Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble

Poūkahangatus. Tayi Tibble (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2018). ISBN 9781776561926. RRP $20. 80pp.

Reviewed by Stella Carruthers

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Medusa-like, a young woman stares fixedly from the cover of Tayi Tibble’s debut poetry collection. She does not quite meet your eyes. Her hair is purple-black and seething. Pink eyeshadow plasters her lids. Her fringe is blunt and short. She has her arms wrapped around her breasts in a gesture of apparent modesty. However, this gesture only seems to accentuate her voluptuous femininity.

In Tibble’s work, she celebrates the feminine voice and its contemporary concerns. The book is dedicated to her mum, and it also feels like Tibble could have written this collection for her own future daughters.

As the name Poūkahangatus suggests, the collection is a melting pot of pop culture references and historical associations. Playing with the name of Native American Disney princess Pocahontas, Tibble has made her own composite title for a woman who, as she writes in her collection’s title poem, is ‘floating between worlds’ (“Poūkahangatus”). This woman is floating between the traditional and the contemporary, between indigenous culture and the Western world, colonised and coloniser. Reality and a hoped-for-future, the remembered past and recorded memory.

Her position, as a young indigenous woman in Aotearoa New Zealand in the early 21st century, is one that is both singular and stained by a certain collective experience. Tibble’s voice rings true about issues of race, sex, and childhood. While these themes are expressed through her own personal stories, it also always feels like there is a bigger tale being told. Tibble is a strong voice adding to this wider national narrative, and she is putting her own stamp on history.

Tibble’s collection is not without its sexual politics. Written in the era of #MeToo, there is an interesting theme of sexual predation. For instance, in the poem “Pania”, which references the oceanic goddess, Tibble writes that ‘he ran his tongue over her bruised knees and she was immediately overwhelmed by the intimacy’. Later in the book, there is a hunger that speaks of a consuming desire: ‘She learns to eat off the land. / He is a dinner plate in denim jeans’ (“Black Velvet Mini”). However, it was unclear to me whether women were the ones being hunted, or the ones doing the hunting. Might they even be doing both? And what does that mean for the future of feminism and concerns around gender equity?

As a book that asks questions about the feminine experience, the poems in Poūkahangatus muse on issues of appearance and, by association, self-image. The book also shows a heightened awareness of trends and stereotypes. Consider Tibble’s words in the poem “Red-blooded Males”:  ‘I’m a modern city woman. / I practise mindfulness’. It’s a clear tongue-in-cheek moment that plays with the trope of the urban hipster.

However, this playfulness felt more than a little careless and self-conscious to me at times. There was a slightly irritating colloquialism and a flippant feel to some words. Take these lines in the poem “Scabbing”: ‘I fantasise about being his housewife. / I imagine the interviews in Woman’s Weekly.’ Or when Tibble asks in the title poem “Poūkahangatus”, ‘Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me and Nicole Scherzinger?’ To me, these statements seemed to reinforce feminine stereotypes of superficiality.

I wonder if this focus on the self and its many iterations is a certain millennial way of living in the world. Where we must laugh our way to hell (or over the train lines to Porirua) and back, because taking ourselves seriously means looking at things we’d rather ignore. I also wonder whether being self-conscious is something a young female indigenous poet needs. That is, she must be conscious of the self, because society only allows her to take up a certain amount of space.

Despite my hesitancies around voice, I do believe Tibble has made a place for herself in the New Zealand literary community. And she has made use of this space to make a place for people who are often not given the chance to speak, such as Māori, kids, and women. For example, she writes from the perspective of children in “Tangi in the King Country”, stating that ‘They had a cry because everyone else was having a cry’. In “Ode to Johnsonville’s Cindy Crawford”, Tibble comments that she ‘grew up reading Fashion Quarterly and the Bible’. Here, Tibble is in her element, combining popular and emotional references with a wry commentary on contemporary life.

Writing as a Māori woman, Tibble references a range of cultural concepts throughout the text. Sometimes they comment directly on cultural values. She also reveals her definition of family, which encompasses those bound by blood, iwi, passions, desires, and dreams. It also doesn’t seem to matter whether people are dead or alive, or even imagined. ‘She’s not my real nan / but I have always wished she was,” writes Tibble in “Our Nan Lets Us Smoke Inside”. Sometimes cultural motifs are also used as original imagery, such as when Tibble writes of someone who ‘rolls her eyes / like a tiny haka’ (“Assimilation”).

Despite the light-hearted references to pop culture, Tibble’s collection handles contemporary imagery in a sensitive way to speak of difficult truths. For example, in her poem “Takeaways”, Tibble comments that

the only time they ever got
happy meals / was when it was the hardest to be / __.

These lines show Tibble’s adept use of seemingly superficial references to hint at darker themes and wider issues. In this way, she is also able to connect through the minutiae of daily life at a very personal level.

Tibble’s Poūkahangatus is a book of pretty poetic problems and a search for their meanings. I see her as someone who has successfully negotiated the bending boundary between the beautiful and the banal, the damn tough and a range of essential truths, as well as personal narratives and a wider cultural commentary. Poūkahangatus feels a little bit like a road map through some of the problems that we as individuals, communities, and as a nation, face. I think we should be grateful that this map has been made in such a manner that it is also so beautiful.

Stella Peg Carruthers is a Wellington-based writer. A published poet, she is working on her debut novel that explores the power of literature to change lives.

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