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Jun 10, 2012

Hone Tuwhare

When people of my generation think of Hone Tuwhare, the first words that come to mind are still No Ordinary Sun, the title of his first published collection in 1964. It’s also the title of the most famous poem in that collection, a very subtle and lyrical protest at the Bomb.

For me, the next thoughts are memories of being present twice when Hone Tuwhare was reading his own works. He had the knack of reading what was appropriate to his audience, and reading with vigour and a sense of enjoyment. So I was one of the university students who rocked with laughter at his slightly bawdy poem “To a Maori figure cast in bronze outside the chief post office, Auckland” (from his 1972 collection Sap-Wood & Milk). Later, I was with a group of teachers listening to him entertaining schoolkids with his “Study in Black and White”, the one about a penguin in a fridge (also from Sap-Wood & Milk). Tuwhare was happy to share the idea of poetry with schoolkids as much as with adults. At one time poetry-reading school visits were a big part of is life.

The good humour of these readings is what I chiefly recall – and the separate audiences’ real appreciation of them. But then I remember that a good case could be made for Tuwhare as the best Maori poet ever to write in the English language. There’s a lot more to him than an engaging way with readings.

He was born in 1922. He died in 2008. A good collected edition of his work was overdue, and here it now is.

The title Small Holes in the Silence comes from the poem “Rain” in Tuwhare’s second collection Come Rain Hail (1970). But we must be careful about the subtitle Collected Works. As Janet Hunt’s introduction makes clear, this is a “collected” works, but it is not a “complete” works.

There are almost all the poems from every collection Tuwhare published between 1964 and 2005, and the book ends with twelve hitherto unpublished poems. But the editors have decided not to publish variant versions of the same poem as it appeared in different collections. They have not included a play and some short stories he wrote, and (wisely I think) they have avoided the juvenilia. I know, from looking at archived copies of the old communist paper the People’s Voice, that when Tuwhare was a young communist boilermaker he occasionally wrote ranty pieces of poetic agitprop. He remained alive to social issues all his life, and was generally on the Left in his attitudes. But I’m sure his ghost is perfectly happy that his kidstuff has been left in oblivion.

Though he used much Maori imagery and some Maori phrases, Tuwhare almost always wrote in English. In accordance with his wishes, a small number of his poems have been translated into Maori for this edition. The Maori language version of each is placed on the page opposite its English original. The translators were Selwyn Muru, Patu Hohepa, and Waihoroi Shortland. As a non-speaker of Maori, I’m in no position to comment on the translations.

What I can comment on, however, is the sheer pleasure of reading this collection whole.

If I say Tuwhare is an uneven poet, I’m only saying what is true of every poet. No poet is always on form and inevitably a large collection like this one will contain at least some poems that seem hasty or that don’t ring true. Tuwhare was aware that it was wrong to be tempted to write poems when ideas and inspiration were lacking. In his collection Making a Fist of It (1978), his poem “Aroha – Thoughts for a Tainui Lady” begins “A long time back in Time, you asked for a poem. I’m not / a machine, you know. I can’t turn them out like sausages.”

He didn’t turn them out like sausages, but he did sometimes write perishable protest poems that are now historical period pieces. Not that a protest poem was necessarily just a piece of graffiti. While his poem on the death of Martin Luther King just goes through the motions, the poem “Speak to Me, Brother” (addressed to a Maori soldier en route to Vietnam) is still a heart-wrencher. So too is the title poem of Making a Fist of It, a protest at South African apartheid, and a late poem like “Who are the real infidels?” from Deep River Talk (1994)

Reading from the beginning to Page 333, it was the evolution of Tuwhare’s perspective and style that was clearest to me. In his early collections, he is very much influenced by a traditional Romantic conception of the universe. There are overtones of Maori chant and of Biblical cadences, but (side-by-side with a colloquial and proletarian piece like “Monologue”) there is also much evocation of the moon, wind, cliffs and the sea, and the lonely heart contemplating death. You have to remind yourself that Tuwhare was in his forties when his first books appeared, and not in his twenties, as these are very much a young man’s poems.

As he develops, there is more gregarious geniality in his poetry, more openness to other people, less Romantic self-isolation. A poem like “Bus Journey, South” expresses how bewildered a Maori writer is in a largely Maori-less part of the South Island; but it still implies a community. Community is expressed in many poems written to friends and comrades (Ron Mason, Ralph Hotere, James K Baxter, Whina Cooper etc.) while “Walker”, from the 1974 collection Something Nothing, puts a wry adult construction on the moon-raging, shadow-fearful Romanticism of a child. Tuwhare now designates himself “a middle-of-the-road man”.

By the time you get to a poem like “Status Seeker’ (from the 1982 collection Year of the Dog) you have a mature, rich expression of the self which manages still to be lyrical.

I’m not pretending that I was familiar with all of Tuwhare’s poetry before reading Small Holes in the Silence. Much came as a surprise to me, but a welcome surprise. This is a great collection.

Footnote – it is usually thought very silly to comment on a book’s physical production when writing a review, but I must add that Small Holes in the Silence is a lovely piece of book production. It is a “soft hard-back” with a sturdy spine, good wide margins and a discreet number of illustrations, including reproductions of the original covers of each of Tuwhare’s collections. It does the poems proud.

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