Ben Brown Between the Kindling and the Blaze (Anahera Press, 2013)
Ben Brown (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Mahuata) is an award-winning writer, performer and children’s author currently living in Lyttelton. His debut poetry collection, Between the Kindling and the Blaze, was completed during his residency at the Michel King Writers’ Centre in Devonport. He has previously released a CD of poetry entitled Dogtown (2010).
With scant collections by Māori writers making an appearance in New Zealand’s poetry scene, this book is an important arrival. Ben declares from the outset that these poems are ‘reflections on the concept of mana.’ A preface story introduces humans (a man) to the vastness and the smallness of the world: mountain, rock, grain of sand, tree. It speaks of how a human can furnish a shelter from sand, rock and wood, and how it can be built with both love and dignity. In this way, a family shelter becomes ‘a place of mana.’
The book, fittingly, is dedicated to whānau.
And so the poems, also a shelter for friends, family, whānau, are miniature edifices crafted with dignity and love. These poems become vessels for the poet’s loving kōrero. Mana is there between the kindling and the blaze, between an idea and and an experience. Mana is in the wisdom of the grandfather, but it is in a host of surprising things. Through this poetic contemplation, you are taken from moko to hui, from the ‘concrete cold of a city’ to Presidential dreamings, from James K Baxter to Hone Tuwhare. The poems become reattached to the world–to values and to customs.
Ben centres a lot of the poems on the page (Western poets have a habit of hugging the left-hand margin). It becomes a different way of reading with the billowing, silent beats on either side of the poems. It accentuates the music of the shortened lines that swell and contract like the belly of a vessel (that place for kōrero that comes from the heart, but that holds itself open to politics).
Listening to a selection of the poems on the CD, heightens the music and the sense of contemplation. I particularly loved ‘Taniwha’ (a subtle evocation of the force that ‘is there for all to see’), the lyrical delights of ‘The heron is God,’ the cheeky warm tribute to Hone Tuwhare in ‘Chur bro,’ the twists and turns of ‘I am the Māori Jesus’ as it jams with the Baxter original. Like Hone, Ben mixes up his language, mixes up the voices, the tone of the lines.
The book, like a good LP, demands to be replayed.
Anahera Press page
New Zealand Book Council page
Random House page
Interview with NZ Children’s Authors, Christchurch Public Library