We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“WE”RE ALL MADE OF LIGHTNING” by Khadro Mohamed (We Are Babies Press, $NZ25); “SONNETS FOR SIO” by Scott Hamilton (Titus Books, $NZ25): “ECHIDNA” by Essa May Ranapiri (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ25)
Khadro Mohamed is a young Muslim woman from Somalia, who lived some of her life in Egypt and has now adopted New Zealand as her home. Her debut collection of poetry We’re All Made of Lightning is a series of lyrical and often intense reflections on both the land of her birth and her experience in New Zealand. Sometimes her memories of Somalia and Egypt are fading into nostalgia, sometimes they are brutally clear. Similarly, New Zealand can sometimes be lyricised and sometimes chastised for the ongoing issue of racial prejudice. Each of the four sections of We’re All Made of Lightning opens with a colourful painting of beloved flora, beginning with kowhai, and is then followed by an explanation of a letter from the Arabic alphabet. Natural beauty and remembered culture mesh.
The first section opens with “The Second Time”, a prose-poem narrative of going to live in the hot, busy city of Cairo and still longing for home in Somalia “Every day that I am in Cairo / I resist the urge to cut my palm wide open / To watch the skin bleed / to press by ear against the crimson / And listen to it rush / Desperate to hear something familiar”. Perhaps this is a way of telling us that it is not only in New Zealand that she feels far from home. Even to go to another North African country is to miss a beloved culture. There follow poems of vivid memory of Somalia and family (the poem “Insomnia”) but New Zealand brings forth “A Nomadic Odyssey” where she is “yearning to return to the gentle flow of the Nile and the dahlia skies of Egypt”. Inevitably other poems recall wars and drought and the turbulent recent history of Somalia – but these are never Khadro Mohamed’s main focus. It is more the sense of loss, as seen in the poem “Autumn Rain”, a four-part sequence about a teacher who is also a refugee
The second sequence moves urgently to poems related to 15 March – the date of the Mosque massacres in Christchurch in 2019. Khadro Mohamed refers to the mass murderer thus: “A man had taken a knife and sliced straight through the fabric of the sky. He made it rain buckets of blood and iron, and it clung to the air like a thick glue. Its residue coated every road, pavement and kowhai tree in the country.” This was experienced at a distance when the poet was living in Wellington. For the poet, it is hard to take even the well-meaning condolences expressed by non-Muslim strangers. The huge sorrow is unembraceable – impossible to encompass. Three years after the massacres, there is still a nasty undercurrent in New Zealand. “The Fine Print” concerns a racially-inspired murder in Wellington, while “How I Speak” expresses the possibility that the way she speaks may be ridiculed by non-Somalians.
Yet in the third section, she returns to more mature reflections on the country she left. The three-part “Love Letter to the Motherland” and also “I Watched You Die – A Love Letter to My Old Self” show an awareness of her continuing connection with her land of birth, but also the realization that she is not the child that she once was, and perhaps her remembrance of Somalia is really fading into nostalgia or being idealised. She begins the poem “If I Go Back” with the words “If I ‘go back to where I came from’ I will take everything with me”. Obviously “go back to where you came from” is a taunt offered by racists who despise refugees, but she turns the taunt around by showing all the experiences and values she has brought with her to her new country. As for the fourth section of We’re All Made of Lightning, it emphasises that wherever she goes, memory will be with her. A brief Coda brings her back to her own origin, date of birth and the first breath she took.
I can’t deny that I found this collection very engaging, very heartfelt – but I haven’t yet worked out with myself whether I am beguiled by the quality of the poetry or am more drawn into sympathy with the poet and the situation she is living. Either way, it is a collection well worth reading.
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Scott Hamilton is a palangi poet who has lived and taught for many years in Tonga. The organising theme of Sonnets for Sio is that each of the 59 poems making up this collection is a letter sent to his friend Visesio Siasau, a Tongan carver, sculptor, painter and poet. Visesio (“Sio”) is far from Tonga in New York, where he is pursuing his art on a scholarship, so the poet is addressing him from a great distance and dealing with many universal things. “Sonnets” here is a very general term – it doesn’t mean the traditional 14 lines with strict rhyming pattern. It simply means a poem that will fit on a single page.
Of course there are urbane comments on everyday life in Tonga, so that some poems read like a very colourful diary filed from Nuku’alofa. But Scott Hamilton digs deeper than the passing scene. He trawls the potent waters of Tongan history and mythology and in the process produces imagery that comes close to being magical.
There is much reference to Tongan gods, Hikule’o in particular, a god associated with death. When the poet is diving (Poem 3), bubbles are seen as “exhaling silver planets” and seaweed is seen as Hikule’o’s hair. Later (in poems Poems 14 and 15) Hikule’o and the death he brings are related to more recent wars. When (in Poem 24) Hikule’o gives his version of the complete history of a Pacific island, he curtly summarises it as “First it is a volcano, then an atoll, & finally an American air force base.” There are also references to the legendary – possibly historical - violent 15th century chief Kau’ulufonua, who is credited with making war to build up Tonga as a formidable Pacific power. As he explains in his end-notes, Scott Hamilton sees Kau’ulufonua as “the symbol of militarism and imperialism.”
As Tonga has a particular culture, Hamilton is very aware of how European colonialism has changed it, and yet what the palangi have introduced has itself become part of the culture. There is some puncturing (in Poem 4) of palangi who “dream too hard…In our performance pyjamas / With our alarm clocks ready like fulltime buzzers! A book of pills a bottle of Freud beside the bed!” Poems 7, 18 and 19 deal with various aspects of Tonga’s dominant Christian denomination – Methodism – not in a negative way; but Poem 17 suggests obliquely that the dominant denomination has encouraged social puritanism, which is not always honoured in Tongan private life. Concerning another form of colonialism, Poem 36 takes a shot at ethnologists like Jared Diamond and Margaret Mead. But Hamilton is not promoting any form of Euro-phobism – in passing, he references poets like Carroll, Lear, Tennyson, Eliot and Milton and he is aware that, like it or not, whatever colonialists brought with them has now become an integral part of Tongan life.
His interest is not only Tonga. A tranche of poems take him back to New Zealand. Some are idyllic or Utopian, like Poem 8, which longs for the Waikato to revert to pre-European times. Some are simply family memories. And some do indeed rebuke the legacy of colonialism. Poem 39, one of Scott Hamilton’s best, compares the predations of “forest ranger” von Tempsky and the British invasion of the Waikato with the current motorised invasions of the Waikato by motorways, tourists, and [presumably] people commuting between Auckland and Hamilton.
I was drawn particularly to Poem 9, where Scott Hamilton defines writing a poem as “crossing a white desert / with only a cup of lukewarm tea to sustain me.” ( I know what you mean mate!) He shows great leaps of imagination in Poem 49, which has him metamorphosed as a sea creature. Poem 53 – probably his most philosophical poem – expresses an awareness of the world’s many varieties of thought and beliefs. More than anything, though, his poetry shows a constant sense of the long, long history that stands behind Tonga and Aotearoa, the fact that current cultures did not come from nowhere and will always be an amalgam of conflicting forces. And the vividness of his imagery makes for stimulating reading.
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Essa May Ranapiri prefers to be designated as “they”. This signals being sexually non-binary, as does the poet’s photo on the back cover where the hairy-chested poet is wearing lipstick and a dress. Dare I say that I find this usage not only alien but also confusing? “They” refers to plurality. Were I to write “They wrote this book” you, like 99% of people, would immediately assume that more than one person wrote this book. This being the case I will not refer in this review to “they” but instead will designate the author as “poet”.
Echidna, poet’s second collection, is subtitled The Many Adventures of Hinenakahirua as She Tries to Find Her Place in a Colonised World. Later poet gives us a dramatis personae of 56 characters from Greek mythology, The Bible and Maori mythology.
The Echidna of the title is presented to us at first as some sort of anarchic monster begotten in Eden. Given that (real) echidna are not indigenous to Aotearoa, I am a little puzzled as to why this beast was chosen as the collection’s iconic character, especially as poet is ostensibly, as the back-cover blurb says “situating and building its own world out of a community of queer and Maori/Pasifika writing”. What are echidna, or what have echidna historically been, to Maori? Zilch, I would suggest. It’s a bit odd, especially as this collection loudly beats the drum against colonialism. Indeed some way into the text “Echidna Gets a Name Change” and becomes Hinenakahirua because “she don’t want to be white-washed by the classics no more / she is a daughter of te ao Maori & proud”.
Oddly, though, Echidna sometimes appears to be standing in for poet’s own experiences. There are suggestions of autobiography in “Echidna & Her Christian Dad” and “Echidna Goes Through Her Eno Phase” where poet was apparently going through teenager years and in “Echidna in Kirikiriroa over the Summer” where poet was hanging out with both friends and the not-so-friendly. On the other hand, I doubt if “Echidna & Rona Fucking in the Back Seat of a Car While the Moon Watches” is necessarily based on experience.
This collection is certainly “queer”-focused as in “Maui & Prometheus Have a Meet-Cute” and further poems about these two as lovers. Other mythical figures display either their gayness or their non-binary-ness.
I admit I find it hard to make sense of many of these poems, not because the language is obscure, but because poet’s focus is jumbled. What targets is poet hitting [apart from the obvious one of colonialism]? How sympathetically or unsympathetically is poet wanting us to see his mythical characters? Is satire intended or not? Does the mythological machinery work in any coherent way? So despondent did I become looking for something really meaningful here that I was surprised to find a poem, “Hinemoana”, which almost made sense. Perhaps I am simply not attuned to the circles in which Essa May Ranapiri moves.