Vaughan Rapatahana – Atonement

Atonement cover

Atonement by Vaughan Rapatahana.
Hong Kong: MCCM Creations & ASM/Flying Island Books (2015).
RRP: $11.
Pb, 124pp.
ISBN: 9789881311511.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.


Vaughan Rapatahana is a Maori poet, long resident in Hong Kong, with homes also in the Philippines and New Zealand. He has published fiction, language, critique, poetry and philosophy. Atonement is a pocket-sized book with poems by Vaughan Rapatahana, artwork by Pauline Canlas Wu and musical score by Darren Canlas Wu.

Atonement may seem a somewhat perplexing collection to those readers unfamiliar with Rapatahana’s style of writing, especially if one is looking for semantic connections between signifier and signified. Take, for example, the first poem “a hong kong september” which begins:

the day is an elephant;
warped tusks of sun
strive to c
the corpulent gray conspiracy.

The poem tumbles down the page with changes in font size and language that may baffle some readers. As a poet and critic, I recognise that some poems in the collection tend towards clarity, while others are ambiguous. For the most part, Rapatahana’s verse tends towards the latter, which means that rather than attempting interpretation, one needs to look at the lyrical elements and the phonological attributions. Atonement is the kind of poetry which is much closer to music than it is to verse written in the lyric or narrative modes.

A case in point is “tin heng supper” with its tanka-like beginning, “down tin heng / tears / are insufficient / mere tinkles / in the w i d e r pool”, which is then followed by a string of words with wider spacing, capital letters and italics:

C.S.S.A. doesn’t feed
the anguish,
s p I n  o u t
a week of dry dim sum
weak lai cha

In short, the language has been clipped, curtailed and made excitingly strange.

In the poem “it’s 3 a.m. in papatoetoe”, the poet begins with a seemingly simple statement:

& ginger & algy
were there too,
fully muffed
goggled headgear,
their gauntlet fists
the spitfire nub

However, the poem becomes a series of fluctuations on a par with the linguistic
transformations which characterise the verse, such as we see at the end of the poem:

his skinny son

dan dar & his mekon

every week
without fail.

There is a disturbing strangeness about some of the poems and at the same time there is the familiarity of everyday experience, as we see in “on the mtr with Hone”:

hone tuwhare
plopped down/ next to me
on the train today;
same grey plumage ‘n’ paunch
same big grin
s p r a w l e d all
o v e r
his ngutu lips
I swear
o my goodness me,
he had half a finger thick
up nearhisnostrils too . . .

I’m hooked after just one stanza. It’s not so much that I want to know more about the poet’s association with the famous poet Hone Tuwhare, but I want to know more about the storyteller. His voice, his juxtaposition of detail and the way in which he delivers this wonderful poem of a meeting with a poet he admires.

There is so much to admire in the individual poems: the ability of the clever storyteller to draw us into a poem we may think has nothing to with us, and then to discover it’s one we understand. We can be left bereft by the use of Maori words, odd phrasing, unusual words, erratic layout, etc. but then we come to the stunning simplicity of a poem such as “[a lament [for the dead]” with its series of questions, and no real answers –

ah ah ah
what’s the story

what’s the lonely song
of these very lost people?

who wants
this difficult life?

who knows
a new rationale?

So straightforward the titles appear in the table of contents, so complicated and poignant when we travel into the poems. By the time we depart from “auckland triptych”, we know history and geography, myth and parable, cultural and private life and much more. In “heirs to lelaki”, the poet tells the reader:

in their feckless abstinence
from any fecund input
these ‘men’ reign supreme
an ambassadors of sloth.

they cruel their spouses

layabout s t r a y I n g
serial adultery,

But meanwhile the surreal association of these poems and their detail are the experiences of a poet living in contemporary cultures attempting, through language, to bring order from the chaos and absurdity around him. This is a collection of poems about so many things. In fact, “APA London – today relegated” may be a window into the collection, where past and future are conflated:

seems today,
will be relegated
to the
after first round
of diurnal spirits.

declared winner,
as time

These are poignant poems, humorous poems, ironic and political poems. Before time runs out, there are relationships to attend to; people to love; people to mourn; places to visit and memories as we see in the poem “in a café, on a boulevard”:

that might
have been you and me

behind that
opaque frontage;

a memory

Wandering through these poems, the reader may often feel a bit lost, there must be some clues, some inside joke, some linguistic bridge to discover. It is an intriguing exercise, windows both lightened and darkened along the way, but it is a worthwhile journey with much to be discovered along the way.

Patricia PrimePatricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako, reviews editor of Stylus, assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose.

T86 cover small

First published
takahē 86
April 2016