China as Kafka (Kilmog Press: Dunedin, 2011)
Home, Away, Elsewhere (Proverse: Honk Kong, 2011)
Reviewed by Mark P. Williams
In the middle of reading Vaughan Rapatahana’s two books of poetry I flew home to the UK for a fortnight. The experience of crossing time-zones, journeying there and back again, passing in and out of cultural reference points, transiting through airports, seems a perfectly appropriate backdrop for the dramas of Rapatahana’s verse. Borrowing techniques freely from Modernist, Beat and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, Rapatahana plays with spoken sound and textual surface to explore concepts of cultural marginality. Rapatahana’s teaching background and interest in language and culture are clearly in evidence in these collections.
Travel and distance as forms of perspective on the contemporary subject are central to Home, Away, Elsewhere. The book is divided into three, grouped around the words of the title, but a notional division which serves to highlight the continuities between the sections, rather than their differentiation. The earlier pieces, such as ‘looking back, a kiwi’ demonstrate a clear unity of style and theme, but necessarily already imply the difference, the travel and the distinctness of the other sections. Similarly, although it deals with places such as Phuket, Ho Chi Minh City, Jerusalem and Oman, memories and reflections on the concept of home are already present within the ‘Away’ section. The poems ‘Whaenui’, ‘Aotearoa blues baby’ and ‘postcolonial boy’ form a triptych placing contemporary New Zealand identity politics under scrutiny from thoughtfully critical positions which seem to flow naturally from preceding poems set in other places. Not only do the concepts of “difference” and “distance” work together to present the reader with estranged perspectives, but they work together with concepts of “home” and “memory” in complement rather than contrast.
The ‘Elsewhere’ section appears more obviously playful in formal terms, treating word and page musically, which fulfils the promise of Rapatahana’s introduction to the volume where he compares poetry to the blues. The nuances of emotional struggles with differences are everywhere; differences between people, within relationships and outside them, between cultures too, where the point of personal meeting cultural is endlessly between the lines, or in the spaces of Rapatahana’s frequently stretched typography. In ‘you killed me’ we are given an estranged love-poem of sorts, mingling affection and sexuality smoothly. Language becomes topsoil in ‘no surface’, which reveals its narrator’s scarred memories of domestic violence. His new perspectives reflect upon familiar metaphorical links between consciousness and space, sex and mortality.
The narratives of the verse deal with subjects like lost love between partners and between family members, making the maximum use of the spaces of the page to imply disjuncture between phrases; love has to struggle against a ‘Boschean frame’ of society, and words have to contend with the visual awkwardness of extreme spaces emulating auditory awkward silences in the poems ‘corrupted’, ‘I Should Have Done More’, ‘Faded Love’ and ‘too complicated’. The result is quietly powerful.
The second anthology, China As Kafka is, among other things, a critical eye on the experience of cultural distance and on the sense of contemporary modernity in China as a global space.
The spaces of these poems are the contemporary city, the metropolis of perspectives passing one another, individual subjects interacting minimally. Given that travel and cultural difference appear prominently, we might be forgiven for expecting initially that these would be poems of innocence abroad but Rapatahana gives us the other half of the Blakean dialectic, poetry of the experiences from and of being “abroad”.
Each has a very distinct sense of place, conveyed through a sparing use of detail which, as travel and time zone readjustment has dominated my last few weeks, seemed particularly apt. Rapatahana’s sense of detail for cities in particular put me in mind of Iain Sinclair for its acuity and appreciation of metropolitan space. The opening poem ‘downtown hong kong’ plays with military metaphors and sounds, it conveys a sense of city life as a series of disciplined movements regulated by implied violence:
Movements of people to and from work are pure ‘MASS’, its singularity accentuated by its all-caps interruption. This singular body is a Hobbesean leviathan, made up of smaller bodies whose individual corporeality is subsumed, visible in their traces and behaviours, on the periphery of everything that makes them a population in the face of the city and its traffic:
the human wall
As Rapatahana plays with sound and concept throughout this collection the observational tone is alternated with a gallows-humour that creeps up on the reader. This is particularly marked in the collection’s title poem, ‘china as kafka’, where along with the examples of liberties infringed by political pressures there is also the recurrent pressure of the cityscape itself: ‘shale-shroud cities’ greyed by both ideology and pollutant smog. In ‘china as kafka’, a repeated refrain goes from being faintly comic to being increasingly sinister:
Is never wrong.
Critical complaints about ‘show trials/no trials’ appear bracketed and in the literal margin of the page, marginalised. The poem ranges widely over contemporary concerns, acting as a sustained accusation against ‘suited goons’ in an ‘other [space] surreal [space] dimension’–his words stretching to make ‘other dimension’ co-exist with ‘other surreal dimension’.
There is a very strong political current to Rapatahana’s writings, as is clear from the bitter ironies of ‘God defend New Zealand’, which matches William Burroughs’ ‘Thanksgiving Prayer’ for its eloquent fury. The whole collection China As Kafka rages against both petty and massive injustices and infringements of liberty, and, more importantly draws the lines between them unsparingly but without melodrama, and often with a dark sense of humour.
The poems of both collections are thoughtful and thought-provoking which use angry and meditative language as different beats in a more complex rhythm of their own devising. As I flew back and forth between UK and NZ last month, Rapatahana’s alternating orientations of perspective lent new filters to my own musings on both British and New Zealand culture. These collections provide that vital quality as necessary to those traveling between as those living within: they offer insight.
Mark P. Williams