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Paula Harris (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
Paula Harris (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksJuly 17, 2023

E tauhou: A poem for Paula Harris

Paula Harris (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
Paula Harris (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

A poem for Paula Harris, by Ruby Solly.

E tauhou

E tauhou,
You have twisted the sky to water again
and found your wings sodden
and too slow to beat
in the moving freeze.

You were not made for here.
A dropped button from the coat
of somewhere better.
You chased that better for everyone.
You found the moment that hope shrunk so small
that it disappeared into its own tiny black hole.
You held It in your hand
crushed it to ink
and wrote letter after letter
to ensure that you were the last person
to hold a black hole inside you
to feel its pull.

The critical eye of a bird in danger
looking across the loom
and pulling out the loose dark threads
shaping them into letters with your beak
pressing them into the dirt you were left with
until they sung the dirt alive
until poetry sprouted
as delicate as a fern
as strong as a kauri
for weaker birds
to shelter in.

You asked me once
mid conversation
If I thought you could come back
as a flock of tauhou
little wax eyes
hopping nervous and agile
through the trees.
I could see them
moving as one entity
as one mind
finally unrestrained
finally released.

I do not know how many times
the heart of the tauhou beats in a minute.
But I know from the size of the bird
that it is fast.
I could fit you inside my heart
in your bird form.
A little feathered ghost
breathing through the red.
Before you took on
your delicate talons,
your silver rings,
you had already nested here
in the chambered softness.
In the weaving of lost fibres
you made yourself a home.

You have lived by this river
since you were born
homeless and unheld.
Building shelters in your words
in the glow of hard work.
The light doesn’t shine on murky water.
We shine torches through the silt
see nothing but spirals of mica
tattooing current after current
of wet clay to cloak you.
But water has a way of touching you
not at all
then all at once.

In these waters
there are no predators for you.
No violence dressed as promise
dressed as mother and father
dressed as nurses who hold you down.
Only eels circling you
around and around
their underwater songs telling you
that your work is done
that you can go home now
for the first time.

I saw a Tauhou today
for the first time since you stopped breathin.
‘Felt a tapu lift,
a cloak that had once belonged to you
that you never asked for
and neither did I.
The tiny feathers of the tauhou
slipping out of their stitches
to return to the warm skin of their birds
protecting the beating.
A flock of you appearing
from the regeneration of it all.
The silver medals of the eye
he tohu
You are gone
and you are here.
The flock of you expanding
as for the first time
you are birds

A note from Chris Tse, poetry editor

When news of Paula’s passing started to make the rounds on social media last Wednesday, many people shared stories and spoke of Paula’s impact on them. It wasn’t just those in the poetry and writing communities – tributes to Paula came from all corners of her storied life, from her work in the health sector to former dance partners. The Spinoff has already published a moving tribute to Paula by her close friend Anna Sophia; I’m honoured to share this poem written by another of Paula’s close friends, Ruby Solly, as another way to acknowledge the legacy she leaves behind.

I first met Paula in 2018 at a reading in Palmerston North. She had started messaging me a few weeks earlier making her expectations clear that I was to wear something fabulous. That’s something Paula and I shared – a penchant for donning beautiful, sometimes outlandish, outfits for poetry readings. In an interview for the Apparel for Authors Instagram account, she said: “Often the places I read poetry are super casual, so there’s a certain moment of stepping up to the mic in an evening gown and being like, yup, this is me. It makes an impression. Even if I can’t control what that impression is!” There’s no doubt she left an impression on many of us, both on and off the stage.

Later in 2018 I invited Paula to be part of a LitCrawl event called Hometown Glory: Lower Hutt vs Palmerston North. There’s a video of Paula’s reading that captures her effortless charm as a poet and a performer – she was a natural on stage and knew how to spin a good yarn. The two poems she read are funny, uninhibited and deeply personal –­ qualities that you’ll find in all of her writing, from her social media posts to her essays.

There’s so much I’ll miss about Paula. I’ll miss the emails with links to beautiful fabrics that she thought would make great outfits. I’ll miss knowing she’d approve every time I overpack for a two-day holiday. But most of all, I’ll miss the announcements she’d make about checking proofs for a forthcoming poem or an essay, or that one of her poetry films had made it into another international festival. Paula openly shared the good and the tough parts about being a writer, documenting each rejection and setback – there’s no doubt this clouded her own judgement of how important and adored her work was. The work, of course, lives on – her website meticulously lists where you can find it online.

Vale, Paula. Thank you for the gift of your words – we will treasure them for many years to come.

Keep going!