-vis the harshness of one’s daily life? Natural phenomena, for example the ever changing shoreline, beaches, bays and mountains, rivers and hills, or rain, wind and clouds are perceived as beautiful, exuding the life force, a sense of safety and even offering refuge from the world. Arapera Hineira Blank calls her long poem ‘Rangitukia, soul place’ (27-31), and though her poem also refers to changes in Nature not always for the better, it confirms the binding power of place to the people:

From Hikurangi the Waiapu
binds many whānau to the sea,
on the other side her sister stream
the Waikaka renews my song
above her Ō-Hine-Waiapu
another soul place binding bones
Hawaiki-nui-ki Aotearoa
Rangitukia-Te-Uranga […] (30-31)

In Tania Hinehou Butcher’s ‘Muriwai’ (59), the speaker resists the world’s tug on her but lets herself be held by Tangaroa, the god of the sea, ‘as he would [hold] a cello’; and ‘Rain’ (343), Tuwhare’s famous and often reprinted 1970 poem, celebrates the near-symbiosis of man and nature/rain by affirming:

But if I
should not hear
smell or feel or see

you would still
define me
disperse me
wash over me

My personal choice is Keri Hulme’s ‘Pā mai tō reo aroha’ (106-108), ‘To feel the love’, with its first four stanzas unfolding a beautiful scene of the sea, the beach and the shrubby cliffs of kaik’ bay near Moeraki on the East coast of the South Island: a view of Nature I’d like to call the objective correlative of the sensitive observer’s inner peace and abandon:

Today, a cloud of midges weaves and
dances through the evening sun.
There are mysterious glassy tracks on the
Thin waves hush in, pause, slide away.
Moeraki, calm as untroubled sleep […] (107)

Reading Puna Wai Kōrero, with its alphabetical arrangement of the poets chosen, made me feel I was working at an archaeological site. I would only know what to expect from a poem once I had read it or if I had already gained some impression about a particular poet’s work. Wouldn’t a grid, let’s say a chronological sequence of poems published over a period of a hundred years and irrespective of their authorship, have offered a more interesting picture of the development of the genre, permitted the reader to understand shifts and changes in the linguistic nature, the thematic concerns, the moods and tones chosen? Still, looked at from a different perspective, the present composition has the advantage of introducing us to individual voices, their thematic and linguistic strengths – or weaknesses – possibly also their poetic careers, which in turn would invite us to learn more about them by reading their books. It is certainly a line of argumentation suggested by the structure of Puna Wai Kōrero. Yet it is with their past experience of having co-edited Whetu Moana (2003) and Mauri Ola (2010), anthologies of Polynesian poetry organised in the same manner, that Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan must be congratulated for their service to tāngata whenua and for having created an opportunity for ‘foreign’ readers to acquaint themselves with the culture and literature of a substantial population of Aotearoa.




Jörg-Dieter Riemenschneider, Professor of English Language Literatures, taught at Frankfurt University, Germany, from 1971 to 1999. He was Visiting Professor at Massey University, Palmerston North, in 1990 and 1994 and lived in New Zealand from 1999 to 2007. He is married to New Zealand poet Jan Kemp. Publications on Maori culture include essays on Biculturalism / Glocality (2002), Poetry (2004), Theatre (2004), Film (2007), Novel (2007), Landscape Poetry (2012) and Contemporary Painting (2014). Wildes Licht (Wild Light) – An English/German Anthology of Aotearoa/New Zealand poetry (2010; repr. 2012), which he selected and translated, includes poems by Maori authors Keri Hulme, Roma Potiki, Robert Sullivan, Apirana Taylor, Hone Tuwhare and Briar Wood.


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Vol 19 No 1 April 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews Editor: Ross Watkins