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Chaos of Life

Book Review / Poetry
ternion
by Vaughan Rapatahana (erbacce press, $17.50)
Reviewed by John Carstensen

ternion_full_webA love of language and languages pervades the poetry of ternion. Rapatahana has an impressive command of English but also an uneasy ambivalence for this language of colonisation which tramples on indigenous languages. In the ternion collection there is frequent and fluent use of te reo Maori, which is part of Rapatahana’s (preferred) identity. He prefers to identify with the colonised rather than the colonisers. There are also smatterings of Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, Bahasa Melayu and Samoan, which are all part of his experience.

In reading ternion, as with all of Rapatahana’s poetry, certain questions arise. Why the eccentric typography? The eye and the mind are led across the topography of the page in a manner that enhances the semantics of the text, (and yet it is still best read aloud). And why the obscure lexis? The often unfamiliar vocabulary forces a focus onto precise meaning and nuances of meaning. I smile at the occasional bon mot, as when he feels atrabilious, on encountering American servicemen in the Philippines.  Interestingly also Rapatahana picks up the time honoured tradition of writing poetry about writing poetry, musing on the Muse and, to good effect metaphorically, as catching fish, and preparing a boil up.

In ternion there is no underlying big story, no ideology or philosophy, bar the implied nihilism, explicitly alluded to in Ray Brassier quotes (nihil unbound): “Philosophy is dead. Everything is dead….The world is not designed to be intelligible and is not ordinarily infused with meaning.” The world of ternion may not be infused with meaning but it is infused with attitude and mood, projected by the observer. Rain leers and skulks, grass sniggers, scrub whimpers, birds cast sarcastic glances.

In ternion the chaos of life is rendered into coherent images. There is life. There is death. There is the pathos of loss and grief. Pathos but never sentimentality. There is occasionally jarring cynicism but also there is love. Romantic and redemptive love. Death is increasingly present – “a skulking cur loitering just beyond every door.” In the last poem of the collection the poet appears, tellingly, and with a nod to T.S. Eliot, in the persona of a gerontion.

Finally and, as always, Derrida has the last word, “No one has final authority over the meaning of any text; not the experts, not the author.” But I can still rate it, okay? Five stars.

 

Poet of Many Parts

Book Review
The Light and Dark in our Stuff
by Mere Taito (MT Productions)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

mere-taito-poems_coverThis small (30pp) and beautifully presented book is Mere Taito’s inspired/inspiring first collection of poetry. The poems are lively, well crafted, the poet unafraid to call a spade a spade, to present stark differences between black and white.
There is considerable accent on body and bodily functions throughout the 10 poems within (5 x ‘dark’; 5 x ‘light’). Indeed, the very first saturnine poem, Bad Charity, regales the reader with bones, tears, frameless selves, skeleton, fractures – all in nine lines. The next poem, The Lost Art of Kissing a Government, delves further into the corpus both literally, and figuratively, as Taito refers to mouths (x 3), lips, teeth, tonsils, forked tongues, eyes, screams. Here she eviscerates not only governments, but also we who no longer chew up at and spit out legislators and administrators, and merely suck up to them.

So it goes in these dark (p)ages, for the very next schism-making poem Building Code, further references cavity-riddled human molars, skeleton, tibia, hair, cartilage, dislocated human spine, clammy hands – whereby humanity is deconstructed metaphorically and devolved physically – by humans.

Conflict Minerals furthers the depiction of human greed – here over tantalum – and the concomitant desperate sounds of hungry men; while the strongly worded This Charmed Life forces further the division, here between bucolic and bitumen, as angry villagers in Rotuma – the poet’s turangawaewae – confront the situation, whereby

a black tar-seal road

slithers into a village like a hungry boa

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Words That Travel

Atonement
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.

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Lorca’s Spain

Sketches of Spain.
Federico Garcia Lorca. Illustrations by Julian Bell; Translated by Peter Bush (Serif 2013, $29)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

federico-garcc3ada-lorca-sketches-of-spain-impresiones-y-paisajes-illustrations-print-edition-serif-books-julian-bell-2012I’ve still got my 1960 Penguin translation of Lorca’s selected poems, with the original Spanish version taking pride of place on the page with the English translation relegated to mere footnotes. In 1971, when I bought it, I think it was “cool” to read Lorca. Now, confronted by a book of his prose musings on his home country, originally published there in 1918, I am overwhelmed by the word pictures he paints, accompanied by Julian Bell’s gentlemanly “Englishman abroad” drawings.

At Granada University, Lorca had a wonderful literature professor in 1916-17 who took his students on local art and architecture trips and to share cultural experiences. “Teacher and students gave public talks, Lorca played the piano and they conversed with local artists, intellectuals and clergy.” The students then wrote about their trips, and Lorca was only 19 years old when he published this selection of his writings.

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Verse Lost and Found

The Lonely Nude
by Emily Dobson (Victoria University Press, $25)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

Lonely_NudeThis is a somewhat eclectic and often uneven second collection from a Hawkes bay-based poet: a mixture of poems that ‘work’ and a few that do not quite ‘hit the spot’, so to speak.
At her best, Dobson writes with an economical and elliptical panache, a honed skillsaw craftswomanship that quite delights. Take for example the poem “Like biting into stones, like rough sheets” – here in its entirety:

 

Like biting into stones, like rough sheets
I did not wash the spinach,
so the spinach was gritty.
Small stones sang in our teeth.

The new blue sheet
has pilled something chronic.
It’s rough.

And the rain – it’s
really coming down,
after so long.

You, the sound of water,
bowls,
in the other room –
a passing whistle.

There is a koan-ish, William Carlos Williams ambience to such work: the words and images hint at something more and never overstep the poetic mark. Dobson here also spreads her poem over a double page – a technique she intermittently does elsewhere also – the final stanza has an entire spare page to itself, given that in this slim volume such second page bits are also sometimes separate ‘found’ poems.

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