Seagulls at Raumati Beach, Kāpiti (Photo: Joao Inacio via Getty)
Seagulls at Raumati Beach, Kāpiti (Photo: Joao Inacio via Getty)

OPINIONBooksOctober 5, 2020

Light, air, water: A celebration of Māori poetry in lockdown

Seagulls at Raumati Beach, Kāpiti (Photo: Joao Inacio via Getty)
Seagulls at Raumati Beach, Kāpiti (Photo: Joao Inacio via Getty)

As we emerged, blinking, from the first lockdown, essa may ranapiri said they might write a response to the wonderful poetry published by Māori writers over that strange time. They did not want the work “dumped in the world and forgotten” – they wanted it seen, held high, lit up. Here is that piece. 

He kanohi kitea, ka hoki ngā mahara.

I am writing this because of kanohi kitea, this importance of being seen. A phrase I was only recently acquainted with through Hinemoana Baker’s (Ngaai Tahu, Ngaati Toa, Ngaati Raukawa, Te Atiawa) poem ‘He Kanohi kitea’ which was published in her book Funkhaus. An important part of surviving this new fucked up world has been finding refuge in the work of our kaituhi.

Look at all of our words! They hum they hiss and they spit in the light! They writhe in the dark! What happens when we have land to stand on? Do we create a crater of our souls? Do we send the spark down the line, and up the stream?! I want to look at this work and hold a space for it as it has kept me going through this shitty year.


I start with a love poem. We need love poems. I read ‘Six Years’ by Ruby Solly (Kai Tahu / Waitaha). Love poems are so hard to get right. They either skew way too vague or way too insular. How do you write to someone who knows everything about you without it being completely alienating to everyone else? This poem provides some clues.

You pin a picture of my mountain above our bed.
I cry a river into the sheets.
You walk out into the night
and wring them out over our garden.
Now everyone who eats its’ fruit
will feel their body melt

We need more love poems like this in the world. This stanza makes me think of everyone I’ve ever loved, my partner snoring into the static sway of a podcast about any number of injustices. The way she holds her head up when drifting off. The way she sticks her tongue out after we’ve had an argument to check if we’re okay. The way she looks in my dresses. I have everything Papatuuaanuku and Ranginui don’t.


Today I read ‘Taut’ by Cassandra Barnett (Raukawa, Paakehaa) for what must be the sixth or seventh time. It is dark. And I’m reading it on my cellphone and I am coiled up inside my soul in much the same way as this poem describes: “ … this paradox of holding and escaping is the angle of your longing, is what you run from and run to … ” We all have these responsibilities that pull us taut, that make us into thrumming guitar strings, where every part of us wishes to snap, but that resistance creates a kind of music. The poem moves through this tension using the word “because” to start each line. We are breathlessly transported from one place to the next, from one reason to the next. It catches inside me that “because”, it makes me ask myself if I have this many reasons for how my life is going? I think each one of us has a will to destroy everything that we hold dear, escape the path we’ve somehow found ourselves on, and this poem explores that, finds a place to sit in that impulse. Yes, you can want to run but in some cases that is more of a reason to stay.

These intrusive thoughts creep in at night. I think of the drain I am, I think of the days upon days spent procrastinating. I think no one could want to be with someone like this. I think maybe if I go back to flatting then I’ll relieve the pressure. If I just rush off into the night. I think of all the people that have walked into the Waikato river and never come back out. I think of that and stay. Because I want to stay.


The two-part poem ‘i. heteralocha acutirostris, ii. where is your waka, huia?’ by Kirsty Dunn (Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa) makes death real. The huia heads are lodged in my throat. I do not have words that would bring them back. I do not have a burial for them. They float there. In the past. And in the now, and I can do nothing and nothing I can say even if I could speak in the language of the manu would bring them to completion. I read these poems. The first a visual outline of a bird’s head, that spins in the language of colonial fetishism. The second an ode to these dead things these abstracted heads, these lonely remains, where is home? The poem has eyes and those eyes are piercing. I feel hooked up and stranded on their gaze. And thankful that a poem can do that.


We have three chickens that we keep in the backyard. Leia is the biggest and hungriest one, scuffs at the ground for her food, Sofia the brooder who sits on eggs that don’t belong to her, not knowing that there is no chance of life inside those shells. The third and smallest with black feathers follows Leia like a dark shadow. They buck-buck at dawn, for food. There is a cat with a collar around its neck, all grey and sleek. It checks inside the house before it creeps out into the garden. It wants to kill and eat those chickens. I think of a story that my friend told me about her dad throwing a broom at a cat and killing it instantly. My partner fills a Coke bottle with water to scare the feline away. I think about this and of birds and the changes we have made.


I read ‘above the line’ by Kay McKenzie Cooke (Ngaati Tahu, Paakehaa). I am struck by the description of a gull wheeling overhead.

I look up, see its chest

feathers ironed white by light,

its black wings

rowing west

towards today’s catch:

The way the light catches on its body, the death in the air, the hunting eyes of the gull. The searching for some flesh of another dead thing to satisfy its hunger. I wonder if it calls in that same guttural screech as the gull I once befriended as a child. I wonder what it had murdered before coming and standing solitary on the trampoline. I wonder what flesh it hoped it would find inside the couches it tore mean strips out of.


The night stretches out in front of me. I’m sitting at my desk struggling to put words to the pixellated representation of paper. I read a new poem up on Stasis by Arielle Walker (Taranaki, Ngaaruahine, Ngaapuhi, Paakehaa), ‘a poem is a fluid thing all wrapped up in fish skin’.

She begins the poem with this question “How can I write a poem that isn’t first a body of water?”

And how can we? All of our words are born somewhere in the world. In someone’s throat, in someone’s home. Writing in lockdown is a weird kind of contradiction. Time frozen and the author pushing the hands of the clock forward out of habit, so strangely rote. “I cannot write a poem in a drought.” How can any of us?

Of course the questions about writing Walker is asking the world with this poem aren’t only about writing, they speak to the assembling of the self. I am the river and the river is me. We are made of water. We have the world inside us, and being locked inside draws attention to that lack. To the disconnection we are born with.

I remember being pushed off the wharf at Ohope by my brother. The lurch and the swing as it feels like I hang in the air. And then the splash the overwhelming sound of it in my ears as they pop. And then I can’t breathe. My airways inflamed, I cough to clear them. All I get is salt water. Everything too bright and too dark all at once.


Everything feels black and there is only ‘Tiro’. Inspection, gaze. To look. If there is anything I am trying to maintain here it is to look at things. To know they are real. This short poem by Ashleigh Taupaki (Ngaati Hako) is stark and violent. Horrific in one sense but draws you “into the tunnel / oyster shells degloved our feet // souls stitched together / with the vein threads / in our wrists”. I see a mass of muscle and I see people freed of their bodies their wairua swimming out of veins that grow together like vines. I am held here in my seat, completely aware of something in me dying out, cells spilling into dust and new ones growing to replace them.


I read ‘When I First Asked For My Whakapapa’ by Miriama Gemmell (Ngaati Paahauwera, Ngaati Rakaipaaka, Ngaati Kahungunu). The white men claiming the largest chunks of your past. The claim ringing false. The separations. That echo both of the English flag but also the Maaori flag of independence. There are multiplicities inside of ourselves that have yet to be realised. Yet to be held up to the light. And all the silenced voices of women. Of waahine they tried to silence. But we can hear them ” … with or without the grace of their god”. My knowledge of ancestors is a lot brighter around my Scottish and English ancestors. What privileges they earnt for me to know of them. What whiteness that stains, some racist standard that holds me down. I will have to learn to love every part of the tree I have fallen from. In time I will have to learn how a part of the Thames I am as well as the Waikato.


Today I read a piece of writing from Michelle Rahurahu (Ngaati Raukawa, Ngaati Tahu-Ngaati Whaoa, Rangitaane) called ‘Logging into Ancestral Knowledge’. She asks questions that I often ask about the interaction of modern digital life and kaupapa: “What is allowed to live in the digital air? What should only exist between my people?” It deals with her family getting in touch and helping those in the whaanau reconnect to whakapapa and puuraakau. My auntie got in touch over the lockdown to give me the names of my ancestors going back to the first Ranapiri (who was actually a German whaler from America). “Here is a start for you,” she said. “The next will not be told to you via device, OK. It is not how it should be told” and I’ve been thinking about how it should be told, I feel like all these kupu approach something of the how. There is so much I can get from “the blue light of my screen”. A majority of the writing I’ve talked about I accessed through my phone. The internet gives and the internet takes away. But perhaps it’s best to engage with these things in the air. My auntie asks “Are you there”, which is something you don’t need to ask a person in the same room as you. Not usually. I feel so distant but I have names now. The names of my whakapapa that I didn’t know, until the lockdown forced our mouths to move.

Rahurahu describes placing “an old kuumara in a vase of water to grow water roots, and let the unruly vines grow and crawl across my living room floor”. I feel like this kuumara starved of so much, creeping away over the carpet, moving through tangles of hair and fluff, straining towards something.


I am reminded of when my partner and I moved into our house on Ngaati Wairere land, our friend blessed it by throwing a cooked kuumara over the roof. I remember him standing there before the throw considering the delicate spirit-math of tapu and noa that this represented, (the kuumara isn’t usually cooked when used to bless a whare). What was the cost if the kuumara didn’t make it over our new home? I didn’t know and I still don’t, but he made the throw. We were lucky to be locked down in a place blessed by friends, and I was lucky to be able to read all of this work. And I’m lucky it’s still there to go back to. This world scares me more than I could ever explain but this work feels like I’ve found the words of my ancestors in the mouths of those still living and that is no small thing. If you take anything from this, I hope you recognise the gift in these words (just a tiny sample of the kupu Māori kaituhi published over lockdown) and you go and read them.

Double vowels are used here instead of tohutoo as is the tradition of Waikato-Tainui.

Keep going!