leaving my arms free to fly around you by Nicola Easthope

(Steele Roberts, 2011)

Review by Vaughan Rapatahana

I seem to have recently reviewed a steady babble of poetry books written by women poets who have either been born overseas and then travelled ultimately to Aotearoa to reside, or – conversely – who were born in Aotearoa but then went on an extended O.E. before balik*. And here is yet another!

For Nicola Easthope meets the above criteria too. She cannot claim Aotearoa as her tūrangawaewae by birth – she’s tauiwi with an Orkney Island, Celtic and Sassenach heritage, who has settled on the Kapiti Coast, after ‘growing up’ in Wellington.

But the good – no, let me be rapturously honest here and state the great – news is that Nicola has avoided the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, opting instead for the Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing at Whitireia Community Polytechnic.

Easthope does not get into bed with irony for irony’s sake, which is another way of saying she’s not pretentious and playing poetic party tricks, eh. No ‘academic’ references, allusions and name-droppings of personages and events. There are no Notes at the back either, for Chrissakes! Wow. I’m smiling as I write this. Nor is she – gleefully I prate this too – an Anglophilic poet, despite her heritages.

For as Witi Ihimaera once stated as regards postcolonial & postmodern positionings, given here with regard to Māori writers: “I take the essentialist position only with respect to maintaining a sense of Māori identity… Of course, my work goes to and fro across that essentialist boundary”. I here also postulate that there is also another separate big room in the Aotearoa mansion of poetry – for Pākehā New Zealand poets with a cruxial personal identity, a heart, a conscience, a sense of humour, a sense of being a multifaceted and multicultural Kiwi tied tightly to their country by more than economic exigency, and not always gazing longingly towards Dover. The room is still severely under-populated, but Easthope certainly has a foot in the door. There’s an authentic cosmopolitanism at large here suffusing through her verse as best displayed in the titular poem.

So, significantly, Nicola makes a fine effort to settle into the stew that is society in Aotearoa, and, furthermore, to incorporate ngā kupu Māori kei konei. Ka nui te pai tēnei hoki.** Never (generally) gratuitous either in doing so and palpably a tribute to her “phenomenal tutor” Renēe, at Whitireia.

I would like now to purvey some specific examples of Easthope’s craft, notably her vivacity of imagery, for she can avowedly write well across a glissade of specific themes to do with exile and return, relationships and men, ‘teaching’ English, and the pains and gains of pregnancy and birth. She is a poet good ‘n’ proper, yunno.

His face was an element left on overnight

(in a poem that is a set of rhyming metaphors entitled ‘The Spanish vagrant’, whilst another excellent poem, ‘Watching you sleep’, is one extended metaphor.)

Rubbed eyes are kina
prickling with sleep

                     The sky is a thin blue boy
           hurrying south
               home from school

a black day in his satchel

And perhaps the apex of her craft, embodying what I am prattling on about in this brief review as regards a multi-focal vista being not only thematically but also formulaically set in place for our comfortable engagement – is the excellent ‘Lesson plan: wide reading’ which has a Pākehā writing as Tūwhare and not the other way around for once, eh. I would love to type it all out here, but there’s no more space. Suffice to say Nicola writes her best verse as grounded here – home in Aotearoa.

Kia ora mo tau ruri Nicola. He timata pai na he tākapu mohio!

[Thanks for your pithy poems Nicola. A fine start by an intelligent gannet!]

* balik – Tagalog and Bahasa Melayu for return/come back

**…ngā kupu Māori kei konei. Ka nui te pai tēnei hoki. – …Māori words here. This is also excellent.