Flow by Airini Beautrais.
Wellington: VUP (2017).
RRP: $30. Pb/flaps, 181pp.
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.
There was once a workshop led by a distinguished poet who was from Somewhere Else. During a class exercise, the poet suggested to a student that, maybe just perhaps, their work might be brightened by an occasional use of rhyme. “Rhyme!!” squawked the student in horror, “we don’t do rhyme here! This is Wellington!”
Fortunately, that was many years ago, and Wellington is different now – as Airini Beautrais beautifully demonstrates in her new collection, Flow: Whanganui River Poems. This book could itself be the basis of a class on forms: ballad, Sapphic verse, rhymed and unrhymed syllabics, sestina, tritina, villanelle, terza rima, sonnet, Anglo-Saxon meter (for starters). Sometimes the forms are followed strictly, sometimes not. The book is as well a history of the Whanganui River and its catchment, presenting a patchwork of natural history, human settlement, social and economic changes, all in an immensely readable collection.
The epigraphs for the first section, ‘Catchment’, are from Henry Lawson and William Pember Reeves; the section gives us history, nineteenth century and since, in styles appropriate to that time. The focus is on all the people of the Whanganui, and the poems are annotated with place names and dates, such as the ballad “Surveyor’s grave, Tāngarākau, 1893”:
A road to map, we worked the chain
Lay me down, lay me down
We worked in sun, we worked in rain
Oh lay me down on the moss. …
See that the farm goes to my wife
Lay me down, lay me down
And wish my child a prosperous life
Oh lay me down on the moss. (p 34).
“Tree-oh! Kākahi, 1914” comes later:
The whistle-boy pulls on the line,
lets out a rush of steam.
Stoke the hauler full of wood
and hear that piping scream
Hear that piping scream. (p 41).
‘A Body of Water’ – next section – stars the river catchment as the main character and takes us on a nature walk (an ecologically aware tramp, if you prefer) among trees, soil and rock formations, along the constantly moving, constantly changing water of the river. We have aural and visual glimpses of birds and other fauna, typically in compact poems like “Kōura, Freshwater crayfish/ Paranephrops planifrons” (quoted in full):
Berried with eggs, damp-coloured, decked with spines,
its tail pulled off, still hides between the stones. (p 99).
Another pleasure of this book is hearing the author’s own vocabulary, mingling accurate technical terminology with everyday language – a reminder to us that a lot of the ‘two cultures’ distinction is only old habit. Natural history and poetry both require precision and imagination, and when they’re well done (as here), they definitely belong on the same page.
The six-page poem “Fire” is one of the several poems done in Anglo-Saxon meter, and follows missionary Richard Taylor:
God cut a clump of reddish clay
breathed moist on it and made a man.
This truth fits neatly with native knowledge
they will take to heart what Taylor teaches.
Scores of souls must be swiftly saved. (p 102).
“Moutoa” is a guidebook description with a sting in its tail, hinting at the island’s reach across nearly a century and a half (quoted in full):
A minor island.
A rough-shaped diamond.
A node of greenness,
of things unspoken.
Bare wilding poplars.
Gorse-blaze and lupin.
Its peaceful aspect,
its shifting outline. (p 114).
The final section – ‘The Moving Sand’ – looks at time. This section contains thirty-odd pages of playing around with the sonnet form, and it’s a wonderful read. One poem (“Meat workers”) is a sonnet singing the blues, with the refrain ‘If they don’t break our bones, they’ll break our will’ (p 163).
“The sandhill” goes 12 lines on one rhyme (almost on one word) and only in the last two lines do we get a different rhyme:
…Years later they were digging the hill
Found four skeletons, buried in the hill
Smashed them with spaces and threw them in the fill.
There is a wet place, where thick grass has grown.
The old well oozes up through sand and bone. (p 167).
Some of the sonnets use tercets, other use couplets; some rhyme, some don’t; they are more speculative than the earlier two sections of the book, as though we have come to the end of our walk and need to think about the future, what comes next.
“Gathering the berries of Pimelea turakina” is conventional in form. It describes collecting seed from a tiny sand-dune shrub which is down to a handful of individual specimens and thus could become extinct overnight. (Really.) The sonnet in full:
You couldn’t wield a pair of secateurs
to save yourself. And what use is a man
of unsure grip? But still, that soft hand-span
enters my thoughts, down where the ocean blurs
the land, repeatedly. The hot sand stirs
under our feet; we climb to where the tan
of pīngao, grey of marram holds what can
be held. We’re silent, and the wind concurs.
We have no grip on time, we haven’t seen
how it can wear us down. And at the turn
of season you are gone. The afternoon
is broken, all the places we have been,
and lying in the sun I only burn.
I think I hear days clicking as they prune. (p 162).
It’s well worth reading this collection: for its production and design, its history, its landscape, its fluidity and most definitely for its very high standard of craft.
 In an interview with Paula Green, Beautrais gives details of the composition and structure of the book: https://nzpoetryshelf.com/2017/09/08/flow-whanganui-river-poems-paula-green-in-conversation-with-airini-beautrais/comment-page-1/
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015 and Field Notes was published by Mākaro Press in 2017.