Rāwāhi by Briar Wood.
Auckland: Anahera Press (2017).
RRP: $25. Pb,
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
Briar Wood’s poetry collection, Rāwāhi, opens with a founding myth: of Kuramarotini, a chief’s daughter, embarking on the navigation from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. Her husband has been tricked and left behind, replaced by Kupe, and together they set sail towards a new life. However, with such a rocky start she doubts her desires and choices as they journey onwards in search of landfall.
Rāwāhi can be translated as abroad, the other side, or overseas. The predominant setting of Wood’s collection – and the slippery, dangerous, and ever-dismissive motif – is the intermediary of the wild ocean. It is a site of travel and movement, of transition for its human visitors – and individual emotions towards it range the whole gambit from awe at its beauty and power, to boredom, hesitation, and fear. There is the ‘inveterate traveller/…weary in a waka/ on the open sea’ (“Kuramarotini”, p1), or the settler, the peasant farmer, who has come from the island of Terceira all the way to Northland, and who holds the ‘high-seas glint/ still in his eyes’ (“Scrimshaw”, p 5). The ocean itself is chameleon-like, able to spit out, reject or drown people, or to be placid: all-in-all te moana, the ‘ceaseless sea’, with its ‘wake of whitewater’ and ‘plankton-swashing seas’ (“Solstice Dolphins”, p 3).
The sea is not only a crossing point for people both physically and symbolically as they depart one shore and hope to arrive at another. It is also the home of endless wildlife, and vibrant and alive. Birds of all species have swooped by to ‘chatter of belonging’ (“Swallow Stitch”, p 60), whereas in the bays orca and dolphins sport, or schools of fish lift and shift in the surf (“Once at Lowender Peran”, p 36). Also engaged in the landscape are various narrators who observe the sea and its surroundings from the decks of ships or from the safety of windows and views from the coast. One intones that: ‘Today the ship loads up/ with business and bonhomie;/ not much sign of the god/ except the sky rolling on and on,/ long and deep as a song’ (“Rangiputa”, p 4).
Other poems travel far and wide in specific time and place. Scotland, Ireland, and the coast of Cornwall are places that the poet holds dear. A substantial portion focuses on experiences in these locations and the ever-present pull of history and language. In Kilmartin Glen she had mostly come to ‘greet the stones,/ to walk where the ancestors had walked,/…to put a foot in the print at Dun Ad,/…to sit in Temple Wood among bluebells’ (“Kilmartin Glen”, p 25). Many are anecdotal, of strangers she has met, of eating breakfast with ‘a retired professor,/ a loved-up couple gobbling sausages’ (“Tulach”, p 27); the everyday and mundane which forms the memories of holidays and travel. Some pieces drench themselves in the language of the place, and, to a New Zealand reader unfamiliar, come across as impression only, and poetic expression, more about the drift of the words and their evocations. She speaks of the sounds of waves which ‘twirled and fizzed, hwythfians, lanow,/ brisk as boats bouncing close to shore’ (“Once at Lowender Peran”, p 36), and, in “Cuairt”, that ‘the lifeboat floats/ on wordflows/ skittering skiff scud/ scooting skathweyth/ skewed into the tide/ riding and gliding/ interisland aiseag’ p 39). Alliteration and lively description frequently abound.
Still more of her memories, real, elaborated, or imagined, are set in Russia and Paris. “Petrograd Stopover” (p 30) unusually is political, with a contemporary focus, looking at religion and persecution, international summits, and the role of campaigners. More time appears to have been spent in and therefore devoted to Paris, and these pieces read as stories, of a day’s long venturing by foot through the city. Frequently Wood’s poems have a modern setting, as she wanders through a place, yet the past, enigmatic, intrudes, stirring up thoughts of earlier times.
Wood’s collection incorporates times past, future, and present, mingling real states with fiction, myth, and memory. Yet, meaning refuses to be placed, and much like the sea, it is mutable. “One World” exemplifies this play of language and meaning, of that beyond reach, where, looking out to sea, ‘the sand shifts, slides, silts, stretches behind/ among dun dune flanks, drifts, banks, fleshing the beach,/ creates a seascrape, placates the waves that break,/ wet-mouthed, in a language that cannot be deciphered…’.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.