Scoop Review of Books

Chaos of Life

Book Review / Poetry
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.