Photograph of Tayi Tibble in glam green plunging-neck gown + chains; the cover of her new book Rangikura
Photo: Pelham Dacombe Bird; cover art: Xoë Hall

Perfectly Tayi

Faith Wilson responds to Rangikura, the much-anticipated second book of poetry by Tayi Tibble. 

I find myself on Facebook, as us older millennials so often do, on a stalking mission looking back through Tayi Tibble’s childhood photos. I’m midway through reading a poem in Tibble’s first book, Poūkahangatus, called ‘Ode to Johnsonville’s Cindy Crawford’. It seems to be about the narrator’s mum, and I feel compelled to find a picture of this glamorous person. I know you’re not meant to assume a first-person poem is autobiographical, but because I so often do write from an autobiographical perspective, and because many of the emotions and sentiments that Tibble evokes are weirdly similar to some of my own, I can’t help but read Tayi, the wahine, the myth, the legend, into every one of them. 

As I’m going through the photos, there’s that gradual turning back in time that accompanies a Facebook photo stalk mish, and I see the devolution/evolution of Tibble. Her style changes, obviously, but the photos that I’m more drawn to are the ones circa 2011, when Tibble was still a teenager. 

In particular, there’s a photo of her and eight other brown teens standing against a brightly coloured mural. There’s an image painted in the centre, largely obscured by the people standing in front of it, but it looks kind of like a Nesian fusion design, a mix of koru and tatau patterns against a moana blue. Tibble is standing smack bang in the centre of the group, in the heart of the koru, surrounded by what I assume to be her e hoas with huge open-mouthed grins on their faces. 

Even in this photo there’s something different about Tibble. As opposed to her friends’ goofiness, she stands awkwardly. It’s like she knows something more than you do, and she knows it. She’s kind of grinning, but it could also be a grimace. A Māori Mona Lisa. I keep looking at her, trying to decide what emotions she might be feeling here. But she gives nothing away. In this image there’s already an unmistakable essence of that je ne sais quoi, that mysterious vibe which Tibble embodies. It’s less cultivated here – there’s no sign of make-up, and her dress style is similar to the other teens she is surrounded by. But the Tayi-ness is unmistakable, a quality that could be aloof Ascot Park Princess yet relatable sister-from-another-mister, bougie but hood, unfathomably street smart but booksmart too … 

After gazing at the photo for a few minutes, something strikes me about where she and her friends are standing. On the right hand side of the mural, written vertically, is the word “SCHOOL”. On the left hand side is another word written vertically, but the bottom half is covered by one of the people in the photo. It says “RANGI”. Tayi’s standing in front of a wall at Rangikura School, the school that lends its name to her second collection of poems.

Tayi: the wahine, the myth, the legend or how her poetry saved me

I didn’t intend to write a hagiography … but here we are. Is it inappropriate for me to say that reading Rangikura saved me, in a way? Or that it stoked the last few embers of my charcoal heart, reminding me that actually, poetry can be fucking good? Poetry can, in fact, be revolutionary.

Two photographs of Tayi Tibble flanking her first book, Pōukangatus.

Poūkangatus, Tibble’s first book of poems, which won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award (Photos: Supplied)

I have a love/hate relationship with poetry, with writing itself and, probably more than anything, with the politics of Aotearoa’s writing communities. I’ll spare you most of the details, but here’s a story, I completed my MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2014, and suffered a complete identity crisis, severe disillusionment, creative burnout and a sado-masochistic relationship to the written form. Seven years later, I’m only just getting over it. I know you’re here to read about Rangikura, and I’ll get to that, but what is a response to a book from an author whose self-assuredness seems so overwhelmingly audacious (in the best sense), without a bit of omphaloskepsis? 

I suppose seeing Tibble thrive is like medicine to me. I remember first seeing her, back in 2015. She was the sartorially-minded wahine with long flowing hair and iconically glossy ngutu, watching a LitCrawl session I and a friend had organised at Pegasus Books. She was a fledgling poet, all bright eyes and fur jackets, and legend has it that after seeing Courtney Sina Meredith’s performance at that LitCrawl session, Tibble was inspired to start putting her work out into the world. 

I remember when I first read Tibble’s poetry online (on Tumblr?), and knew in my stomach that she was tapped into some knowledge that few people in this world have. I felt a connection to her poetry, although written worlds from mine, in a sultry and sun-kissed Porirua (P-Town), and I began watching her moves with bated breath.

As my own poetry career seemed to go stale, Tibble’s went up and up and up. And I’ll admit it, I’ve been jealous before. Not of Tibble per se, but of what she’s achieved. Or maybe of her, per se. Her aura, her vibe. That ungraspable thing that makes Tibble and her writing addictive. As each year slipped by and I hadn’t written, and I got older, and less hot, and less desirable, Tibble was banging out sexy poems, and getting sexier, and more intelligent. She was tapped into a wellspring of esoteric knowledge, and she was drinking it by the gallon.

As I drank every word of Rangikura, then back to Poūkangatus then back to Rangikura again, I felt myself defrost. Yes, poetry can be fucking good, can be genius even. That this enigmatic kid from Porirua, this Māori Mona Lisa, was out here, walking over the words of the dead white poets in stiletto heels and dripping gold, was doing her own kanikani, the one only she knows, evolved from ancestral blessedness, showing the world, showing me, showing you, how it’s done. 

Rangikura | Summertime sadness

There was a solar eclipse in Gemini a few days ago, the day Rangikura was officially released to the world. To someone else, this might just be a coincidence, but to me, a Gemini Rising like Tibble, this seemed too perfect to be unplanned, and perfectly Tibble. 

If Rangikura was an album it would be Born to Die meets Suga. If it were a bottle of liquor it would be Tui meets Henny. Fish ‘n’ chips with gold-flecked batter. If it were an astrological event it would be a solar eclipse in Gemini during Mercury Retrograde. Outrageous, and unhindered by the confusing planet of communication. Rangikura makes its own rules.

It is a slippery tuna, and for me its genius, and devastation, lies in the presence of a gentle but all-consuming and pervasive melancholy.

The back cover says the poems “are both nostalgic for, and exhausted by, the pursuit of an endless summer.” Like a Lana Del Rey album, they’re darkly sentimental about a fictive past, and obsessed with beauty in all its shapes.

The poems I’m most entranced by are the ones that truly feel like they’re in commune with something otherworldly. That term is thrown around too easily these days, but for someone so in tune with her ancestral calling, it’s not surprising that Tibble’s poems align with an alienishness that at once strokes the heartstrings and sends goosebumps up the spine.

A perfect example of this feeling is in the poem ‘A Karakia 4 a Humble Skux’. 

So release the parts of me that call for change
So release the parts of me that call for change

but the energy is stale.
but the energy is stale.

I’m switching it all up
I’m switching it all up

fishing stars into the sea
fishing stars into the sea

and painting the skyful of whales.
and painting the skyful of whales.

Woman in green and pink fur coat brandishes beautiful book of poetry, smiling. She's in a bookstore.

Tayi Tibble launching Rangikura at Unity Wellington (Photo: Supplied)

Maybe it’s the repetition that reminds me of call and response prayer in church, or the mantra-like “release the parts of me that call for change”, or maybe just ‘cos it’s legit a karakia, it’s literally calling to the gods; but I feel so connected to something else when I read this poem. It’s Tibble in all her hubris, but all her humility at the same time, a prayer for the self and all those who came before her, an evolution into her next phase, Tibble the boho-chic artist who paints tohorā and goes star-fishing. 

As I go through the book again, I think about the photo of Tibble at Rangikura School, and I imagine that Tibble in these poems. Maybe vulnerable, maybe sensitive, maybe hardened, maybe buttery soft. I think of her and friends catching the train into the city, sharing lip gloss and stories about boyfriends. She’s the girl I imagine in the poem ‘Can I Still Come Crash at Yours?’ 

So we exchanged vows, not to them but to each other
that every day we would wake up and put our makeup on just to watch them
play GTA and exclaim proudly This is how bad girls do it! From Cape Reinga to the deep blue south! Marry up and spend our days swanning on the couch.

The kōtiro with too much knowledge for her years, ratchet kid with “eyes rimmed in raxxed Maybelline”, devoted to her best friends and the prettiest boys. Live fast, die young. No regrets.

 

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A post shared by Tayi Tibble (@paniaofthekeef)

It’s hard to explain the feeling of melancholy I get when reading this book. It’s a kēhua that haunts every poem, that lingers a little longer on some of the lines. The melancholy is immanent; you have to feel it for yourself.

In ‘Hine-nui-te-pō’:

I wonder how it feels
to be tethered somewhere
by a sense of home. To be buried

in your urupā and to find that when you die
you have been waiting
for yourself, this whole time, all along.

In ‘Te Araroa’:

But when the land was plucked over
and her teat sucked to powder,
the hunger came with a violence so violent
that we traded and ate our children.
Auē Auē Auē.
God forgive me for
I used to be so ashamed.

In ‘Takakino’:

For a while
it seemed like everything
we touched
seemed to erode a little.
We knew it and yet
it still hurt
to be called destructive.

It’s funny: when I read the blurb on the back of the book again, there’s a line that says this is Tibble’s “fiery” second collection. There’s fire for sure. And of course, a blurb is a short few lines to entice readers in, and not an exegesis on its contents. But I feel less fire here than slow, icy sadness. It’s an inherited sadness, formed from anger, grief and loss – oh the loss, from generations of colonisation, loss of land, loss of language, loss of mana. The anger is an iceberg, slowly melting as the earth warms up, and the icy water pervades. These poems are elegies to a trauma so large that it can only be comprehended in small sips and the odd, sardonic, witchy cackle.

She does this too through that Tibble machismo we know, love and covet. In Rangikura, that feeling that you’re missing out on something is ever-present; Tibble’s giving you a glimpse into her coterie where all the girls are melodramatic and sultry in that Daisy Buchanan way; where the boys wear diamond studs in their ears and promise you the world in a blue Subaru; where the girls “steal Creme and Dolly magazines” then grow up to keep “paperbacks in my Prada only to use them like fans”. 

Her ancestors ride wit her

You’re back on Facebook, procrastinating because you don’t know how to finish this, and you see a photo from the Rangikura launch. It’s Tibble in a trippy 70s jumpsuit, reading from the book in all her glory. You read a caption on the photo: Tayi’s just signed a contract to release both of her poetry books in the US with publisher Knopf. You scroll down further and see that Lorde has released a new music video for her song Solar Power. At about 2:23, you see that flowing hair and glossy lips you remember from years ago. Tayi’s in the video, crouching down and smelling the flowers. Smelling those gloriously sweet flowers. 

 

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A post shared by Tayi Tibble (@paniaofthekeef)

Girl, girl, girl. Tayi, the girl from Porirua, from Rangikura School, Ascot Park. She’s really doing it. She’s doing it for her ancestors. She’s doing it for us all. 

Keep it humble, keep it skux.
Keep it humble, keep it skux.

Keep it pushing, keep it cute.
Keep it pushing, keep it cute
.

[…]

I am made of the same
I am made of the same

star matter as legends.
star matter as legends.

Āmene.
Āmene.

Lesh go.
Lesh go.

Rangikura, by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, $25) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington




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