Poetry Shelf Classic Poem: Bill Nelson picks Hinemoana Baker’s ‘Sound Check’

 

Sound Check

 

you sound just like that woman, what’s her name

she sings that one about the train

check one two one two check check

ka tangi te tītī tieke one two

 

she sings that one about the train

can I get another tui over here

ka tangi te tītī tieke one two

my secret love’s no secret any more

 

can I get another tui over here

at last my heart’s an open door

my secret love’s no secret any more

that sounds choice love what a voice

 

at last my heart’s an open door

you got a voice on you alright

that sounds choice love what a voice

you know the crowd’s gunna soak up the highs

 

you got a voice on you alright

had a bit of a band myself back in the day

you know the crowd’s gunna soak up the highs

i’d up the tops if I was you ay

 

had a bit of a band myself back in the day

check one two one two check check

i’d up the tops if I was you ay

you sound just like that woman, what’s her name

 

Hinemoana Baker from mātuhi / needle  (Victoria University Press, 2004)

 

 

From Bill Nelson: Sometime in 2009 I heard Hinemoana Baker read ‘Sound Check’ and it has stuck in my mind ever since. I think the reading might even have taken place on a mid-range PA system in a dingy carpeted room, some people laughing in the next room. Although I could be retrofitting that memory and it was in Unity Books or something. Anyway, at the time I noticed the outstanding music in the poem, and then wit and humour, and finally, the way the drama escalated as it continued.

Unusually, the poem is entirely in dialogue. A man is speaking to a woman who is trying to do a soundcheck and sings bits and pieces into a microphone. There’s no other description of the room, or the man, or the woman, or any other sounds. And yet through the poem’s pitch perfect choice of dialogue, the man is conjured up before us. A man we’ve probably all met. A pissed bloke in a pub, who likes to talk shit, knows a little bit about everything, probably from some other generation. He leans with his elbow propped on a tall felt-covered loudspeaker at one side of the stage, a beer in other hand, maybe a cigarette too. By contrast, the woman in the poem is a collection of song fragments and meaningless numbers, and it’s harder to picture her clearly. We know little about her, other than she seems like an incredibly professional musician, with a grasp of te reo Māori and a penchant for love songs.

You don’t have to try very hard to hear the music. It’s a pantoum, so there’s the repetition of course, but also the rhymes are particularly great and bang home like a drum, and there are bits of song lyrics that are italicized like they are meant to be sung. The complexity of the staccato sound check syllables juxtaposed with the rambley-bloke language of the man speaking is also really interesting and ramps up the conflict. Different people and different rhythms, looping in and out and over each other. It’s the kind of poem that is always going to be read out loud.

Pantoums are great at showing how context is important for language, how one line put against another can change it’s meaning entirely, or more accurately, provide two equally true meanings. The poem starts and ends on the same line said by the man, ‘you sound like that woman, what’s her name.’ And what seemed like an innocent enough question at the beginning, a bit idiotic perhaps but friendly enough, becomes patronising and infuriating by the time we get to the end. We cringe as he says it a final time, after a string of condescending comments and feeble compliments. He’s sounding more drunk, unable to remember what he already said two minutes ago, and I imagine him wandering off to the urinal, a poster of the gig that night right in front of his face. And he stands there with one hand propped against the wall, squinting his eyes, still unable to remember her name.

 

 

 

Bill Nelson’s first book of poetry, Memorandum of Understanding, was published by VUP. He is a co-editor at Up Country: A Journal for the NZ Outdoors and his work has appeared in journals, dance performances and on billboards. He is currently living in France. You can find more about him here at billmainlandnelson.com.

 

Hinemoana Baker  of Ngāti Tahu, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa and Te Āti Awa along with English and Bavarian heritage, is a poet, musician and playwright currently living in Berlin. She was the 2009 Arts Queensland Poet in Residence, a writer in residence at the University of Iowa International Writing Programme (2010), Victoria University Writer in Residence (2014) and held the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency (2015–16). She has published three poetry collections and several CDs of sonic poems. Hinemoana’s website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s