(Anton Blank Ltd, 2015)
Review by Anne Curran
The book leads in with the poetry of Arapera Blank and, interspersed between poems, the eye-catching photographs taken by her Swiss immigrant husband Pius Blank. Her poetry is an entrancing collection of words and art that captivates me from start to finish with its craft, emotive depths, and topic choice. I have to agree with the sentiment contained in a quotation from the Foreword: ‘Looking at the writing and the pictures, there’s a romance and exuberance to the whole package; it’s very optimistic and joyful’ (p.8). The book cover itself showcases a magnificent photo of the couple.
The poetry begins by celebrating her love for her husband, Pius. One of these poems, “For Pius”, weaves together strands of love, landscape, and spirituality to capture, quite simply, the blessedness of love in anyone’s life. The final verse in her poem (my favourite verse) makes clear the link in her thinking between faith, love and landscape.
Blue sky soft
penetrating aged bones
Grant your whanau peace.
(“For Pius”, p.15)
A poem further along in the collection, “Ko Wai tenei?”, explores the question of identity, of ‘who am I?’, with directness, humour and passion. This poet is a woman who writes that she has thought long and hard about her purpose in life, as defined by the self and by others, and her conclusion at its possibilities is filled with optimism and sassiness.
And do you know?
I am the opposite
To what is said!
and all that
An independent, industrious,
Woman, a Māori
(“Ko wai tenei?” p.21)
Further interesting poems in this collection explore issues related to essence of self and to the writer’s place in the world, and sometimes raise more questions, with that wry sense of amusement.
Ah but if those literary critics
Approved of Mills and Boon,
This cursed exam would be a breeze!
(“Suffering a literary examination”, p.52)
I also enjoyed the second section titled Fiction. Its five short stories tell of important life experiences for the author, like going off to University, starting school, and entertaining guests at the family home. These stories explore themes of identity related to family, to education, and to Māoritanga; they delight the reader with their authenticity, warmth and humour. With a voice both confiding and relatable, the author shares what she knows and doesn’t know, and what she is called upon to learn, in settings where the rules and values are new to her.
The first wonderful short fiction in this section, “Yielding to the New”, describes Marama’s coming-ofage when she leaves home to go to University. At first, she is made to feel naïve and ignorant by the University teachings, even when it comes to her own culture. She suffers homesickness. Some of the ideas she picks up challenge her traditional roots: ‘What did it matter if girls got babies before they were married? What did it matter if you didn’t go to church on Sundays?’ (p.74) She is called on to reconcile her new thinking with a return to her traditional home community.
Another notable piece in this collection is the delightfully amusing account of welcoming Pākehā visitors to the family home. The father and mother have to compromise quite different ideas about what should matter when inviting guests into their home: ‘I felt sad at my mother’s lamentations. I hadn’t realised that she felt so deeply about how the house looked.’ (p.78) The story details the preparations made by this family in honour of their guests’ enjoyment, topics of dinner table conversation, and those manners observed by the children for their visitors’ benefit.
Arapera Blank’s Essays completes the book. These five essays provide informative, historical, cultural and authorial perspectives on a variety of topics, from turning the humble kumara crop to international travelogues by the author, from the role and status of Māori women to the education of Māori girls. Throughout, the author questions whether perspectives are changing and how they are doing so. There is considerable reading in this final section: some of the essays are short, some long, some entertaining, some dry, but all of them structured and finely crafted to make easy reading. You could put them down and pick them up again at leisure.
I recommend that you read this book for its freshness and vitality of perspectives, and for its original and entertaining insight into aspects of the author’s world, her journey and that of her family and forebears.