Scoop Review of Books

Words That Travel

by Vaughan Rapatahan (ASM/Flying Island Pocket Series)
Reviewed by Maris O’Rourke

AtonementcoverThe fourth poetry collection from the multi-talented, prolific and loquacious Vaughan Rapatahana doesn’t disappoint. Small in size it is big and dense within – with over 50 poems that take us on some wide-ranging internal and external journeys. They are short pithy, poems, usually one or two pages, with staccato rhythms, often one word lines, and varied, often unusual, use of repetition, alliteration, metaphor, similes and other technical tools.

Like the poems, Rapatahana doesn’t stay within the normal boundaries – he uses all the space on the pages and uses words, fonts, space, shapes, photos and songs to produce meaning in more than one way, for example ‘he patai’ is a question in the shape of a question mark while ‘Ruby’s Place’, a musical score. Rapatahana has a strong command of language and an extensive vocabulary.

Multicultural Rapatahana takes us with him on his travels around the world – Hong Kong, the Philippines, Mauritius, Macao, London, Japan, New Zealand, USA, Israel and others – offering astute observations of our effect on our environment and each other. And the effect of the country and its history, people and behaviour upon him. All this in four different languages – Māori, English, Chinese and Tagalog, often on the same page, and with the occasional French, Latin or Greek word or phrase thrown in for good measure.

The haves and have nots thread through Rapatahana’s poems as consistent themes, for example, ‘tel aviv tramp’ or ‘auckland triptych, III’:


so the P.I. guys

now hold

thin cardboard cups

as they squat




the   w i d e   pavements,


eyes trying

to grasp yours’

In guilt –

‘any spare change’ indeed –


while nga Māori,

the inaugural,

still clean the bins



their w a y w a r d



I’m sort of

wondering why

their       gaps         never go,


how the classes




how now,

there’s so many

new kids



the block.

Then there are his reflections on Philippine men who “cruel their spouses ceaseless” in ‘heirs to lelaki’, and he tours the underbelly of Hong Kong with old people (pak pak/poh poh in Cantonese), homeless people and “scurfy school kids”.

Rapatahana often takes us into time of day with poems like ’emasculate dawn’; and the seasons, in ‘so winter’ with its “scatterbrain rain” and “misanthropic mist”; and the weather, in ‘so the snide sky’ and ‘canine rain’ in which a tempest is “squalling for a fight”. We can feel the santo tomas deluge “worse than any locust plague” sweeping down on us – and breathe the heat and polluted air in Hong Kong.

Rapatahana ranges across time too, showing the effect of the United States’ ‘occupation’ of Japan in ‘nada near naha’, asking:

why are your conquistadors

the ones

behind     the   bars,

festooned by   fences,

even there at all?

In ‘how hong kong happened’, he explores the after-effects of British occupation and plundering, then mythologises about ‘how Māui hooked up Hong Kong island’ while somehow missing “a far bigger fish to fry”. The disturbing possible effects of ‘higgs boson’ (the so-called god particle) are linked with the video game tetris, as if we are all being played with.

For me, the strongest poems were those where Rapatahana explores his personal history and Māori background. These often melancholy reflections dig deep, for example, his return home to the East Coast to evocative memories and an empty degraded environment, explored in ‘kei whea te awa?’ (where is the river?) or ‘he urupā mate’ (a dead burial ground) where he contrasts the derelict cemetery with ‘tūtira mai’ and asks ‘engari kei whea ngā iwi ināianei? (but where’s the tribes now?). Or his affecting summing up in ‘he maimai’ (a lament for the dead). And the regretful poem ‘a forced reunion’: “just me and the boy threshed backtogether”; or his memories in ‘it’s 3 a.m. in papatoetoe’ of heroes Dan Dare and Biggles contrasted with his father “while he snored the drunken kitchen table”. And the thought-provoking final poem – ‘down at ruby’s place’. There’s humour too with a quizzical reflection on Hone Tuwhare where he asks:

but – I tell you what maaan –

I’m gonna ask him

                                   apopo, pea


why he looks so much

like a chinaman

these days.

which oddly enough was exactly my thought when I looked at Rapatahana’s photo on the back cover!

There’s a lot to take in in this multi-layered, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multicultural small/big book of poems – like a long Chinese feast it’s almost too much at times – but, as with a feast, worth savouring and lingering over. Kia ora anō.