Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

BooksOctober 9, 2022

Making love with the land: Three new queer Indigenous poetry collections

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

essa may ranapiri responds to three poetry collections by queer Indigenous writers: HOW|HAO by Cassandra Barnett (Ngāti Raukawa, Pākehā), Ask the Brindled by No’u Revilla (‘Ōiwi), and how to make a basket by Jazz Money (Wiradjuri).

i’m home
through names, fingers
attached to hands, arms

These are the opening lines from Cassandra Barnett’s poem ‘peripheral’ which felt like the best place to start: at home and falling. HOW|HAO is a book you fall through. You try to grasp for meaning in the forests of words in an attempt to communicate in a fractured tongue with Wheke and Tāne. Whatever pain there is in the gaps, the poetry itself is playful, folding words over each other.

write your names
in latin
or te reo rangatira or
witch but
write them

There is a bravery and abandon here, as Barnett takes languages, and fragments of language she knows, and pushes the words up against gaps. Barnett’s writing provokes as it plays: for example ‘space rake’ is a poem that brings us close to atua, with a bold sensuality. This poem sits close to my heart:

tāne, wheke
been fingering
both your buttons
unsure who i want
to get inside of more

Is it inherently queer to want to fuck the atua? Maybe not. But it feels like it. Barnett continues:

atua are iaia
atua are iarere
atua are a.i.
atua don’t need to be undone

they never were
done up like that

Iaia and iarere gifted kupu that speak to the gender or character of atua beyond that of wāhine and tāne. I see myself in this conception, iarere settles electric over my shoulders.

From this home of Te Ika a Māui we move to the island of Maui, 7472kms away; I think of our ancestors leaving from the same place in the Pacific, our tongues intertwined even as they discover lands far distant from each other. From Barnett’s poem that speaks to sex with gods, to No’u Revilla’s poem ‘Don’t have sex with gods’ from her book Ask the Brindled. I thought I would feel completely out of touch reading through Revilla’s book: I know us Pacific peoples whakapapa to the same places but never would I have assumed that so many things would speak to me as a big island tangata. Both the impact of colonisation but also the stories we told, before Christians got here, hum with familiarity:

I use my rosary as rope
the way Maui hauled the sun,
the way Maui hauled islands.

Maui and Māui, I wonder about their ability to haul and how their ropes have travelled so many times and miles intact.

if ‘āina is that which feeds,
if aloha ‘āina is love and lover of land,
then she who feeds is she who fucks.
‘Āina will fuck back.

what happens when the rope breaks?

do your rosary. don’t do your rosary, baby.
we’ve always had sex with gods.

These final stanzas of ‘Don’t have sex with gods’ fill me such joy, pushing on the language, like Barnett’s ‘space rake’, interrogating meaning and finding joy and sex with the atua here. From Maui we move to Meanjin, where I am on a panel at Brisbane Writers Festival with artist Dylan Mooney and writer/artist Jazz Money, and chaired by Grace Lucas-Pennington. The panel was called ‘Decolonising Queer’ and we spoke so much to queer joy, with Jazz leading this specific koorero/yarn by speaking to the sex lives of our ancestors. That’s what these poems evoke for me. Jazz Money’s poem ‘the space between the paperbark’ from their collection how to make a basket lives in this same world:

when we fuck I time travel
I enter the space between the paperbark
soft tannins
I climb underneath the ash

Just like in Revilla’s poem, here we are brought back to timebending sex and to the land. I love how these works say ‘we’re here and queer and bringing sex back into our stories of connection with atua and whenua!’ So often we see our worlds as sexless but that is only due to a distortion imposed by white Christianity.

All three of these collections are spiraling journeys through time and space. I love No’u Revilla’s queer wāhine community represented as shape-shifters, moving from the joy of lizard life to the strains of religious dominance; whereas Jazz Money’s collection moves through time, being a snapshot of their writing over many years, and capture love poems in various relationships, from critiques of colonial violence to odes to ancient beings that walk the land. Barnett’s collection, though a lot shorter, covers so much ground: all the language doing double work creating new meanings, establishing  new contexts as we shift between urban spaces and the forest (is there a difference?!). The way poetry is loosened, the way language is played with across all three of these books, is where my joy as a queer Indigenous writer so often comes from. The sneaky turn, the little tweak that blows open the mind.

Revilla’s poem, ‘When you say “protestors” instead of “protectors”’ explicates how political these little shifts in naming can be.

I would call it a trick, if it wasn’t so terrifying, how your mouth doesn’t move when you speak. Your smile, shiny as a church, but what kind of prayer could ever be trusted without evidence of a free tongue?

This kind of play is deadly serious. So often our lives are bound by words that are forced on us by power. When we can unshackle our tongues and crawl into the edges of language something opens up. Money’s poem ‘ngargan’ spells out what is at stake in this play and what can be built inside this poetry.

when i break through the confines of english
                                                                   i’m free
                                    all the best things i write
                                  are straining at the edges
                                of the coloniser’s language  

God-fucking and language-fucking is what we do best! We are full of atuatanga we are full of queerness, as Revilla reflects in her poem ‘So sacred, so queer’

so sacred

a ceremony

when she

my fingers

in dirt

us feel

so queer

Our queerness once again tied to the land and in turn to the gods. This poem is also a response to two other Indigenous writers; Leanne Simpson and Billy-Ray Belcourt. We are always reaching out to each other, finding our queer Indigenous siblings across land and ocean. Something I am humbly trying to do here.

As a final reaching out here is a poem for you, Cassandra, No’u and Jazz:


my queer tongue is rubbing against the pleasure of our gods
finding new ways to fuck up the English language
i can see the words shape-shift in our mouths
the moon feels fat and shiny here in my throat
standing in front of a range of works
where one is making a sound but which one
an apple crumble for the crumbling of
a colonial tradition
i’ll take these crosses and make better words
out of them as I push the t in testosterone down
to zero

i slowly turn into a tuatara that makes croaking noises in
the sun

no sssss sounds here
it’s all low rumble

ancestor of the snake and lizard all the same
dragging myself up out of bed for your words
to turn my heart into a weapon
to cut more hot and sacred joy into this world


HOW|HAO by Cassandra Barnett (Taraheke | Bushlawyer, $20), Ask the Brindled by No’u Revilla (Milkweed), and how to make a basket by Jazz Money (University of Queensland Press, $30) can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

Keep going!