Body by Pule 5: Te rā whakamutunga.

He Mihi: ki a Christine Harvey, tohunga tā moko 2014.

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There have been many changes in this process for me, none more so than seeing a story emerge onto my arms from within; from the day I sat down with John that afternoon last year and the conversation turned to his tatau, to this day when mine will be completed. I knew as I drove out to the studio at North Beach that this was when we would make an end to what was begun on my skin several weeks ago; but also, what was beginning for me, now I had become a member of the skin talkers, people who say something about themselves, for whatever reason, by submitting to tatau/moko/tattoo.

I am very much aware of fashion and its ebbs and flows; of self-harm; of narcissism; of all the many objections that can be raised against the marking of one’s body with permanent images and words. But I know too that sometimes, when we least expect it, a door opens and we have decide, will I go through? It did open and I have entered. For me, it is a similar step to when I adopted my middle name, “Paparoa”, living in London in 1993, wanting to acknowledge my Pākehā identity and my deep subliminal debt to Māori over an immigrant life lived from the age of three to forty as part of the culture of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Tatau was another embrace: a mihi to tangata Pasifika, a recognition that as a waka person, a child who had sailed across the Atlantic in 1950, through the Panama Canal, across the South Pacific all the way to Wellington to these islands, I was a Pacific person too, Palangi and Pākehā, English, Welsh and whatever else my genes made me in the whare tangata, in my mother’s womb. I am sure more will be revealed along the way, but for now, this is enough. The pictures tell the story of the last day with Christine and her marvelous whānau of home-schooled tamariki.

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The dividing lines between the designs.

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Yellow added to the sun and the trees, bleeds a little…

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The artist at work: he tino kowhai te kowhai.

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Working on the Illustrious ship insignia on the right arm, finishing the rope.

Vox non Incerta
The original ship’s shield, given to me by an old shipmate of my Dad, 1993.

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Blood quantum: the paint mingles with me.

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Let it bleed: you need to get the blood up and out, to stave off scabbing.

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The tools of her trade: Christine’s tatau instruments, their work done.

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The next day: healing well.

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HMS Illustrious emblems and the Welsh Dragon: on the mend.

I look back on this twenty four hours and a new life later, from the first words: tatau. I know this will be part of me now until I die. Christine Harvey is a great artist and I cannot conceive of having anyone else do this work on my body and into my soul. We had some marvelous kōrero over the time, and yesterday was especially sweet. I told her she is ngawari: gentle, teachable, open to experience and ideas, yet firm in her determination. Whaia te maramatanga, e hoa, kihai i mau i te pouri – follow the Light of the World, my friend, the darkness has never overcome it.

Now I leave this part of the journey with the taste of pikelets made by her daughters for the after-time when we talk and laugh around the table; with the furry feel of Theo the rabbit, offered to me for a cuddle; with the knowledge that this whānau is standing strong in their Māoritanga. Tama tū, tama ora, Hine tū, hine ora!

I leave too with a renewed vision of my parents, especially at this time, my father, who came unsuspecting into this world in 1922 and left it bruised and battered by life fifty years later. E te papa, haere rā, e te heremana, rere atu rā!

Dad Holman 1922-30001

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Body by Pule 4: entering the ngahere.

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Preparing the needle and the inks.

Today is the day for the final major design: the ngahere, the bush, the rain forest that blankets the West Coast where we roamed as children, and drips on the mists of Maungapōhatu. John has designed something typically Pule, with stylised trees that could be human – or other – beings. This is where his inimitable genius is at play and it will be Christine’s greatest challenge, so intricate and yet so bold. I have decided to try some colours that will reflect both the natural world and the human culture: dark greens for the bush, and blues and yellow for the Ngahere rugby league colours of my childhood. They will reflect on the red and black of the Blackball bridge, a memory of the emotional local derby that took place every time we played each other, whatever the grade: peanuts to seniors. It also recalls to me that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the two teams were forced to combine because of falling numbers of players, and so the name Waro-Rakau came sweetly into being: Coal and Timber, the twin life bloods of those tough communities.

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Blackball 7th Grade 1960, South Island champions. I’m 3rd from the left, middle row, between Kevin Williams and Ken Meadowcroft.

So Christine prepares for the work and we discuss the colour choices; she is happy to use colours as most of her clients want black, black, black. We begin as usual, just after 1pm, with karakia and then the serenade by Whirimako Black, easing us back up to Maungapōhatu and another stretch of the bush we both know. First comes the outline of the pattern, made to guide the finer pen line that the needle will follow.

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The outline: getting the proportions right to encircle the arm, before the final line to be followed is drawn.

The big needle bites and I close my eyes for the cutting of the outline she has drawn for it to follow. This time, from the start, it seems a little harder to bear – not because the pain is so much greater; rather, I am just tired. Not tired from lack of sleep (the last two nights I have slept long, deep, unbroken slumbers), but from the accumulated work of having my body ploughed by needles, I think. Last week’s heavenly bodies are still healing, and there remains some angry colour around the topmost stars. I let Whirimako wash over me as the journey begins again.

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Ko te pūtake: the base root of the forest ink.

I realise that this will be a challenge, so settle myself physically and mentally to run with what is happening, to stay in the moment and be still. For a long time it seems, we are both silent, the chatter of the machine filling the space with its own reo, its language of art and injury. Along the way, Christine tells me that she is very pleased with my demeanour – “you are doing so well” – compared to some who come and wriggle around, making her work difficult. “They’re not ready, they shouldn’t be here”. All this is strangely comforting; I tell her that many years of manual work have taught me somehow to bear difficulty and keep going, as when I was a shearer and plagued with back pains that in one instance rendered me unable to stand back upright.You couldn’t walk off the board or stop: too much pride, too much stubborn refusal to be seen as a quitter. But who knows what our threshold for pain is – until we reach it?

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In the master’s hands.

I’m constantly reminded in this process that I am in my body, this amazing creation that I take for granted, working ceaselessly for me with little recognition and few if any thanks. How often do I thank my knees that they are still folding and unfolding as hinges in my legs, even now enabling me to sit down and stand up without a second thought? I can feel my left knee now, however, with its torn ligaments, about to go under the surgeon’s knife in a week’s time. So there will be no return session here next week; a fortnight to finish off.

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The pattern outlined, ready for the colour brush.

It takes us about two hours to get this far, and now, the greens and blues and the yellows are prepared. I wonder how far I can go today, resolving to take it slowly and see what happens. The light outside is slowly weakening, as Christine alters the angle of the lamp and goes to work on the trunks of the trees. It is a very different feeling to the single needle that traces the outlines of the pattern. I know I am in the forest now. All sorts of images flit and tease as I hear the reo over and over, somehow drugging the pain, stilling the nerves that have almost had enough: “Tamakaimoana” Ngāti Huri”, Whirimako sings, reciting the hapū, the clan names of the Tūhoe rohe pōtae.

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Te Ngahere Pule: John’s forest rendered by Christine.

As I begin to fade, the thought comes to me that this experience is the art itself; that this process, not just the finished product, is art as a verb, not a noun. When somebody says  of a painting or a poem, “what does it mean?”, that is a different question from, “What was the making of it?”. There is the art of experience and the art of the result of experience; I think we sometimes place so much emphasis on the latter that we lose all consciousness of the former. To understand creativity (and not just its products), we need to see ourselves as creators, as children of the moment – which if taken now, is an eternal moment, endlessly repeating. Simply because our time inside Time itself comes to an end, does not mean we have lost that divine image William Blake knew so richly. I try and get some of this across to Christine, as the last of the blues and greens are applied. She gets it.

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The arm so far, yellow to come.

But now, I realise my humanity is insisting I pause for a rest, so suggest to Christine that we stop here for the day, after three long hours of hard work and concentration. She agrees – she is tired too. When I return, we will finish the ngahere, adding the yellow to the blue and touching up a few places on the right arm. It’s time to karakia and say haere rā to Whirimako, “he korokoro tui”. What an impressive and affecting ballad and jazz singer she is; reminding me that the sweetness and the power of te reo Māori survived only through sheer stubborness  and courage. The government, until the 1970s, did everything its power to let it die – that is, they did nothing to support Māori and the rest of us in becoming bilingual.

So, we go for scones, a cuppa, and chats with the tamariki, before I head for home exhausted, to an early night. My arm is certainly stinging, it knows a forest has been planted here today – one no government can ever sell to foreigners.

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The next day, John Madden’s Blackball bridge in the background.

 

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Body by Pule 3: heavenly bodies and a famous bridge.

Today was the time to work on the heavenly bodies and the Blackball bridge, designed by John. It was the usual welcoming committee at Christine’s, with Theo the rabbit at the door as I took off my shoes, with the tamariki greeting me in Māori (it’s always Māori Language Week at the this kura). We got down to work pretty quickly, discussing the best way to finish the three remaining elements of the design, coming round to what I felt was do-able, leaving for next week the complex Niuean ngāhere of abstract trees. The drawing on the skin comes first; Christine measures and begins the first assured strokes of the ballpoint, followed once she is sure she has right image, by the fine marker that will prove a guiding the line for the needles.

 

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The Blackball bridge, with red and black rugby league colours.

The complex shapes of the stars needed a careful eye to calculate their path evenly around my arm, with sun and the moon interspersing. It is only when you see close up how integrated the pattern is, how simple and yet profound is John Pule’s draftmanship. Christine gets it spot on. The bridge, we decide, will have black in the central spans and red for the river and the sky – a reflection of the sweat and tears that made the mine and the rails and the lives of everyone who ever passed through there. The interlinking of the spans is another example of the literal image John worked from becoming figurative, enduring, powerful (“Urgent!”, he will call the colour red to me, in a later email).

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Engraving the heavens on skin.

But first, it is the creation of the heavens that will overshadow the river, the forest and the bridge, everything manmade and godmade. All the shapes are first outlined with a single needle, to be filled in later with a wide, multi-tipped instrument. I settle back to listen to Hirini Melbourne kōrero Māori and sing; my mind settles into a low hum, abstract thoughts melting into the sensations of puncture. It doesn’t hurt in the way some might fear; it burns along my arm and takes me away from worldly cares. Now and then, in the thinner skin of the underarm, there is a wince, but I can live with this. We began at 1pm and it is well after 3 o’clock when this slice of heaven is done: “I looked at the world, and I saw it was good”. People get addicted to this.

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Blood on the tracks in the stars.

Of course, the mind and the feelings are not my body, although we are in this together; the skin and the blood rush to do their work, repelling infection and closing the breached walls. I bleed. If that were not the case, all would not be well, but it is not as if every inch of pigment runs red – just here and there. Christine swabs and washes the completed design and we get ready to cross the bridge. She tells me that after some hours, the body will get tired of being attacked and you can get a bit impatient, looking for the end. It will prove true later on.

The bridge is now outlined and readied for colouring: I am very moved by this moment: that great monument to all bridge carpenters and their muscular skill has been inside me since 1957, and now, it will rest outside, on my arm, the same kind of arm that built the original karri masterpiece, the same arm that dismantled it at the end of its useful life. I salute these pioneers who opened up that world for me.

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The fine work done, the wide brush fills in black and red.

We are both getting tired now, I know, but there is a river to cross. I tell Christine tales of the bridge crossings, thundering over the river in high flood in our Bedford school bus, the whole structure rattling and shaking as if attacked by waves of giants, willing us down to drown. We would jump off the bridge in high summer, into the black snag-infested waters below; the toughest nuts, full of teen bravado would leap from the highest part of the span (launching myself from the deck was all I could manage).

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With my sisters, Jill and Elisabeth, swimming at the Blackball side, 1963-4.

That tiredness was really hitting me and the needles seemed sharper and more urgent, but I knew we were getting closer to Blackball, a place which Christine also knew well from her grandfather’s time there and her visits. There is always a story that comes out when two people who knew that town meet; it seems to have a life well beyond the closure of the mines and changing of the guard when old identities move away – and die.

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Worse than it looks: the red is mostly ink, smeared when the excess is wiped away.

We are almost done: Christine cleans up the excess ink, smooths on healing balms and finishes with a karakia. I hand her the book I have brought as a koha: The late great Blackball Bridge sonnets, my mihi, hymns to the miners from back in 2004. She is delighted and is going to show it to her Mum. I wish mine were here to see the bridge on my arm, but  we had a night for crossings that same year when the book was launched in Formerly the Blackball Hilton. All of us were there, save my late father – the Holmans sharing a family return to place once tainted with pain and shame. Dad, you drank here, but now we sing a different tune: survival.

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The Holmans at the Hilton, 2004.

There is so much to be thankful for, not least the banana cake and gingernuts afterwards, when we all sit down and have a kai to whakanoa te hui. My arms sting, but not half as much as my heart sings. Next week is the bush; the place to which we came from the city was actually called Ngāhere. From small steps across the road, from the railway track to our railway house by the single-teacher school since swallowed by time, my West Coast journey began and now continues, into my arms.

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Today’s tatau.

I think of those now who came along with with me and it fills me with gratitude that I was somehow allowed to experience the kind of childhood barely possible to most kids in this country now. We ran, we roamed, we trapped, we chopped, we climbed, we fell, we fought and laughed – we lived life fully, right out to the edges and back again. Those riches endure, Lord – I thank you.

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RIP, Frank Pendlebury, 1947-2007, on right.

 

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Body by Pule 2: te taha maui.

It was a good day yesterday to venture back to see Christine for a start on my left arm tatau: the dear cat Tohora left our lives on Friday at 4pm after near on nineteen happy years of her indomitable self; I couldn’t find my strongbox, with passports and all, along with my Dad’s WW2 naval campaign medals, nor his father’s Baghdad medallion from 1919; it seemed with a broken night’s sleep prior, I was in a bad zone. Once the needle was back on my skin, I somehow knew there wouldn’t be time to angst and grieve.

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And so it proved: once I had entered the warmth of my artist’s home, said kia ora to the home-schooled tamariki and Theo the rabbit, settled on to the chair by the tatau/moko table, plugged into Hirini Melbourne singing waiata Maori from the ngahere up amongst Tuhoe, the day’s hassles and the sadness were leaching away. I was looking forward to beginning the adventure of the left arm. It was in some ways, nature as opposed to the nurture, the human elements written on my skin to the right arm.

 

Here we have Papatuanuku, the earth, the rivers, the mountains and the ngahere (the bush) of my childhood West Coast/Grey Valley world. Yes, there are human powers there too: the Blackball bridge frames the design on the upper arm and the dead of Strongman and Pike River, the wristband, like a Celtic gold torc dug from the earth. But the powers that predominate are those of the world as we find it.

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Left arm draft.

 

We make a few changes from John’s original (skin is not paper) and bring the number of river lines on the wrist end down to nineteen from twenty nine, keeping the Pike River men as stones in a flow of nineteen Strongman miner streams. In this way we have both tragedies remembered: those who died in 1967, including my high school classmate Noel (“Wrecka”) Prescott, and another Grey High boy, Buffer Cust, as well as the men and boys from 19 November 2010.

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Strongman miners’ mass grave, Karoro, 22 January 1967.

I refuse to forget these men and all those who have died before and since, more often than not the victims of poor safety standards and the pressure to produce coal whatever the cost. And now they lie under the gaze of the those same mountains they mined, deep underground all their working lives in the dangerous belly of the Paparoa range coal seams.  The mountains come next as we work up the arms, the lines drawn in green reflect the cover image Colin McCahon drew for Bill Pearson’s 1963 West Coast mining novel, Coal Flat, based on his experiences teaching in Blackball during the war.

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Coal Flat Cover (Colin McCahon, 1963): section.

So the drawing begins, all the way up to the lines to capture the borders of the heavenly bodies, the bush and the bridge (the latter will have red and black sections for the town’s rugby league colours). Christine is excited by the colour choices and steels herself for the many lines it will take to get the wrist end started. She has a supply of string which she cuts and wraps around my arm to get the circle on the flesh made straight, and then adding more lines, parallel. It’s a real test, as what looks flat or straight on application may not when the skin is working and the muscles are moving underneath. She tells me horror stories of newbie moko artists drawing on the lower back and getting a surprise when the recipient stands up and the picture shrinks and distorts: too late! But she is well aware of these tricks and traps and the drawing (followed by the inking and then the needle) is smooth.

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Drawing the lines.

It takes nearly ninety minutes to get this far, before the needle even strikes skin; this Niuean design in very geometrical compared to the flow of moko, and once she had expertly cut the river line and stone circles into my skin (counting to get them exactly right and spaced), she rejoices at the swooping green lines of the Paparoa mountains: “at last, some curves!”. Hirini meanwhile sings to us nearby and we talk of his genius, his ngawari nature, his humility – and such a premature loss in his early death. Haere ra, e te kaitito, kaiwaiata rangatira hoki no Ngai Tuhoe!

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Mining the Paparoa lines.

My premonition the day’s worries would evaporate once the needle bit into the skin is only too true. I can’t think of anything as she traces the drawn, inked lines and feel the burning as the needle runs from my thicker upper arm skin to the almost translucent whiteness below where my veins are visible: that does cause a few winces. And we talk, and the time flows from stillness to stillness. After three and a half hours of another dimension, today’s work is done. Christine cleans my arm, sterilizes the angry red lines and rubs on a healing balm.

We have a final karakia and talk about the the books I have given her as a koha for last week’s work: my story about Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau, the great Tamakaimoana chief, and a novel by Tina Makareti, about Rekohu/The Chathams. We have shared much about Maungapohatu (again, always), and her journey with te reo Maori, Nga Peka Matauranga and university language papers: “I didn’t want the tohu, just the reo”. She is so refreshing: learning was not just a meal ticket, but a need to reclaim her Maori language and identity. She takes photos of the finished day’s work and we head into the kitchen for pikelets cooked by one of her very clever children – what a delicious end to the day.

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The miners.

We make arrangements for another session next week and I head home in the blue Honda Fit, in the gathering evening, my arm stinging but my heart just that bit closer to the peace Jesus promises, the kind “that passes all understanding”. Knowing I will enter the gate our cat passed through underlies all my fear, but the pain of moko is in some small way a door to that door, a reminder that our storymaking will not always be easy, that it one day must end, but till then, we can live and grow – if we choose – into nicer giants. Back home, one last search of my new study reveals where I carefully hid the strongbox with all my documents and treasures. Hallelujah! I feel like I have just dodged a very cruel bullet.

 

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Body by Pule

 

Tatau me

   Those of you who know John Pule’s art will have little trouble identifying his work in this drawing and the one that follows. It began its life as part of a conversation we were having in the sun outside Café 1894 and the University of Canterbury, where John was Writer-in-Residence during the second semester of 2013 and we shared adjoining offices in the English programme where he was hosted.

 

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First draft, right upper.

 

 This is the design for a tatau that will live not as a print on a gallery wall, but on my skin. John’s hiapo-inspired interleaved and layered works are now a part of our culture and a Niuean signature that speaks into many lives wherever he goes. Now, I will be in part a Pule, a walking work of his art, on both my left and my right arms.

 

How did this come about? It certainly was never my intention to seek out moko or tatau, as if I was some visitor to a fashion culture that seemed to promise acceptance into a club of coolness. I’m 66 years old, a middle-aged Palangi inexorably passing my use-by-date. I’ve been there and done that in fifty different ways, I’ve paid my rent in the body and spent the results in soul and spirit; as far as being hip goes, there is nothing left to prove, if there ever was.

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 First draft, left upper.

 

No, this was simply a korero over coffee by a couple of writers getting to know each other. When I told him how much I liked his tatau, how it suited him, he said, “Why don’t you get one?” – or words like that. I laughed: hey, I was a dying – if not quite a dead – white male. My skin was too pink and pale, I’d seen too many bad examples of Pakeha with a tattoo gone wrong.

 

John disagreed; we talked more, with him finally saying, if I came up with some designs, he would draw me the patterns. I found myself – surprisingly – saying “yes, that would be amazing”. It went from there. I then had to look at what mattered to me, what was my story? I had put it down in many and various ways with words, but this was different. What – if you were going to draw your life on your skin – really mattered?

 

John had related to me how the tatau spoke of his life and connections; when asked about his designs, he would ask the enquirer how long they had – and start reciting poetry, poems that related to the green geometry of the visual patterns on his rich brown arms. His tatau seemed to me much more concrete than the abstract swirls of many Maori moko I have seen. I liked that.

 

I was not thinking of whakapapa, genealogy, very literally, but looking for images that spoke into my life – the figurative. So I drew the outlines of my arms and began with the right – the human, the cultural. For the left, I went for the natural, the world not made but the world we find ourselves within. Rangi and Papa, perhaps, but not exactly.

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Second draft, right upper

 

I knew on the right there would be a ship, and crucifixes and anchors, a whale and a dragon: my Welsh mother and my London father. I would need a plane, an aircraft image that was simple, so that flight was in there as well as sailing over water. This arm was my parents and the forces that made them and still shadow me: war, ships, aeroplanes, sacrifice, death and resurrection. Then came the red dragon of Wales, and the whale that swallowed and spat up Jonah. I found some images and collected them for John.

 

For the left arm, it was a clear choice: the West Coast where I had grown up and become more clearly myself. We needed the rivers and the mountains, the heavenly bodies so radiant there in the night sky; the ngahere, the trees of the bush and the criss-cross structure of the road-rail bridge that shaped my life in Blackball as I grew.

 

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Second draft, left upper.

 

I had a copy of the Colin McCahon painting Bill Pearson used on his classic 1963 novel, Coal Flat; the lines of the mountains behind the town were perfect to imagine the Paparoa range, under whose shadow I lived for ten growing years and later, in Runanga over those mountains, living for another ten as an adult. Those mountains where so many miners have died, the Pike River 29 the most recent tragic reminder. These ideas I gave to John and left him to it.

 

It wasn’t long before he came back with the first drafts, and the whole blur of events became shaped by the drawings that grew out of these. I knew I was committed; the next thing would be finding a moko artist to do the work. For this, I had some guidance from the experience of a friend. I would go to see Christine Harvey, who had done some fine work for a Native American friend some years ago.

 

Christine lives now in a quake battered area near the sea, with her home-schooled tamariki. As I ride up and park my scooter, the gulls are crying somewhere unseen near the shore. I’m greeted by her whanau; it’s all very familiar: shoes off, cuppa tea, curious tamariki. I showed her John’s original designs and we soon connect, so the work is agreed. I can come at a time that suits her, and her sister will look after the kids so Christine can work on me in her studio.

 

A fortnight later, after John’s return from Fiji, he sent me the final designs – beautiful. It was all there and I arranged with my ta moko artist to come on Monday the 26th of May and begin. I was fine until the night before, and then started to get nervous as sleep fled – what if I couldn’t handle the needle on my skin, and the hours required to finish?

 

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John Pule and Catherine Montgomery, publisher, Canterbury University Press.

 

But John had been encouraging me all the way along, so now it was time to man-up and go with the unfolding plan.

 Email, John Pule, 15 May.

 I will be thinking of you… as you meet and discuss procedure and protocol with Christine, as you accept into your skin the symbols and places of your life. These tatau will forever begin story telling. When people ask you what do they mean, then you start your story or poem. It will read like a bookshelf. I feel very honoured that you are going to carry my drawings of your stories and deep thoughts. This is what will bond you and I.

 Monday 26 May.

 

Today is the day. I slept badly and I am very nervous. Will I be able to go through this? Will my old skin accept the ink clearly? Soon, we will see.

 

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Shaving the right arm for the whanau story.

 

I shave my arm in preparation and kit myself up for the trip out to North Beach; it’s cold and wet and very windy. I stop off at The Palms – such a whacky name for a cold South Island shopping mall – to get some money to pay for the work. Now, it’s past the red-zoned green fields owned by the Crown, where once were houses, over the rumpled pot-holed roads lined with orange traffic cones, I head for Christine’s place and my appointment with the needle

 

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Christine begins the drawing process

 

It takes us four hours of drawing and inking my skin to get the first work on the right arm done, with more to complete in the next session. Two hours of transferring John’s drawings with special pens, then the big moment as the needles make their first entrance into my skin, tracking their way under her expert direction with hot, burning, tiny bites along the trail marked out. I somehow know it will be all  be fine. I close my eyes and listen to Whirimako Black, Tuhoe songbird and Christine joining in with her waiata Maori, pushing , holding, turning my arm as I receive the work of John Pule into my body.

 

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Life lines: inked up and bathed in ointment to relieve the sting.

 

The next day I write this poem, send to her – and she tells me it made her cry…

 

 

where comets run

 

I close my eyes

and the world begins

with small green birds from branch to branch

as her needle spins

 

punctures skin on the map she drew

 

the birds fly off when the teeth of ants

draw fire and blood

that was held within and will only burn

when her needle spins

 

on waiting skin

 

skin was never made for this

but the world begins when Tuhoe sing

and the eyes recall what the heart

forgot and longs to bring

 

in this patterning

 

when I tell Christine who cuts my flesh

and wipes the blood like Jesus’ sweat

of karakia in the small hours tuning

the frozen stars

 

over Maungapohatu   swirling in

 

where comets run

where skin meets skin

 

 

Three days later I am healing and getting used to my new skin: what does it mean, how is this affecting me, am I changed internally or not? I can’t sleep very well the first couple of nights, and that, John says, is the tatau speaking stories to me, “I like the Rotoiti and the window with the double lines moving across. How do you feel? You will be glad when it is over but for now meditate and go with the pain, feeling and the experience. Some say it is healing, a time to let go, to wonder about things.” 

 

The journey continues this coming Monday, Queens Birthday weekend. I remember that it will be 35 years since Lee my partner then died on the icy road near Aickens – “sometimes it’s a moment ago and at others, another life”,Theresa writes. Those losses are what really marks us, what actually inscribes the invisible heart.

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 The writing arm.

Day Two.

Tatau Day 2.1

The work goes on…

Tatau Day 2.2

…and on…

Tatau Day 2.4

…and on.

2014-06-02 14.57.52

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Leaving Italy behind.

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Canals at Comacchio.

 

After leaving Ravenna and travelling north to the delightful community centered on Comacchio with its skein of canals and magnificent expanse of wetland, I somehow never got around to writing a post about our time there. It is pretty much an undiscovered jewel just south of the Po delta, with an old world air that is hard to define, enhanced by the waterways in the village and the waterworld that it sits beside. Some lovely B&Bs have opened up, attracting people like us who are looking for something a little off the beaten track.

Ricardo, our host was one of the first to spot the potential, after moving back himself to the area and opening a guest house. We loved his warmth and the ability to meet and with the other guests, one of whom, an international jewel and antique dealer was also an expatriate. He recalled his grandfather waiting with an expectant crowd in 1945 for the New Zealand troops to arrive and complete the liberation of a town that had seen many of its anti-Fascist resistance fighters executed since Mussolini had fallen in 1943. Despite the flowers, the cheers and wine at the ready, the Kiwi troops merely sped straight through on the way to somewhere more important, and the locals were left with no party at all.

We made our way around the town, buying espressos, listening to the voices and drinking in the atmosphere. Wonderful. A trip to the edge of the wetland along the canals crowded by houses and shops had us right above an eel fisherman lifting his net for the catch of the day. Eel iconography was everywhere, on shops and homes – it’s a local staple and delicacy.

 

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We had made up our minds to cycle around the wetland, which we did on hired bikes, fighting off clouds of midges as we passed the eeling stands of the locals, some with motorised lifts to draw up the nets, many looking like Kiwi equivalent of blokey sheds where men escaped the domestic sphere. Later, we went on a guided tour, which included a visit to the sites of the historic salt industry, a famous local product in recent times, now in abeyance.

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All in all, Comacchio was a perfect way to ease out of the journey with the rental Panda and head back to Bologna, catching the train to Verona and our last days in Italy with Alex and Marta.

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Dante’s bones.

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The past week has been a tough one, since the theft of my suitcase on the train from Genoa; the feelings of violation (being burgled in a public place), the anger and depression at the loss of precious photos of my family only just restored after fifty years’ residence with my late aunt in London, have knocked me about. Sleep has been an issue: waking two or three times a night and finding it hard to go back to there. We are more vulnerable to PTS in our semi-conscious state, I find.

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Still, I could not afford to let some anonymous criminal steal my holiday as well, and recalled also that Christ was not crucified between two disciples (they had all fled on his arrest), but between two thieves – one of whom had a crisis of conscience in extremis. So I set out to enjoy what I could of the fabulous Cinque Terre – who could not relish these sensual towns, unless already dead?

 

Leaving the delights of Monterosso al Mare, Corniglia, Vernazza and Riomaggiore was done with a sense of fullness and respect for the way the people, living on the cusp of ocean and mountain, make full use of life in community. Of course they have the same ills my flesh is heir to – but their street life, the absence of cars, the walking and cycling and the talking on the corners and in the markets, the washing hanging out of windows, the cafes and the fishing boats – no wonder the stressed outer world comes here for healing.

 

But we had to press on, and try to deal with a newfound distrust of fellow travellers on railway stations: we needed to get to La Spezia (to buy another suitcase) and travel on after a full day in Florence to Bologna, to pick up the rental car that would carry us towards a meeting with over 160 New Zealanders at Forli’ cemetery, the dead of the Italian campaign of 1943-45 and their 600 other British and Commonwealth comrades, at rest.

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 The fast train travelled mostly through tunnels, so it wasn’t until we had our car – “your Fiat Panda Ferrari” as the funny, hassled guy at Sixt rentals quipped – that we would see open country again. I had some meltdowns in the navigator’s seat – never a great passenger, usual control issues – but Jeanette steered us in fine fashion along SS9, after I got us by mistake onto and then off the Autostrada, in quick time.

 

Travelling to our goal – the resting place of my high school English teacher’s soldier brother – it was as if we were driving in reverse order the way the 2nd NZEF Divisions had fought their way north. We came to Faenza then over the Senio River, and soon, there was the distinctive graveyard cross with its sword, at the immaculately maintained Commonwealth War Graves cemetery.

 

 


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Tony Hooper and friend, Italy, 1945.

We left the faithful little Panda and entered the gates of the dead with our tokens: love, respect and a pounamu taonga to bury with Private Antony Hooper. He had died on 23 April 1945, succumbing to wounds received in a mortar attack near the Senio River – his spleen was ruptured and there was no hope of recovery.

 

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His original grave, before removal to Forli’.

His tombstone – that same white lozenge with its curled fern and the name of our country rampant that graces all New Zealand war graves overseas – was dappled in shadow in the gentle Ravenna light. Someone had been before and laid poppies with flax crosses on every New Zealand grave, including Tony’s. How my teacher, his brother Peter would have smiled at this, he who had come 12,000 miles in the early 1960s to stand in the same place as I was now standing – and weep.

 

Jeanette took a photograph or two of me presenting Tony with the taonga and then left me alone – whereupon I gave a mihi to him, to all the Maori war dead lying near his side, and began to weep myself, in bucketloads, keening. I buried the greenstone with him and walked the lines of 28 Maori Battalion Company ‘C’ – Te Hana, Hau, Paniora, Biddle, Potae, on and on they lay, the Cowboys of Te Tai Rawhiti and nearby regions, stranded so far from home, their bones lying where they never could have imagined.

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Today, in Ravenna, having visited Dante’s Tomb and Museum, and discovering the story of his exile from a beloved Florence, his loss of family and prestige, the way his mortal remains, his bones, his koiwi were buried and hidden and disputed and longed for by many who loved him and those who did not – I cannot help thinking that those boys, those young men of the New Zealand Division, Maori and Pakeha, were similarly exiled and estranged from loved ones who shed many a distant and unrequited tear in the night back home.

 

You only have to see Ralph Hotere’s Sangro painting to know that, you only have to go to Mitimiti and see the Hotere names in the urupa to know what exile means. Dante knew that; so do Tony Hooper’s bones, bones we went to greet, bones that will rise again with the great Italian poet’s bones –

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bones Peter  Hooper voyaged home brooding over, and wrote for his lost brother the poem, Journey Towards an Elegy. It is all here: Inferno. Purgatorio. Paradisio.

 

 

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