(Design: Tina Tiller)
(Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksJuly 26, 2021

Goddesses respond to Karlo Mila’s book of poems, Goddess Muscle

(Design: Tina Tiller)
(Design: Tina Tiller)

Karlo Mila’s latest poetry collection spans the work of a decade. It’s been out in the world for nine months now, filling cups and lifting women up. We invited women to write about it. 

Selina Tusitala Marsh

As a seafood lover of fierce appetite, when I see Karlo’s title Goddess Muscle I hear, see, and taste Goddess Mussel. I have told her this. These delectable poems do justice to all that is goddess within and outside of the many shells we wear. The poem I’ve been letting slip and slide inside is the divine ‘What Trees Will Say’. It sits quiet and unassuming on the page, shouldered by the big Moanan mythic poems exploding with fire and pouliuli. This poem is still. It is held by breath and space. It sits. It’s a beautiful meditation on Glennon Doyle’s ‘Touch Tree’ in her book Untamed. It’s a poetic nod to Byron Katie’s supreme act of self-love: to honor and cherish yourself. It articulates the permission required – not exclusively but especially – by brown goddesses to love ourselves:

“Everything wild / survives / by accepting / every aspect / of themselves / and their surrounds – // adapting.”

Yes. Yes. Yes. That’s the nub of the sweetest goddess mussel of all.

Two photographs, each showing a beaming woman holding a copy of poetry book Goddess Muscle
Selina Tusitala Marsh and Leilani Tamu (Photos: Supplied)

Leilani Tamu

It is a whole shimmering universe.

And it is


[Kapihe’s Prophesy, p.189]

Alive with the fire of Pele. Alive with the wisdom of Tagaloa. Alive with the wit of Maui. Alive with the healing of Rongo. In this vital, vibrant and visionary text, Dr Karlo Mila takes her place as one of the most important and powerful writers of our time.

Let me be clear: books like this only come along once in a generation – if we’re lucky. In Goddess Muscle, Mila takes the wero of our Mana Moana ancestors and places it squarely at the feet of the whakapapa of all of the injustices that the indigenous peoples of our region have had to, and still do, endure.

In this ground-breaking poetic text, Mila’s writing carries us safely through the cyclone of personal and political turmoil, and like the manu tai (our ancestral oceanic guide) reveals ancient indigenous pathways for those of us who have lost our way. This healing book is a call to action to those ready and willing to see, to listen, and to work to co-create a new world, together.

Paula Green, poet and editor at Poetry Shelf

Goddess Muscle is a gift. I can barely account for how it will stretch your reading muscles, your beating heart, your enquiring mind, your compassion, your music cravings, your empathy. Karlo has extended her own poetic muscle and offered poetry that is wisdom, strength, refreshed humaneness. I am all the better for having read it.

The collection is crafted like a symphony, an experience of shifting life, seasons and subject matter, so as you read the effects are wide reaching. Karlo faces significant political issues: climate change, the Commonwealth, colonialism, racism, Ihumātao, “the daily politics of being a woman, partner and mother”. She faces these global and individual challenges without flinching. The resulting poems are essential reading, never losing touch with song and heart, always insisting in poetic form how we can do better. How we can be a better world, recharge humanity. I would like to see these poems read in secondary school. You can read Moemoeā: (composed for poets for Ihumātao) here.

Two photos side by side, each showing a woman reading Goddess Muscle
Nadine Anne Hura; Paula Green (Photos: Supplied)

Nadine Anne Hura

Some poetry knows us so intimately, it’s as if the words weren’t just written for us, but about us. The first time I read the ‘The Good Wife’s Prayer’ I was lying alone inside a tent under a moonless sky after walking out on my marriage. I sobbed into my phone’s blue light as I recited the words so that I might believe them “let me have the courage to not just live a safe life, or a good life, but a whole life.”

That was at least four years ago and Karlo and I barely knew each other at the time. This tells you something about Karlo: she’s incredibly generous, and has deep knowing. Her email came with the caveat that the poem was part of a manuscript that she wasn’t sure she’d ever be brave enough to publish.

I am so grateful that she did. Goddess Muscle is more like an album than a collection of poetry. There are poems that I play on repeat, and make me feel cooler than I am (‘Never Offer Your Heart to a Poet’). There are poems I blast out loud through the stereo like an anthem, whenever I need re-orienting (‘How to Break a Curse’). Some poems demand to be read to an audience conversant in tribal stereotypes (‘Tuhoe Boys’ – although I was mildly stung that the chorus didn’t feature Kahungunu boys.)

Some poems I can hear Karlo’s voice, and I remember where I was the first time I heard them. There isn’t a single poem that doesn’t make me feel something, and the best ones challenge the reader to think and see differently too. My favourite poems are more like quiet karakia: see; Love song for the Manawatū.

From that lonely riverbank four years ago to gorgeous pages bursting with colour and wisdom and insight, I feel privileged to hold this book in my hands. I don’t know if a poem can save a life, but I know for sure that words can liberate us.

Kirsten Lacy, director of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

The first encounter was the gift of the book, Goddess Muscle. For me, the book was a beloved friend who, knowing the full range, depth and dislocating potential of human emotions, saw me seeking to find a path with art and aroha, saw my feet on new soil, and knew I needed a navigator to help me steer my first steps in Tāmaki.

The second was the inscription, written by the author herself, and which named my role plainly – the kaitiaki of the Tāmaki Makaurau taonga – alerting my inbreath to the terrifying impossibility that it is to inhabit this role as an immigrant Pākehā woman, and the realisation in her naming of it, that it was possibly true.

The third, the book itself Goddess Muscle, a generous collection of poems, which in her articulation defines an entire organism whose meaning is to be fully and wholly woman, to bring to bear the textures and functions of flesh, ocean, earth, night and air to the experience of being one’s own best friend.

The fourth, however, was the most profound. It was the author herself appearing at my door on the night following a day of reckoning, reading these first words in the book to me:

“Your people will gather around you. Your family who prepared a place for you, a lineage that connects you all the way back to the beginning. A family that dreamed you possible. It is their soft singing, cellular love songs, the chanting lyric of bloodlines, accompanying you all the way through the lonely.”

And so it was I met for the first time the poet of our time, Karlo Mila, and a wayward heart inside a lounge room in Tāmaki, found at last her harbour.

Two photographs of women holding Goddess Muscle
Rebecca Sinclair; Kirsten Lacy (Photos: Supplied)

Rebecca Sinclair, deputy pro-vice chancellor at the college of creative arts, Massey University.

This is for Karlo, for her working poems (poems that do the work)!

Kia ora e hoa. I had to write and let you know how profoundly Goddess Muscle has helped me. In all the ways. I used it this week to catalyse expansion in our leadership team during our strategic planning days this week. And it’s been a life saver during my ongoing healing from my painful separation.  This is what I want to say (clumsily):

Your poems
Are stars in the night,
Guides in the light,
That lead us
With breadcrumbs
Of wisdom and beauty and truth
To things
That can’t be understood
In any other way.
They have to be ingested
In this soul way;
This transformation
Of light into matter,
Words into feeling,
Values into behaviour.
They are catalysts
For bringing into being
The things we cannot articulate
In any other way.

Goddess Muscle, by Karlo Mila (Huia Publishers, $35) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

Karlo Mila will perform her poetry at Going West’s Gala Night next month; she will also be at Christchurch’s WORD festival where she is hosting a poetry workshop; appearing in a musical celebration of the vā; and talking about her poetry in a group session with Tayi Tibble and Kate Camp. 

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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