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Hopurangi – Songcatcher: Poems from the Maramataka
by Robert Sullivan

Poems set over three months of the Māori lunar calendar, the 'ultimate star waka'.

By May 29, 2024No Comments

Readers of Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka, published in 1999, will recall the threads that encoded that collection: the book contains one hundred poems and 2001 lines; each poem has a star, a waka, or the ocean; arranged in three parts, titles shift from Roman to Arabic, to ‘waka’ numbering. In Hopurangi – Songcatcher, more patterns and codes emerge—from Breeze Durham’s stunning cover art and contents pages to the thematic drives of the Maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar.

Hundreds of variations of these lunistella calendrical systems exist across regions, iwi, and hapū. In this sequence, energy levels correlate to each lunar phase, signalled by vibrational parentheses with a personal twist: ‘((Low Energy, so chillax)).’ Set over three months, there is a poem for each night of the Maramataka, which is the ultimate star waka.

The collection absorbs plural lineages — creative, literary, cultural — and reflects the author’s commitment to speaking, singing, and writing in te reo Māori (‘I will learn to enjoy this journey / into the unknown’). Hopurangi is a taonga pūoro, a wind instrument that can be worn as a pendant and swirled through the air to capture sound. Sullivan’s is made of uku and resembles a small moon with its mottled colouring.

I need a hopurangi to wear
these cares into soothing songs
so that the fernbird mātātā,
the tauhou wax-eye, riroriro
warbler, can return my song.

Several Māori astronomical sources inform this book: its best poems pulse as singular, bright objects borne out of our dark Southern skies. ‘All the Phases: Lunar Eclipse’ uses enjambment to sensual effect. Images fall off, one succinct line, into the next, like clothes slipping off a woman’s back. We’ve not seen the moon like this before: ‘Marama is a white kōauau / played in black gloves’.

Nor has the slow reveal of her dark side held such cold intensity. Here is marama kūtia, the moon eclipsed:

A boulder rolls
slowly sealed

across the white hole
into sovereign blackness

This vision of the dark matter and dark energy that forms the fabric of the cosmos evokes a Māori concept, tangotango, described by astronomer Rangi Mātāmua as ‘the black space between the stars.’

Sullivan’s oeuvre of works is lush with figurative language, most notably when the celestial and trivial co-exist (‘Today’s rain is like television static’). ‘Pāua Canticle’ assumes the persona of a marine gastropod mollusc—locally known as pāua. This is not so much an anthropomorphic turn, but an expression of whakaahua, a becoming-form. Like Māui-Tikitiki-ā-Taranga, poems can shapeshift across bodies, species, and time-space: ‘I muscled through tides / between rocks and air, sand turning.’ The metallic colours lining pāua’s protective shell twinkle, concealed by curious flesh that tests the surfaces of its world: ‘I’m fond of colours and kai. / They have things celestial / and oceanic in them.’ It’s an eccentric poem that alludes to the author’s takatāpuitanga.

A penchant for American pop culture, both antiquated and current, is flagrant:

If I had hands and a ukulele
I’d play ‘Rainbow Connection’
for lovers and dreamers. La di da.

This collision of rainbow tropes, sea creatures, and Kermit The Frog, invites a queer poetics. Such idiosyncratic mash-ups frequently surprise and interrupt a ‘straight’ reading of certain works.

Taylor Swift makes cameo appearances; so do James Busby, Tenzing Norgay, Keanu Reeves, and Diana Ross. One poem is dedicated to Prince (‘I need to plant the akeake / to remind me of our purple forests’). Others are dedicated to the author’s parents, to Native American poet laureate Joy Harjo, and to First Nation writer Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm. We encounter friends, whānau, marae, maunga, ‘Ōamaruvian’ townsfolk, farm animals, and historical figures along a protean ‘star river’ of verse.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the dominant register is a confessional I-voice where formal distances between author, speaker, and reader collapse. The pieces in this collection were initially published on Facebook and carry residues of internet emotions, pithy posts, and an obsession with ‘likes’ (‘The mooing makes me / think of likes on my phone / as it chimes for each like’). Some might baulk at the overshares or rambling rhetoric typical of social media and self(ie) culture. Others may relate to more colloquial tones.

Virtue signalling in a time of Covid
popped in my head. I’m trying to remember
the words to our waiata about Karitāne
which I love. I’m yet to stumble
to the kitchen to choose between
dairy or almond milk

Why does the poem foresee a stumble here, and what should we make of the following gnomic text? Strains of Alastair Te Ariki Campbell’s love poetics can be detected in the bare verse of ‘Tamatea a Ngana: Two Questions / ((Low Energy))’:

You would let me know,
if you love me?
You wouldn’t
let it slide?

A longer love poem is similarly oblique; the tether between dream and reality frays as it free-roams out into the world. Though the setting is in India, it could conversely be a murmuration of the psyche—located in the hinengaro, which is the ‘hidden female’ or the mind.

I went alone to the Taj Mahal
believing in love but the cabbie

asked why was I there?
And I couldn’t answer him

as I believed in us
but did you?

The longing that scores both poems is unrequited and a more existential question emerges. The whaiaipō is, literally, the one we seek out in the night, but here, the desired one (who could be Shakti, Venus, the feminine self) remains elusive.

impressed into memories
which I keep missing

for my mixing clay with marble
which never cures

for lack of an inferno
to turn the snows of our age

into cumulus silvers, pinks, blues
and golds over temple mountains

Several stanzas are composed of unmoored lines that might pull to a taut restraint. ‘Ōhua: Tāhae Jack, Te Tangata Nui and His Beanstalk’ is all the more distinct as a square of prose that fills the aesthetic page. It offers an amusing spin on the well-known English fairy tale that has a history of rewrites: its first print variation in 1734 was ‘The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean.’ In Sullivan’s truncated version, Tāhae Jack lives ‘under the moonbow.’ The retelling has familiar narrative threads despite its provincial Kiwi references (‘Tāhae Jack’s mum asked him to take their cow to the freezing works’) and bizarre similes (‘like walking in the firmest crunchy ice rink’). In a golden moment the giant drolly announces his arrival: ‘tēnei au, tēnei au.’ This is the opener to a famed tauparapara that recounts Tāne-Nui-ā-Rangi’s ascent to the heavens to retrieve the three baskets of knowledge. The poem’s ambiguous ending leaves us hanging: ‘Well, you know the rest of the story from here / whānau. Mauri ora.’

Given the tale’s many incarnations and Sullivan’s nuanced version, readers are unlikely to have a clue what happens next. It becomes a choose-your-own-adventure. In Aotearoa, however, we do have a story of land theft and crimes of Empire against tangata whenua (Te Tangata Nui?). We know how that turned out. Tāhae Jack is a Weet-Bix-eating thief who hangs out with magpies. The poet effectively prods at British colonialism on this whenua by leaning into the absurd and fantastical.

Hopurangi – Songcatcher: Poems from the Maramataka

by Robert Sullivan

Auckland University Press

ISBN: 9781776711222

Published: May 2024

Format: Paperback, 144 pages

Tru Paraha

Tru Paraha is a choreographer, poet, and performance writer living in Auckland. Her poetry has been widely published as live readings, audio performances, and in anthologies, literary journals, galleries, and digital platforms. Her experimental sequence ‘in my darkling universe’ features in AUP New Poets 8, published by Auckland University Press. She was a 2023 recipient of the Karekare House Artists’ Residency, working toward a visual collection.