Kaitiaki o te Pō: Essays by John-Paul Powley
Wellington: Seraph Press (2019)
Reviewed by Andrew Paul Wood
The reviewer, if they are very honest, is inevitably going to find a rather painful split in their heart over John-Paul Powley’s Kaitiaki o te Pō. On the one hand it is an indispensable collection of powerfully honest, take-no-prisoners essays by an historian whose seductively beautiful language is pure poetry as he picks over the wounds of New Zealand’s body politic. He writes as a schoolteacher, particularly of young Māori men. There are so many interesting and profound insights that it’s difficult to keep track as they fly at you in swarms, kicking you in the guts and shocking you out of comfortable complacency.
On the other hand, Powley’s tendency to judgemental didactics grates. This smacks one in the face in the first essay, establishing the significance of the title, the concept of Kaitiaki o te Pō, the guardians of the night or darkness, a speaker for the dead, noting Justice Joe Williams’ use of it to describe the job of the historian. It’s a brave thing for a Pākehā author to use a te reo Māori title without courting accusations of latter-day Maoriland pretensions.
In this essay he writes of the UK-based ex-pat friend who has recently died unexpectedly. The friend was a banker, which is obviously bad in Powley’s worldview, and so we are treated to a voyeuristic investigation of the friend’s relatively spartan bedroom in his London flat several years earlier. This is all presented unconvincingly on his word as evidence of an empty and unfulfilled life, and of course there’s no comeback when you’re dead. It seemed a little gratuitous.
Powley tackles very complex issues from environmentalism to colonial injustice, often starting from a point of personal experience. In one essay he addresses masculinity and gender from the experience of being bullied for permed hair (Grahame Thorne apparently having little influence on the national culture of young boys)and liking books and the ballet as a boy (the influence of his mother who sounds like a formidable lady more worthy of an essay than some of his topics), and the consternation of being assumed to be gay when not, and his desire to protect one of his students from being bullied, caught between different modalities of masculinity.
There is a certain amount of liability in this approach, however, as the millennial reader may find the framing anachronistic and the gay man who has experienced the dramas of homosexual law reform, the AIDS crisis and marriage equalisation will probably just roll his eyes. At points it feels like a hijacking of LGBTQIA+ identity politics. There are far worse things than being called a faggot and at the end of the day Powley is welcome to soothe his wounds with heterosexual privilege in a way a queer person cannot.
Another major essay is the one on Anzac Day. It strikes deep chords but doesn’t argue anything new. It begins with a condemnation of the myth that New Zealand’s national identity was forged on the beaches of Gallipoli, which erases the events of the New Zealand Wars and Boer War. This is entirely valid, but to completely dismiss this as a construct of “white New Zealand” ignores the large number of Māori who supported the war effort and rushed to sign up. Powley, for all his good intentions, has a habit of treating tangata whenua as a monolith to suit his politics.
New Zealanders are presented as unworldly then and now, naïve when it comes to global warfare, which reeks the cosy Pākehā liberal bigotry of lowered expectations. It’s also not particularly true. Even then some New Zealanders, including Māori, were very well-travelled indeed. Powley rightly critiques the image of “noble” and “willing” sacrifice, noting what happened to pacifists in those days, and that the military-centric nature of Anzac Day distracts from the civilian efforts, sacrifices and suffering. Imperialism is bad, m’kay?
And yet many signed up willingly out of patriotism, innocently or not. The army has its own culture, its way of grieving for its own. I rarely see the tone of triumphalism and aggression decried by people who have presumably only very peripheral experience of the memorial services (“So I don’t go to, and probably never will attend, the dawn service on Anzac Day” writes Powley). Something indeed happened to those men who fought at Le Bulge and Chunuk Bair, whether Powley is comfortable with the notion or not. The survivors returned changed and the dead didn’t return at all. The liberation of Le Quesnoy was a genuinely heroic event celebrated by the French to this day. Some things are resistant to humanist quibbling.
Powley is at his best when he is talking about education and drawing on his teaching experiences. When he gets into big picture stuff he relies overly much on rhetoric to do the heavy lifting rather than soundness of argument. I find it difficult to trust an author who refuses to acknowledge that fully realised, reasoned, nuanced and valid viewpoints may exist other than their own. I can’t settle comfortably into a book where the author rarely questions themselves or never experiences doubt about their opinions. That said, Kaitiaki o te Pō is worth the effort and should be read by all New Zealanders if only to have a clearer idea of what one agrees or disagrees with in terms of who we are as a nation.
Andrew Paul Wood is a Christchurch-based art writer and critic. He is takahē arts and essays editor.