Atonement and ternion by Vaughan Rapatahana

Atonement (Hong Kong: MCCM Creations & ASM/Flying Island Books, 2015) and ternion (Liverpool: erbacce-press, 2017).

Review by Nicola Easthope

In each of these collections, Vaughan Rapatahana’s poems jostle and glide with passion and compassion for the quirks, joys, and injustices of human experience. An utterly distinctive poet and storyteller, who interlinks te reo Māori, Tagalog, Cantonese, and English languages with ease and purpose, Rapatahana traverses the cultural, political, and personal experiences of a life encompassed by Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Aotearoa.

Atonement comes in an attractive palm-sized (A6) format, with cover illustration of an open book on a wooden table, inviting poetic communion. This collection contains a series of bitingly observed, Hong Kong vignettes, capturing the encroachment of modernisation since ‘… taxis / & / other touts / disgorged / sovereignty / 60 years ago…’ (“kwai shing”). Some of the characters these poems feature include an old man in a soup kitchen, ‘scurfy school kids’, and Māui weaving through the crowds, ‘… rather like / a politician – …’ (“māui in Lan Kwai Fong”). Māui takes pride of place in Rapatahana’s far-reaching, transformative poem, “so māui hooked up hong kong island”. The poet turns secession of Hong Kong back to China on its head, with the eye of the semi-divine mythological hero of Aotearoa on ‘… that LUMBERING HULK… / a far bigger fish to fry’. There is no room for Britain to feature in this one.

Rapatahana has an admirably endless supply of fresh similes and pathetic fallacies to conjure up any time of day, week or season. The opening poem encapsulates the poet’s signature style, playing with white space and melding imagery with the visual-and-aural-pun shape of his words on the page:

the day is an elephant;
warped tusks of sun
strive to c
the corpulent gray conspiracy.
(“a hong kong september”)

Rapatahana often takes the daily arc of the sun as a springboard for emotional reflections and the broader observations of people and places:

The dawn picks itself up
from crumple of night
and shakes its skinny shoulders
like a blind dog…
(“any given SARsday”)


I’m not sure of the stylistic reasons for an entirely lowercase collection of poem titles, first words and most place names, but it suits the size and intimacy of this volume.

Finally, the personal poems often ache with grief and regret or the lack of: past loves, cultural identity, and the harrowing honesty of an estranged father losing his son to suicide. Atonement is an aptly-wrought collection of enjoyable, provocative, often moving poems to put in your pocket for an inclement day, a bright dawn, a mass transit railway ride.

Rapatahana’s more recent collection, ternion, continues to pay tribute to people he loves and admires (including poets such as Tusiata Avia, Apirana Taylor and Hone Tuwhare, as well as Janis Joplin), a life straddling the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Aotearoa, and the triplicity of languages beaten and boasting, colonised and colonising, celebrating, and mourning.

The first few poems honour a lost love, a father’s death, and visit ancestral memorials and urupā, with confronting and tender frankness. Two subsequent poems tackle the poetic process, including writer’s block, which is kind of reassuring but hard to imagine Rapatahana ever suffering from, so prolific is his pen!

Over the course of this collection, Rapatahana freestyles on a linguistic trapeze, flying from the audacious heights of “aroha mai, apirana” and “railing against”, where he castigates the English language by bastardising all manner of big words to illuminate the spoils of its colonial and global reach:

my garotte hands flex
any nearest extempore –
                        schwa; tmesis; zeugma; umlaut –
                        [???what are these???, I gag]

to asphyxiate its squawky whimpers,
exsiccate its spongy velar
supplicate its fancy frissons
into brute submission.
(“aroha mai, apirana”)

Rapatahana’s poetry demonstrates how you can simultaneously love using the English language and rage against the way it’s been used to dominate and subsume other cultures and languages. Furthermore, poems like “before the whiteman came” and “‘rua kenana century” challenge the enduring injustices of colonisation, asking what has really changed since the Ngatapa Massacre in 1869 and the raid on Tūhoe at Maungapōhatu in 1916. Poems like these cut to the quick, and could effectively complement the teaching of New Zealand history in our schools.

At other times in ternion, Rapatahana sails into more straightforward English, especially when accompanying the primary text in te reo Māori. It is refreshing to see a series of poems privileging the indigenous language of Aotearoa, with the English translation on the following page, rather than the other way around. ‘kua whiti ngā tau tonu’ (“it has been seven years already”) is one such stand out, a simple and evocative love song to his wife.

The poems in ternion face loss, alienation, conflict, love, friendship and the existential quest — and questions — of living head-on. As an advocate for the survival and revitalisation of indigenous languages, and a proponent of radical social justice and reform, Rapatahana’s poetic voice, in both collections, is wholly unrestrained. There are poems here for the language-and-music loving ear, and poems for the conscious heart. Though at times challenging in subject and lexis (more than one high school English teacher will be sent scrambling repeatedly for their Oxfords), Vaughan Rapatahana writes life as he knows it, to exhilarating effect.