Atonement by Vaughan Rapatahana

(Hong Kong: MCCM Creations & ASM/Flying Island Books, 2015)

Review by Maris O’Rourke

The fourth poetry collection from the multi-talented, prolific and loquacious Vaughan Rapatahana doesn’t disappoint.  Small in size, it is big and dense within — with over 50 poems that take us on some wide-ranging, internal and external journeys. They are short, pithy poems, usually one or two pages, with staccato rhythms, often one-word lines, and varied, often unusual, use of repetition, alliteration, metaphor, similes and other technical tools.

Like the poems, Rapatahana doesn’t stay within normal boundaries — he uses all the space on the pages, using words, fonts, space, shapes, photos and songs to produce meaning in more than one way, as with the poems ‘he patai’ (p.83), a question in the shape of a question mark, and ‘Ruby’s Place’, a musical score (p.123). Rapatahana has a strong command of language and an extensive vocabulary — I certainly had to look up a number of words!

Multicultural Rapatahana takes us with him on his travels around the world — Hong Kong, Philippines, Mauritius, Macao, London, Japan, New Zealand, USA, Israel and others — offering astute observations of our effect on our environment and each other, and the effect of the country and its history, people and behaviour upon him. All this in four different languages — Māori, English, Chinese and Tagalog, often on the same page, and with the occasional French, Latin or Greek word or phrase thrown in for good measure.

The haves and have-nots thread through Rapatahana’s poems as a consistent theme, as in the poems ‘tel aviv tramp’ (p.115), or ‘auckland triptych III’ (p.53):


so the PI guys

now hold

thin cardboard cups

as they squat



down the  w  i  d  e  pavements,


eyes trying

to grasp yours’

in guilt –


‘any spare change’ indeed –

          while ngā Māori

the inaugural

          still clean the bins



their  w a y w a r d



I’m sort of

wondering why

their      gaps      never go

how the classes




how now,

there’s so many

new kids



the block.

Then there are his reflections on Philippine men who “cruel their spouses ceaseless” in ‘heirs to lelaki’ (p.61) and the way he takes us around and into the underbelly of Hong Kong with old people pak pak/poh poh, homeless people and scurfy school kids.

Rapatahana often takes us into time of day (‘emasculate dawn’), the seasons (‘so winter’), and the weather: “snide rain, canine rain”, “squalling for a fight” (p.93), “scatterbrain rain” or “misanthrope mist”. We can feel the Santo Tomas deluge, “worse than any locust plague” (p.57) sweeping down on us — and breathe the heat and polluted air in Hong Kong.

Rapatahana ranges across time, too, as when he shows the effect of the USA “occupation” of Japan in the poem ‘nada near naha;’ and asks:

why are your conquistadores

the ones

behind    the    bars,

festooned    by    fences,

even there at all?

…and in ‘how hong kong happened’ (p.106), where he explores the aftereffects of British occupation and plundering. Or when mythologising how Māui hooked up Hong Kong island, while somehow missing ‘a far bigger fish to fry’ (p.27). Or when examining the disturbing, possible effects of Higgs Boson (‘the god particle’), which he links with the video game Tetris, as if we are all being played with. (p.76)

For me, the strongest poems were those where Rapatahana explores his personal history and Māori background. These often melancholy reflections dig deep, contemplating his return home to the east coast to evocative memories and an empty degraded environment, as in ‘kei whea te awa?’ (‘where is the river?’, p.45), or ‘he urupā mate’, where he contrasts the derelict cemetery with ‘tūtira mai’ and asks “engari kei wheanga iwi ināianei?” (‘but where’s the tribes now?’ p.40), or even his affecting summing-up in ‘he maimai’ (‘a lament for the dead’, p.47).

There is also the regretful poem about a forced reunion in ‘just me and the boy threshed backtogether’ (p.34), or recalling memories in ‘it’s 3 a.m. in papatoetoe’ of heroes Dan Dare and Biggles, contrasted with his father “while he snored the drunken kitchen table” (p.32). And the thought-provoking, final poem ‘down at ruby’s place’ (p.120) is notable.

There’s humour, too, with a quizzical reflection on Hone Tuwhare (p.43), where he asks:

but I tell you what maaan –


I’m gonna ask him

apopo, pea

why he looks so much

like a chinaman

these days.


…which, oddly enough, was exactly my thought when I looked at Rapatahana’s photo on the back cover!

There’s a lot to take in, in this multi-layered, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multicultural, small/big book of poems — like a long Chinese feast, it’s almost too much at times — but, as with a feast, worth savouring and lingering over. Kia ora ano.

A version of this review previously appeared in Scoop (15 September 2015).