A review of Blood Ties and others, by Vaughan Rapatahana in The Pantograph Punch.
It was a surprise to wake up this morning and discover I was a purveyor of sexist tracts, but after after reading this writer’s mis-reading of the poem T-bar Clothesline Okarito in his earlier Pantograph Punch review of Blood Ties, I suppose I should not be startled. He had alluded to my complicity with the Curnow gang there.
I’m going to point out one or two things in reply, the first being that I was certainly influenced by male writers in my twenties as I got going: they were cock-a-hoop indeed. Baxter and Hone Tuwhare are prime candidates. What the reviewer has no knowledge of is that my internal whakapapa of influence begins with a well-remembered poem at primary school level, written by Babette Deutsch, about soldiers marching. At high school, I have clear memories of Ursula Bethell’s work.
More than the poets, however, my early life was shaped by women, my mother and my grandmother, and my lovers, daughter and granddaughters, who, as he seems blind to observe, figure several times in Blood Ties.
Mary at Dawn (39) tells of taking my mother to an Anzac Day service; We’ll Meet (43) speaks of mourning for her presence after she died in 2005; Rocket Engines ((45) speaks of my kuia’s PTSD and the tales she told me of V-1 rocket attacks in WW2; Plunging remembers the death of my partner, as I pass the spot near Otira where she died in a road accident in 1978; Crow Canyon (157) and Light from Saturn speak of a time spent with my daughter in the USA, the latter is directed to my granddaughter. The poem written in 1974 at my daughter’s birth (161) uses a phrase he objected too in the earlier review, speaking of the newborn’s “female mammal sleeping eyes”. This to me is more about music than sexism, but each to their own.
Tuna (143), Hard Travel to Arahura (145) and Papatipu kissing me (147) are all love poems, and while I would never pretend to know what it was like for the subjects of those poems to deal with me, I loved them and still do.
The most disturbing aspect of his work is the complete mis-reading of T-Bar Clothesline, Okarito (89), a poem about marital rape – or any other kind of sexual abuse really, where the victim has to get up the next day as my mother and the women of her generation had to do, and pretend nothing has happened. In her generation, marital rape did not exist as an offence.
The poem does not as Vaughan Rapatahana misconstrues it, relegate ” the sullied woman to the level of flapping linen on a West Coast clothesline”, but points out the obvious: the abused woman has to get up and hang out the washing, smile at the neighbours, feed the kids and on and on. The washing line and the creatures in the bush and lagoon underline this as, does the final line, the neighbourly comment, “it’s marvellous drying weather”.
I was amazed at how he got there, but when you look at the charge sheet, the way he’s constructed me and my work throughout, as a kind of throwback, it’s obvious he has an agenda that denies admission to anything outside of it. Yes, there are many wounded women in my poems, I’m speaking about what I grew up with and knew much later.
And yes, there are a good number of wounded and troubled men; my generation were raised, many of us, by disturbed and broken individuals who had served in the Second World War and come back with a whole raft of issues that we know about now as PTSD: alcoholism, gambling addiction, sleep disorders, anxiety attacks, rages, domestic violence and suicide. Their influence on me is a deep stain on my palette, but what kept me sane were the women around me. If I haven’t saluted them often enough in my work for this reviewer’s attention, I don’t think the problem is mine.
In case he did miss the point about my position, here’s another poem closer to home.
I climb from the school bus
capped on the arse 1-2-3
by the Backseat Gestapo
in navy-blue shorts: home safe.
White weatherboards, black tar
roof rear up on rotten piles
to greet me, their bedroom
window starts to wink:
“Wanna know what we
saw, last night, Fatty?”
Everybody knows I do.
Twenty-five years freeze
those holes I bite through
the pillow and no-one comes.
She screams, my sisters shudder.
The front door whangs shut.
With a cry that is fear
made flesh, she falls
through the dark
into the ditch.