I first encountered Vaughan Rapatahana in 2010, in the pages of brief magazine, in the days when it was being edited by Jack Ross. Rapatahana’s writing was bilingual ― English and te reo Māori ― typographically inventive and uncompromising in its engagement with matters of world concern as much as local issues. There were Asian references. In those days, it turns out, he was living between the Philippines and Hong Kong and making a living as a teacher of languages. He has also spent time in Brunei, the People’s Republic of China, Nauru and the Middle East as well as in different parts of Aotearoa: Auckland, Te Tai Rāwhiti, Mangakino in the Waikato. The first time I saw a book of his was when Dean Havard of Kilmog Press, the publisher of Rapatahana’s ninth and latest collection of poetry, mō taku tama, sent me a copy of China as Kafka (2013).
Kilmog Press was founded in 2007 and, like brief, continues to this day. However, since Havard opened a bookshop, Dead Souls, in Dunedin, its once hectic rate of publication has eased somewhat. Kilmog books are distinctive: hardbacks with hand-crafted covers made as art objects by the publisher himself, with letterpress title pages and the rest of the internal matter offset printed. They are unique objects, in small editions (50 copies in this case) and marketed through the bookshop, the Kilmog website and by word of mouth. In the timid, institutionalised and highly subsidised literary economy of Aotearoa / New Zealand, Kilmog books are not often noticed. Nevertheless, Havard has assembled an international stable of writers chosen according to his own taste. When, for example, he read in an Australian magazine some poems by George Murray, now poet laureate of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, he offered him a book: Exit Strategy (2010) was the result. Something similar happened with China as Kafka.
It was Rapatahana’s first book, but came out in tandem with another, Home Away Elsewhere (2011), from Hong Kong’s Proverse Press. There have been half a dozen more titles since then, including a major collection, ināianei / now (2021), from Cyberwit in Allahabad, India, the closest Rapatahana has come to publishing a selected. Meanwhile mō taku tama (“for my son”) collects the poems he has written for, and to, his son Blake, in the years since he died, by his own hand, aged 29, in 2005. This information appears in an author’s note at the front of the volume. “I cannot cease writing about Blake,” the note continues. “In this way, I keep him alive.” The direct address, the straightforwardness of the language, the refusal of sentimentalism and the documentation of raw experience, are all characteristic of the poems too.
But that is not the whole story. Rapatahana is inventive in ways that few writers know how to be these days; a complex poet who foregrounds his use of language in transformative ways. Erik Kennedy, in a recent review of ināianei / now, pointed out: “He is the most daring poet we have when it comes to seasoning his work with sesquipedalian lingo (that is, million-dollar words) … he has a more developed practice than anyone else when it comes to writing translingual poems in te reo Māori and English.” One of the fascinations of his bilingual work is that it allows you to read back those arcane specimens of English vocabulary, those million dollar words, into his Māori translations of them, making both languages seem, not just stranger, but wilder and deeper too.
Even readers who have no Māori will be intrigued by these metamorphoses. And, since Rapatahana’s work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, Italian, French, Spanish and Romanian, readers of those languages too can perform the exercise, reading back unusual words from their own languages into one they might not know well, or even at all; and aiding Rapatahana in his mission “to push for a far wider recognition of the need to write and to be published in this tongue”. In pursuit of this aim, and as a language teacher himself, he has co-edited two essay collections (English language as Hydra; Why English? Confronting the Hydra) which critique the rise of global English as a stripped down, utilitarian language of business and politics which cannot accommodate, let alone voice, the concerns of First Nations peoples.
Before he left Aotearoa / New Zealand for a long sojourn overseas, Rapatahana completed a doctorate at the University of Auckland. His topic was ‘Existential Philosophy and English Literature’ and his main subject the writer Colin Wilson, whose 1956 non-fiction book, The Outsider, had a significant influence upon a whole generation. Wilson, the archetypal Angry Young Man, has been ritually disparaged by the academy ever since. He remains an outlier, an existential philosopher inquiring into, among other things, true crime and its links with the paranormal. Rapatahana continues to write about him, perhaps because of his own outsider status. He is one of a select few Aotearoan poets who have been invited to the annual Medellin Poetry Festival in Colombia. Another sesquipedalian, Alan Brunton, was the first, in the year 2000. Since then, David Eggleton, James Norcliffe and Apirana Taylor have also gone there. This year, Tusiata Avia will be a guest.
Rapatahana is also a well-read, generous, yet exacting literary critic, writing on poetry from Aotearoa / New Zealand and, particularly but not exclusively, upon Māori poetry and poets, in a series of commentaries published in Jacket 2.They open up a perspective upon Aotearoan literature that most Pākehā (and indeed most Māori) critics couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate. There is presently a fluorescence of writing and publishing going among Māori and Pasifika writers, but little critique, positive or otherwise, of their work. Rapatahana’s critical voice is measured, calm, inquisitive; never partial or even partisan; maintaining an inclusive stance while refusing to indulge the whims of coteries or the shibboleths of received opinion. He augments his critical and scholarly writing with hands-on teaching of the techniques and inspirations of bilingual poetry.
Although most of Rapatahana’s poems are brief and to the point, they resist easy reading. Their insistence upon bilingualism may strike some readers as oblique. Even those who have a passing acquaintance with te reo will find his translations of his own English poems into Māori challenging; the same, I assume, is true of the English versions of the poems in te reo. The Māori, for English readers, requires study and not every reader is willing or able to do that. Additionally, fragments of other languages enter the poems, especially Tagalog (Rapatahana’s wife’s native language) as well as Mandarin; along with allusions to speakers of other Austronesian tongues. His habit of stretching out or breaking words up, typographically, might also act as a disincentive. Really, however, what makes Rapatahana’s work difficult for mainstream literary culture in Aotearoa / New Zealand is its confrontational nature.
Rapatahana was born in Pātea, in south Taranaki, of Ātiawa descent. His background includes the ongoing disruption of culture caused by 19th Century conflicts and their aftermath. He has written several poems about incidents in Tītokowaru’s War (1868-9) ― the massacre of children by militia at Handley’s Woodshed in 1868; Tītokowaru’s sexual transgression, and subsequent loss of mana, at the fortified pā at Taurangaika in 1869. He is also affiliated with Ngāti Te Whiti, the hapū of Te Whiti, the prophet of non-violence, whose ideal community at Parihaka was brutally sacked by government forces in 1880. In Aotearoa / New Zealand, bi-cultural teaching about the Land Wars (1845-1871), and the Musket Wars (1818-1845) which preceded them, has only this year entered the school curriculum. Pākehā do not like being reminded that the country they call their own is theirs only by conquest. Māori generally consider it still belongs, by right, to them.
Rapatahana is of the same cohort as current poet laureate David Eggleton. They went to school together in South Auckland and share a belief in the transformative power of writing. However they are very different poets. Rapatahana’s poetry is spare and sharp and bristles with intent. Every word is precisely placed. His prose too is considered and exact, setting out connections between historical crimes, especially the confiscation of land, and the high rates of incarceration, homelessness, unemployment, poverty and suicide amongst Māori today. In both poetry and prose he tells stories from the past in an attempt to heal the present, and thereby make a future possible. His bilingual texts emphasise that the loss of te reo was as catastrophic as land theft. Lip service to the outrage he and others still feel about these losses is common these days amongst the literati and their enablers, but direct experience of its effects, or engagement with them, is not.
Rapatahana doesn’t however lay the blame for the death of his son upon the social evils land confiscation and loss of language have caused. He doesn’t blame himself either. Or not obviously. Rather he lays out the facts of an event he can neither forget nor comprehend; one which he can document but can’t resolve: hence the imperative to keep the conversation going. These poems are confronting because they insist you look, not at grief’s indulgence nor its redemptive power, but at the impoverishment it causes. I think it is this, not the big or unusual words, or the foreign ones, or the stretched and broken ones, that makes the poems hard for some people to deal with. Erik Kennedy’s review of ināianei / now, which is intelligent and largely positive, was published by Landfall Review Online under the derisory title “Prating in Alien Tongues”.
I could go further: mainstream New Zealand poetry is still dominated (though not defined) by the school of quietude. As American language poet Ron Stillman says, “Poetry’s unmarked case, and its most characteristic ― even defining ― feature is the denial of its own existence.” A poet of this persuasion wishes their poem to appear both authored and autonomous. It relies upon observation and then reflection on what has been observed; sometimes with an aphorism by way of a conclusion. Often the observation is of the self; but it might be of a wave of the sea, red buttons on a black coat, a bike ride through the suburbs or an encounter with a bird. We are to admire the poet’s skill with words, with metaphor; their sensitivity and their embrace of ‘intimacy’; above all their wise passivity before a largely inscrutable world. Or rather, a world made briefly scrutable by the poem.
Rapatahana’s work does not do this. I don’t mean that description, observation and / or reflection are absent from it, nor that he is unengaged. I mean he does not sentimentalise the world, the self or the other. He sets out the facts, and keeps his commentary upon them to a minimum, letting the words do the work. One of his poems begins: “I watched my father die” and ends: “an uncanny / vomitous / odour, // no poet could ever / limn.” Limn is of course an archaic term for the act of painting. Its literary use indicates, archly, description of a landscape as much as a painting of a landscape. Its contemporary equivalent is perhaps to be found in ekphrasis. But the root of limn is the same as that for ‘illuminate’, it also means ‘to light up’ and ‘to make clear’. As the last word of the poem it seems at first anomalous, but actually reverberates all the way back to the beginning and thereby re-articulates what has just happened: his father’s death.
The poems in mō taku tama are laments which do not try to traduce the fact of death into something ‘poetic’, nor to make of this father’s grief for his son an occasion for fine writing, nor a demonstration of his nobility of soul. The poems bring before the reader the incomprehensibility of suicide and the inconsolable grief it occasions; which is, and always will be, lifelong. We are asked to contemplate, not so much the poet’s feelings, but the fact of the death that has occurred; which has, inter alia, made it impossible for him to write about it in any other way than this. There is no redemption, no closure, no way of assimilating what has happened. The only hope is, as the last words of the last poem in the book put it, “when I finally alight / I pray you’re waiting / at the terminus” The omission of the full stop is undoubtably deliberate.
Lament is a traditional genre of Māori, as it is in many poetries. The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, in 1966, recorded that ‘the largest number of songs comes under the heading of laments (waiata tangi) and love songs (waiata aroha)’; and goes on to mention (among unspecified others): oriori (a lullaby); pao (a derisive song); apakura (a lament for the dead, especially one killed in battle); tuki waka (a canoe song); and whakaaraara pā (a watchman’s song). The writer of this entry, most likely Ngāti Maniapoto kaumātua and scholar Bruce Biggs, was talking about the situation as it pertained in his day. Even now, most non-Māori New Zealanders will know only the words and tunes of a few popular songs, the bilingual national anthem, and the haka that precedes rugby matches in which the All Blacks take on whoever their opponent is to be.
Fifty years later, in 2014, musicologist Mervyn McLean, in a book about the Lapita people who are ancestral to all Pasifika cultures, including Māori, compiled a list of the kinds of songs that were sung in Polynesia before the European invaders came: “Birth songs, boasting songs, children’s songs, courting songs, divinatory songs, entertainment songs, enumeration songs, erotic songs, farewell songs, fighting songs, food-bearing songs, funeral songs, game songs, greeting songs, hauling songs, incantations, initiation songs, insulting songs, juggling songs, laments, love songs, marriage songs, narrative songs, obscene songs, paddling songs, praise songs, satirical songs, spirit songs, tattooing songs, taunting songs, teasing songs, toddy songs, top-spinning songs, topical songs, war songs, welcome songs, and work songs.”
This range of songs would have been sung by Māori too; it would be strange if they were not. The decline in the number of categories in the present day therefore reflects the loss of a communal lifestyle, which would once have celebrated, for instance, the hauling of canoes over an isthmus as a common occurrence. Songs of love and grief remain ubiquitous. Rapatahana’s poems are usually either laments, waiata tangi; calls to action, like haka; or fragmented narratives which lay out the details of historical wrongs, of which his son’s suicide, if only by implication, may be seen as one. His work witnesses the past richness, and contemporary undervaluing of, the tradition he works within, even during a period of so-called de-colonisation. I think this is another aspect of Rapatahana’s work that Pākehā find difficult. The same unwillingness to deal with feelings of anger and bereavement amongst Aboriginal people, let alone with the facts of their dispossession, is found amongst white Australians.
The detail given of Blake’s life is minimal. His age, the manner of his death, where it occurred ― not much more. There is one grain of reminiscence around which a pearl has accreted. It comes two thirds of the way through the book, in the title of the tenth of the 15 poems: “invictus redux”. The poem begins: “this was your favourite verse. / something I did not know / until / later. / far too late.” The reference is to W E Henley’s “Invictus” (1875), written while he was in hospital, bedridden, recovering from the amputation of a leg due to tubercular arthritis. Many readers will know the couplet with which the poem ends ― “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul” ― but few would be able to quote the beginning: “Out of the night that covers me, / Black as the pit from pole to pole, / I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul.” Perhaps father and son share such a soul.
mō taku tama is a handsome book, a robust hardback, taller than most Kilmog publications, in its dimensions resembling the coffin in which the dead son lay, mentioned several times in the poems: Vaughan’s last sight of Blake. On the cover it has the title and the author’s name in black inside an appliqued ochre circle which looks like a sun. Abstract, black shapes are glued down over the red boards in such a way as to make that sun resemble an eye, perhaps in a gate or on a door. There is also the visual pun: son / sun. The end papers are pale green, the unused leaves, front and back, have been cut large and left, like unlived years; and the type, as in all Kilmog books, is clear and unambiguous. On the title page, in the sole decorative flourish, the author’s name appears in red below the black lettering. This is a heart-breaking book, as well as a manual of how to stare down the facts of life and death, and especially death by suicide. It is by keeping on talking to the dead, even when there isn’t anything to say: “kua heke haere ahau / ki tēnei tāruarua o te toikupu; / kāore aku mea kē atu.” ― “I am reduced to / this anaphora: / I have nothing else.”
mō taku tama by Vaughan Rapatahana (Kilmog Press, $38.50) is available from the best second-hand bookstore in the country, Dead Souls Bookshop in Dunedin. Rapatahana can be heard reading his work at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre.