Poemlines: Coming Home

21 October 2018, Blyth Performing Arts Centre, HBAF2018
By Emily Dobson

As I pull into the parking lot of the Blyth Performing Arts Centre, the sun setting over the green fields after another radiant Hawke’s Bay day, I hear the parking warden say,“I’ve been told to reserve spaces for poets”. This is a coming home for me too.

The foyer is beautifully light and airy, there is a feeling of the significance of this event, not only in the quite remarkable coming together of these poets connected through their poet laureateship and their history with, and relationship to, this place, but in the esteem and standing of all of them. Quite the line up! We enter through a red tunnel into space, light and poetry; the audience receptive and willing.

The evening is chaired by the always delightfully turned-out Marty Smith, whose own words so beautifully introduce each poet. We are told, sadly, CK Stead is unable to attend due to medical difficulties. Marty describes the poet laureateship as “feast, joyfulness, gossip, lies, nostalgia… a centre, giving the poets a place to stand”. She describes public poets as “poetry activists”, with “the power to spark poetry from one poet to another”. This is certainly the case tonight as connections and reverberations spark between poets, places, friendships. There is a wonderful camaraderie throughout the evening as each poet reads a chosen work of the following poet.

The inaugural Poet Laureate, the indefatigable Bill Manhire is first to take the stage. Bill tells us he is reading three new, unpublished poems: ‘The Sky’, ‘Our Teacher’ and ‘He loved her lemonade scones’ (for the late Colin Meades). All three in their own way are tender, nostalgic love poems. A sky holding his old house, “awkward and vertical and cold”. It is nice too, on the plains, but he misses it – “It says look up, whenever we look down”.

Bill then reads a poem by Jenny Bornholdt, not present tonight, from the book she produced during her laureateship, ‘Not go away’ – memories of a family holiday, holding the precious moments; a father’s ashes nourishing the macadamia tree, finding the missing piece of the 1000-piece jigsaw in the fridge. Bill also reads a poem by Hone Tuwhare, a poem talking to Ralph Hotere re the cover of his book.. “when I reach the beginning of your eternity… hell, let’s have another feed of mussels.” Bill describes Hone’s work as “sometimes feeling like you’re in church and sometimes down at the pub”.

We are treated to a recording of the late Hone. Hearing that familiar voice is comforting and moving. The apocalyptic ‘No ordinary sun’ (we are later told Hone was in Japan in ’46 with the mayhem of atomic warfare) is followed by ‘Haiku’: “Stop your snivelling, seabed. Laugh again”. Hone’s son Rob is here, and there are so many lovely and poignant moments. Patting his shirt pockets Rob says, “I was just gonna do what Dad used to do:  ‘where’s my f***ing glasses?!’” Rob reads a poem by his mum, Jean McCormack, describing a phone call with Hone when he was in hospital, finishing on the achingly sad note of hearing Hone singing, “my heart is sad and lonely, doo de doo…” Rob then sings a poem of Hone’s put to music by Graeme Brazier, “Friend, I clasp your hand, if only to reassure”.  He finishes with a poem by Elizabeth Smither, ‘The marking of The Great Gatsby’.

As the diminutive Elizabeth comes onto the stage I realise the tokotoko are being placed one by one against a table, and as the evening goes on there is a sense of the tokotoko having their own palpable spirit/wairua.

Elizabeth’s poetry is described as “leading you with a quiet grace”. Elizabeth reads quickly, six poems. There is music and rhythm. Driving past her mother’s house and seeing her in those unseen moments, driving and thinking up the names of 10 conductors, a Soviet string quartet, a poem about her ‘Whistle Dress’ – which she is wearing. Three pairs of hands – one friend’s hand “comfort, plumpness, warm – they would press and warm a colder one”. Night time words for a granddaughter – “beautiful girl, beautiful girl”. She then reads poems by Michele Leggott “I had imagined paradise was a kind of library. In fact it is a bowl that fills and fills”.

The absent poet laureates are present in various ways. Brian Turner has made a short film we watch next – his comfortable, book-lined house, the landscapes of his home. We see him standing out in the brown hills, the wind blowing his pages, as he reads ‘Keep it up’, ‘Sky’, ‘The River in you’ (“& you know the swirl of having been there before”), ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Like lamplight’. At this point I have to stop writing and just listen. His poems, Marty says, are a “quiet continuous lamentation for what we are doing”.

Michele’s tokotoko is pale blue and delicate. Her poetry, Marty says, is “pure like water”. When she comes onto the stage she talks about the wonderfulness of listening. She talks about how home can be complex and complicated. She talks about how she has spent the last 2-3 years thinking carefully about the place she was born and grew up in, Taranaki, that she has gone looking for history. She too reads unpublished new work, from a longer piece, ‘The Wedding Party’ – “my eyes were sealed shut, but my ears caught the sound of… japonica”. There is personal and a wider history, “travelling between loss and strategy”. Pohutukawa whose “pathways baffled our monkey hearts”. There is te reo, with translation, and Latin, “lest the words fall into enemy hands”. Her poetry is the place where histories meet.

Michele reads Cilla McQueen’s poem, ‘Songs for a far island’, from Homing In. “The wind of old voices…the grace of rock… such strong wiry love”.

Cilla McQueen reads six poems. “Quietly loud with sound”, Celtic resonances, Captain Cook taking luncheon in Dusky Sound “had an eery, solitary feeling as if he had set foot on the moon”. The old songs “still trickling like laughter”, “washing strangling on the line”, and an ominous ‘Epitaph’.  Her tokotoko is gnarled and crooked, with satin ribbons. She stands up and reads a poem for her tokotoko, its ‘wounds, irregularities, bumps, holes”. She reads a wonderful poem by Ian Wedde written for his friends.

I am not familiar with all these poets, but I love coming to them this way, in the flesh, hearing the poetry rather than reading it on a page in a book. Ian Wedde writes with “subversive sly humour, like a blackberry the snags us, stopped in the moment of beauty”. He reads ‘Ode to Auckland’ – again unpublished – it is visual, effusive and mundane, a “multiverse like a botanical garden around here”, “the thoughts that flow beneath thought” – with a “joy that verges on reverence”.

He reads a poem by Selina Tusitala Marsh, the fabulous love poem to Sam Hunt, ‘Sam, Sam my orange crayon stick figure man’ – “You coloured in my tongue”. The audience loves it.

Selina is the “lucky legs” 11th poet laureate. Her tokotoko is tall with an amazing head of hair like her. She reads a poem of Bills, ‘On Originality’. She then reads her own poem, ‘On plagiarism’. She reads ‘Jacinda and Clarke and the baby and us’- hard to tell where the genuine and the ironic part.  She reads ‘Breaking up with Captain Cook on our 250th Anniversary’. She is witty and contemporary and political and perfect.

She finishes with her poem for her tokotoko: “tokotoko, tokotoko on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? Not me I’m brown.” Tokotoko are not something to be hung up on the wall – they are “held firmly within our hands. They help us to stand”.

On this all the poets laureate are called back onto the stage with their tokotoko. The tall Selina puts her arm around the small Elizabeth. They smile and hold up their tokotoko. It has been an absolute treat and privilege to see and hear these poets together.

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