Review by Jeremy Roberts
In the dedication for Flow, author Airini Beautrais recaps how the Whanganui River was granted legal personhood by the Te Awa Tupua Bill in March 2017. It is, of course, a natural reaction to think of the Māori connection and moral rights when considering the famous river in most contexts. She states: ‘…the significance of the relationships between Whanganui iwi and the river cannot be adequately addressed by a Pakeha writer’, thereby addressing this potential issue. It is worth noting that six generations of her family have experienced living in the region.
Almost all the poems are set on a timeline, from colonial days onwards. In fact, some Māori voices are heard and presences felt, but it always feels convincing — especially since there is usually a historic truth or known story underlying the poem involved. The geology and sociology of the region are both used in historical and contemporary contexts. Beautrais places a Whanganui proverb at the very start of the book: ‘Where there is a body of water, people settle / and where people settle, legends unfold’.
Flow is divided into three sections — Catchment, A Body of Water, and The Moving Sand. There are maps provided for each of the three sections.
The poems in Catchment all have Māori place names and dates attached, from the mid-19th century to the present day. The provided map illustrates the catchment area for the river. In “Plotlines – Waimarino, 2013”, Beautrais declares, ‘The greatest stories of all time are geological’. You only need to think of climate change to know that humanity is indeed playing second fiddle on planet Earth.
“Clear Away – Ōrākau, 1864” personifies the landscape, and their voices tell a story of colonial warfare. For example: ‘Orchard: They carved their bullets from my wood’; ‘Field: With every booming shell, I shook’; ‘Palisade: Surrounded, Rewi ordered: ‘Fire!’; and ‘Fern: Some of the wounded, women. They were bayonetted where they lay’. This is an effective, simple method of getting inside history, playing with the idea that the landscape is alive, with a stake in human activity.
One striking feature of the collection is the use of rhyme, which helps to make many poems very accessible. They would be a wonderful resource for school children to learn about NZ history. For those in the poetry community who tend to look down at the use of rhyme — and I know there are some — this collection is a timely rebuttal to that hang-up. I like the way history’s narrative can be ‘locked-in’ with use of rhyme. Like songs. The final stanza in “Clear Away” reads:
The living swam and found a track.
The Pakeha were falling back.
South of here they journeyed on.
Clear away. Then they were gone.
In “Pigs, Potatoes – Te Kumi, 1883”, two worried Government railway surveyors have been captured by a tribe who oppose the railway (‘They name two pigs for us, to kill, and cook, / and feast upon’). They are rescued by the famous and controversial Māori leader Te Kooti: ‘‘It is I, it is I, my children,’ comes his voice. / It is Te Kooti. All of us rejoice’. This is an intriguing scene, a rich blend of history and invention, that makes you want to learn more.
In “Roads – Central Plateau, 2013”, Beautrais describes her own researching road trip in thirteen stanzas: ‘I want to find the Whanganui intake… looking for Rene Beautrais I, and Elizabeth. How we link to France and Ireland… I find the grave, scratch lichen from the headstone’. It (justifiably) shows the reader she has genuine roots in this river-region, and that she also conducted research in the physical world.
“Tree-oh! – Kākahi, 1914” tackles the industry of logging, but not as a criticism. It is a trade — a working life. The call of ‘tree-oh!’ rings out, as the whistle-boy, the bushmen, the hauler, the brakey, and the saw doctor all go about their noisy work. ‘There’ll be a strange peace settles here / with all the bushmen gone’. It’s refreshing to see this non- judgemental perspective from a contemporary New Zealand author, instead of politically correct hand- wringing.
A relationship-triangle gone bad in Bulltown is the focus in “Only Dancing – Kākahi, 1916”. The dangers of flirtation and rumours lead to jealousy on the part of a husband and ultimately, murderous revenge: ‘Pea-rifle pressed against her head, / you fired. Then one by one, / you went to each of your six kids / and beat them with the gun’. Possibly based on real events, it is a narrative snapshot of domestic violence one hundred years ago.
In “What sport to-night? – Ōngarue, 1953”, Beautrais has fun creating a fifties rugby club’s fundraising evening, with an Antony and Cleopatra pantomime for entertainment. A young man in drag is playing Cleopatra: ‘My borrowed lipstick has a stale fat scent… I hear a call, / ‘Where’s Cleopatty?’ …I stub the butt, adjust / my padded bra. I could get used to this’.
“This’ll do me – Ōngarue, 1962” is an account of stealing, given by career thief, prison-escapee and folk hero George Wilder: ‘Keys are often kept in trouser pockets, / and this is where I find them… The master’s key, / hello, hello, fits nicely in the safe’. He hears the police bullets ‘whizz and ping off panel and roof’ and loves to hear Howard Morrison sing ‘George, The Wild(er) N.Z. Boy’. Beautrais has paid tribute to this genuine nugget of Kiwiana in a delightful way.
“Treetops – Pureora, 1978” offers a first-person account of a dramatic protest against the clearing of a forest, which involves the protesters climbing high up into a canopy. The entire poem (twelve four-line stanzas) reads like a series of direct quotes from one of the participants, like answers to a reporter’s questions: ‘I knew what we would have to do… went and got a camping permit. There was not / one law being broken… We’d climbed a lot of trees as boys, / but never ones as big as these’. Poetry-journalism.
In the second section, Body of Water, the undated poems have a mostly contemporary feel, and, as the map indicates, focus on areas close to the river, and the river itself.
“Puanga” is a lovely observation of a primary school classroom where young students lead the learning. The opening couplet reads, ‘The children are making the river. / They have sand and pumice. They have ferns’. There are Maori games: ‘…the swish of piupiu, / tread of feet, / pat of plastic poi’, and the children are learning about the stars: ‘Puanga is the star / we look for in the new year’. Beautrais has made a beautiful collage of sensual learning experiences: ‘The children …are weaving stars …the smell of damp air / the smell of burning sugar’.
The title poem “Flow” is a chant that uses geology terms and associated actions involved in the movement of water, from the mountain to the sea. Humanity is also woven into the lines. Water flows ‘to the stone, to the hill, to the heap, to the seep…to the bush…to the bend…to the surge, to the flood…to the town…to the swell, to the ebb, to the well, to the sea’. There are ninety-one words used in this simple framework, spread over six stanzas. It is a powerful, moving construction — one that demands to be read aloud.
Beautrais has not ignored animals in her consideration of the region. “Whio – Blue duck / Hymenolaimus malacorhyncho” is a short description built around her observation of sound, colour and knowledge of conservation: ‘The low guttural groan, / the whistle… They wear / a monetary hue. / Hard to come by, that blue’. She is referring to the ten-dollar note, of course, and the fact that these ducks currently face extinction. Like many poems in this book, this one transcends the regional setting.
“Trout – Oncorhynchus mykiss / Salmo trutta” has a stand-alone typography, with zig-zagging broken lines telling the journey of trout from birth, all the way to the fisherman’s hook. The fisherman calls: ‘Come, fish, break from your hollow / Be rose- moled, be of sufficient weight / to meet your fate / on the thin line you follow’ — something to sing while you wait for a bite.
Now for some famous missionaries. Reverend Taylor, Bishop Selwyn, and Father Lampila are the subjects of “Fire”, a long poem with a considered layout. This is indeed a historical poem, including details about their work in Aotearoa, interactions with Māori and each other, and relationship to the landscape. It tells of the success of Christianity with many Māori: ‘God cut a clump of reddish clay / breathed moist on it and made a man, / This truth fits neatly with native knowledge: / they will take to heart what Taylor teaches’. A memorable image describes the arrival of Lampila: ‘…like a lash of Catholic lightning / comes Father Lampila’. Bishop Selwyn ‘wades the wild waters’. At his death, the much-loved Taylor — Te Teira to Māori of Whanganui — is ‘laid to rest in a sandy rise… the stories he has told / still moving in the air’. This poem is a creatively arranged, informative springboard for readers who have not heard of these European men.
“Summer” is a funky, narrative piece about a wandering bard, his lifestyle, and surrounding community. The sensual opening couplet references Baxter’s commune: ‘You must’ve stunk, musky, skunky hippie / walking up the road to Jerusalem’. This poem reeks of 1970s bohemianism, and the truism that good times, with no responsibilities, cannot last forever. The poet drifts through landscapes of easy-riders and children, including Pakeha and Māori women: ‘Youth stretched in the grass, / deep in Dickens …a Greek woman smiles / under the road-sign at Athens… A girl writes the marae names / in her curly script’. The observer remembers: ‘You used to hold your arms / out, cruciform… Guitar slung over your groin… The sun has written / lyrics in your skin’, but maybe it’s time to drop the pose: ‘It is Christmas. / Kate is waiting for you. / And Mary has a cake in the oven’.
Beautrais’ “Flood” consists of monologues where the characters (including a playground brontosaurus) each say their piece. A ‘riverbank mum’, a ‘hill country farmer’, ‘a valley dweller’, ‘road-clearing volunteers’, and a ‘plateau lifestyler’, all tell it how it is – what they’ve been through, and what it means. There are chilling, final words of warning from the flood (who speaks three times): ‘What seemed safe isn’t, what you thought stood still / is fraught with flux… You live astride two moving chunks of crust… but strip it bare: / you must prepare. / I’ll be the worst that you have ever known’.
The final section, The Moving Sand, consists of shorter pieces, including snapshots of people’s lives in a variety of time zones, alongside a number of ecology statements. The opening poem “Geology” tells us: ‘Sea nicked the gently tilted peneplain… The lines of cliffs / were cut by waves… the moving sand / rolled in again… And all this time the wind blew…’ Forces – that we can only accept.
In “The Long Wait”, Kupe tells his fellow migrants ‘to eat the wind’ instead of food. They face an uncertain future, and the voice in the poems says: ‘To make the water safer, we gave it a name’. It’s easy to imagine the scene unfolding.
“Constable” storyboards some wild colonial days in a first-person account: ‘As we approached the wharves I fired my gun / to tell them law and order had arrived’. The constable is a stranger in town, and seeks out the magistrate on a swampy landscape. He offers thanks to God, when a ‘shabby man’ offers shelter and food. This poem is like an old sepia photo brought to life. Beautrais deftly constructs a history of simple humanity.
Like a letter to local government, “Shifting Sand” is a plea for people to think carefully, see the whole picture, and be aware of the ‘long-term’ when considering making changes to the environment. The climate change ‘industry’ will not always get things right and can waste a lot of money, and ‘when a hundred-year flood becomes a fifty-year flood, stopbanks / will fail’.
The classic Kiwi family holiday is the setting for trouble in “Holiday Park”. The narrator remembers a day when her father and, by extension, the family, was involved in a couple of violent incidents: ‘…there were six guys, they tried to like stab him and stuff. / We called the cops’. Beautrais is inclusive and forthright in her depiction of New Zealand family experiences: ‘I remember crying to Mum, ‘I’m too young to not have a dad’, the narrator adds.
“Blood and sand” is a short, sinister piece about revenge against a brutal Pakeha captain from a Māori tribe during violent colonial days. The justification is given here: ‘Joe Rowe… we saw his goods. / The moko on our people’s heads. / He heard us weep. He stood and laughed. / He heard us beg for them. He scoffed.’ Utu is soon delivered: ‘I touch the club beneath my cloak. / I watch the veins rise in his neck. / I watch him take his last few breaths’.
In “Meat workers”, the old ‘chestnut’ of the workers vs the bosses is under the spotlight. It’s a hard life and there’s trouble at the meat works — a classic Kiwi headline. The summary mantra about the bosses’ agenda is repeated: ‘If they don’t break our bones, they’ll break our will’. Despite the bosses saying ‘there’s nothing doing with kicking shit about’, the workers are out on the street, protesting: ‘They’ve stopped our pay, but they can’t stop our feet’. The seed of Marxism lives on.
“The long wait II” is a continuation of the aforementioned poem, a generation or so following the arrival of Kupe. The Māori settlers have already named the birds. A woman’s voice tells a story of nervously running away with two men (‘named for birds’) from legendary Māori, Hau: ‘Hau always had to see his vengeance done. / I knew that he’d be wild when I went south…’ They lie in the grass, waiting for a river she knew ‘from stories’, to become calm enough to cross. But, there is no escape: ‘His voice was in the waves, their heavy thrum. / Somewhere he’d find me, turn me into stone’. This type of dramatic creation by Beautrais is deeply engaging and she once again shakes the past free from old acid-eaten documents, monotone photographs, and what is in museums.
Beautrais is without question an inspired and dedicated writer (her first book Secret Heart won Best First Book of Poetry in the Montana Awards in 2007). Flow is a well-researched, highly informative, and accessible body of work — a literary taonga for the Whanganui River and region, and beyond. It could also easily have the subtitle How to write poems about history. Flow must also be a serious contender for an award nomination. When you read this book, you will not see this region the same way again.