This Is the Way He Walked Into the Darkest, Pinkest Part of the Whale and Cried Don’t Tell the Others
On the way to the unveiling, with our teenage son in the car, we fight. We fight driving through the black beech and green dappled light of Lewis Pass, we fight along the length of my river, the Wairau, and the next day after crossing on the ferry to the North Island we fight all the way to Gisborne. At one point I just have to exit the car and my son pulls me from the middle of the road in Nuhaka. It’s dark, drizzling, and both his parents are insane with old shame and anger. He manages to coax me back into the car and holds my hand for the first time in ten years and says I love you in a way that makes me feel more whakamā at being out of control in front of him. He defends my rage by explaining to his apoplectic father that, lately, I’m sad all the time.
We arrive late Good Friday in Gisborne and they leave me by the side of the road. Not in front of the mental hospital I beg to be taken to or the notorious gang street I then insist on being left at having taken a wrong turn. Because I’m less scared of the Mongrel Mob in that moment than I am of myself and my son’s father. Instead, they leave me at the beach and drive off in my car.
I have no money but I do have a gold tote bag and my impossible Jack Russell — although the leash is long gone with the car. No matter, rummaging through my bag I realize I also have wine, cigarettes, dog biscuits, a dead iPhone, dead iPad, and my spiraling sense of not giving a fuck to keep me company. I could die here tonight like this, I think happily. If no one attacks me I can walk into the sea.
My son feels bad for leaving me there and rings an old friend who calls out my name from a house on the cliff, so instead of dying I spend the night with her having a laugh and a cry about what’s happened to our lives.
The next day she drives me up the East Coast to meet my son and his father at a tavern in Tokomaru Bay. We are all contrite. They’ve just come from the place where my son’s great-grandmother is buried for the unveiling of her headstone and they are both aglow. My son is gabby with the wonder of the world he’s just entered at the ceremony; the singing of an old love song for Whiu, the light hitting the apex of Mt. Hikurangi, and the uncomfortably hot girl cousins eyeing him up over the graves of their ancestors.
We drive on to Te Araroa where they are already staying on the marae. I am shy and pretending not to be too much trouble when I meet his aunties for the first time. Later I drive further into the village to get mobile coverage and at the store by the sea almost buy a T-shirt for my son that reads “Straight Outta Te Araroa.” I am late back and the last in the meal line for the sausage casserole, boiled potatoes, pūhā, and sheep head, and when I sit down my son’s father has to save me from eating the tongue. He says I am not to write about this unveiling but what he means is that I must not write about our fight.
The next day we go to the place where my son’s great-grandfather is buried. I stay in the car with my back turned to the urupā, watching a horse in the paddock and making sure my dog doesn’t bark during the unveiling for Whiu’s husband, Arthur. I stay in the car because I’m frightened by the powerful needling energy that is specific to this hapū and this iwi and the way everything in the air and underneath the ground is humming for me to know my place. I forget it is the anniversary of my own grandfather’s burial even though I keep catching the smell of his sweat when my son’s father sits anywhere near.
After the hāngī — the coconut fish cured in lemon juice, the steamed pudding, and custard — I go out to the car park for a smoke. Singing begins to float out of the hall across the marae ātea. It is so beautiful, particularly the voices of the women, I start to cry, possessed by the pentagonal harmonies Māori have uplifted from the tangi of the birds.
And I forget it is Easter Sunday even with all this waiata rising like bread into the air.
Down the coast from Te Araroa, at Poverty Bay, long before the navigator Captain Cook dropped anchor here, the crew of the Endeavour would have heard the birds. Historical accounts of early European contact with Aotearoa describe this din, the looming cacophony of the bird orchestra.
Birds, apart from the marine mammals and the fish, lizards, insects, and small native bat, are all we really have here that pass for wildlife. A peculiarity of our separation from the ancient continent of Gondwanaland is the proliferation of avian life due to the lack of mammalian predators. Birds like the flightless kākāpō have no Darwinian right to flourish in the heavy chartreuse of their bodies and daft, cartoonish wings.
Māori had already become part of the din by the time Cook showed up to “discover” us. Our reo sounds like birds or the sea; originally just a spoken language where the timbre of the word conveys sense as much as the literal meaning. You can hear it in the Māori place name for New Zealand, Aotearoa (Oww-teh-aah-raw-aah), the stretch of the long white cloud, the lift skyward of “teh-aah” meaning cloud and “raw-aah” for long. You can hear it in the name of the kōkako, the two Os mimicking the haunting blue call of the bird.
After eating the birds we turned their feathers into cloaks and used them to write our stories into our dress, a feather twisted a certain way into a cloak would denote the signature of the author, and along with flax weaving, wood carving, and the head-to-toe stretch of our tattoos, feathers are what we used to tell the story of our kin bending back through blood to the gods.
I watched a documentary once where the white narrator said that Māori babies were given a meal of bellbirds or korimako to ensure their voices would be sweeter later in life. I remember hearing a talkback radio host say that everyone should go to the East Coast for a holiday because it is like going to another world.
My son’s father scoffs when I tell him this and says this is the world. But our past has become something that is told to us by the settlers through the murky filter of their colonizing sentiments and anxieties. Except for the parts of New Zealand that are still mostly Māori in cultural temperament, like the East Coast, places where time seems more slippery than an eel and older; deeper ways of being persist here.
At the marae that day in Te Araroa I hear this otherworldliness and the birds at its center in the way the speaker begins his whaikōrero, or speech, to the visitors at the pōhiri. He chants:
Ka whakarongo ake au ki te tangi a te manu, a te mātui.Tui tui tuituia. Tuia i runga, tuia i raro.Tuia i roto, tuia i waho.Ka rongo te pō, ka rongo te ao.Tui tui tuituia.
Loosely translated, as I have gone for the plural rather than singular bird, he says, “listen to the cry of the birds, they are everywhere, they are in us and above us and they are stitching our humanness into the world.”
On the marae they don’t worry about bird poetry being fashionable, about blackbirds being done to death by Wallace Stevens. The flight, singing, and living in trees are not viewed as being too baroque for aesthetic purposes.
But things change. Māori don’t live as bird people anymore, we’re not some lost unchanging tribe suspended in the aspic of non-discovery.
Still. Listen to that sound. It’s the humming that is and isn’t the birds. And even with the historical loss of our original tongue that means most contemporary Māori don’t speak the reo, there are many English words which have become Māori here in the phrasing and delivery of them. A word like “touched” has been transformed to suggest someone not being right in the head, possibly even on a spiritual level. There is also the more tender way of saying “darling” amongst our old people, and the same softness in my father’s voice when he pronounces uncle like the rest of his vast family, with an O as in “oncle.” We are still the bird people but it’s not so naked to the eye or the ear.
When I think of us I’m reminded of Yeats’s second-to-last poem, “Cuchulain Comforted,” where he wrote: “They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.” And the problem still of all this singing looking for a vein.
There are no birds he remembers.He does not remember owning a gun.He remembers nothing of the past.— From Linnets by Larry Levis
But it’s American poetry that’s always been my thing; both of my first poetry teachers, Michael Harlow and John Dolan, imparted an American sensibility, a looser and more conversational style than the British poets and even our own poetry pioneers like Allen Curnow and James K. Baxter. I adore the way Frank O’Hara’s poems sound like he’s just walking down the street, whistling and jingling words like change, not realizing he’ll have to rescue Lana Turner. The cosmic wistfulness of James Tate and the dying alien in his poem “The Cowboy,” who insists the stranger will have to be his cowboy. How Anne Sexton’s poems sound like the hiss of a match lighting a fatal pyre but also the subtle refrain of Lorine Niedecker believing all things are better with bacon.
At university I took out a large Longman Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry from the library and never took it back. And because having favorite poems is important, it’s Larry Levis’s “Linnets” that I return to via the anthology again and again. Levis creeps out over a salesman in two-tone shoes, snakes, and God getting balder in the twelve-part epic about his brother shooting a linnet. The waist of a woman like a weasel slipping away.
He sold shoes, he sold soap. Nothing remained. He drove on the roads with a little hole in the air behind him.
Writing this, I realized I have loved “Linnets” for twenty years and yet have no idea what a linnet actually looks like. I’d always imagined some kind of crow. But I find on Google that a linnet looks like a sparrow which has been dusted with red jelly crystals and it has a cherry blush to its breast that resembles human lungs.
In poetry workshops I’ve heard people counseled against plucking the sparse corpses of birds for metaphors, as the carcasses have already been so thoroughly plundered by the great and not so great. But living here and being Māori I can’t leave them alone any more than Audubon and The Birds of America.
Kiwi are flightless like the kākāpō but in Māori mythology they still have a potency. If you see a rare white one shrieking in the night be certain it’s the chill fingers of a ghost. Here we have our own history of reading birds for portents like Roman emperors but now most of the birds are gone, our cloaks stripped, buried or in a museum in a drawer under another drawer full of extinct, dehydrated huia.
But in the high court of linnets he does not get off so easily.
Before we leave on the family road trip of doom, a fantail/pīwakawaka — a harbinger of death if it comes inside — flies into my study and circles the room. It flies back from the balcony and repeats the circle and I see this as a terrible augur. I tell my son’s father about the fantail and he says it was just a visitor; the real omen of death would be if the pīwakawaka that had come inside was totally black.
I’m no one’s father. I whittle a linnet out of wood.
The next time I see him he is standing in his backyard between his chained pit bulls, Stanley and Copper, and the fruit tree behind him is full of fantails. I’m uneasy looking at him and the circles the birds are cutting across him; magic like this needs water to make things ordinary again.
But over the bare table in the morning a glass of water goes blind from staring upward.
On the drive back down the country we pass through Tikitiki and its tiny church with all the carvings. Anglicanism took root here and it’s hard to say who made the other more patrician, the missionaries or the local Māori. There is enough of a truce between me and my son’s father that I keep staring straight ahead and tell him not to hate me but I suspect, or rather, have this feeling, that Whiu, his Nanny, watches over our son. He knows I mean the birds and my fear of the fantail and replies that birds are so much older than us, they watch over us, seeing everything we do and when we die we pass through them.
His words echo the chant of his relative back at the marae. He means that in the old, star-driven world of Māori we don’t watch birds so much as they watch us. A song he likes, Midnight Rider by the Allman Brothers Band, is coming through the car stereo and his bird religion has the same shape-shifting mysticism that Larry Levis channels in the Americana of “Linnets.” The brief peace between us is like the mutual shedding of a skin.
Wolverines will destroy kitchens for pleasure.Wolverines are so terrible you must give in.
In the O trilogy by New Zealand writer Maurice Gee, a fantasy series for younger readers, there is a tribe of Birdfolk who were once so vainglorious and such merciless hunters that they are confined to a region of the world of O for their sins. They cannot fly beyond an invisible barrier and bounce against it to their death when they try. It is one of the Stonefolk, a pudgy subterranean race, who leads them underground to their liberty. They are told they must learn to be as humble as the worm if they want to break the curse and fly over all of O again. On the journey, many of the Birdfolk die even as they come out of the earth beside the river for their first and last taste of freedom.
A pair of lovers live, they lie heaving on the shingle, their iridescence caked with mud that they are too exhausted to wash away in the river. Eventually though, they take to the sky like it’s a fresh sheet of paper.
Your shy father extinct in a single footprint,your mother a stone growing a cuticle.
But we are not a couple anymore and we fight the rest of the way down the country. I am not from the same hapū as my son and his father, Uepohatu, the Stonepeople who look like the finest Birdfolk of O.
I am not one of them and I didn’t grow out of the mountain Hikurangi, which is the first place on Earth to be kissed each day by the sun. I need to know my place is defined by the space in their laughter that sounds so much like birds watching our grim human antics from the canopy. The gap in his mirth that he inherited from his relatives has always acted as a warning while I dangle. My son for his part says he will never go on a trip with both of us ever again.
I will not have written these words,I will be that silence slipping around the bendin the river, where it curves out of sight among weeds,the silence in which a car backfires and drives away.
But when we get home my son keeps playing a song over and over on the guitar that he heard at the graveside of Whiu. I realize the more I hear him play the song that I have heard it before. A night where, maybe, I got on the piss with one of the singers.
It’s enough to make me cleave to the presumption Whiu might be using us to walk the old love trail to that holy glitch in the river where Arthur waits with shy wings.
It’s the sound of his father telling me that all I write about is horses and the water and to do something new ... it’s the space inside the silence of his hands making two circles from nothing in the air.
Note: Readers can access the online version of Te Aka Māori-English, English-Māori Dictionary and Index at maoridictionary.co.nz.