Poetry Shelf poets on poems: Rachel Lockwood on essa may ranapiri’s ‘she cut her face shaving’

                             ‘She Cut Her Face Shaving’ essa may ranapiri

(from ransack, Victoria University Press, 2019)

essa may ranapiri’s work frequently explores the uncomfortable boundaries that exist in binary gender, and uses form and technique to push readers away from conventional approaches to both gender and poetry.  Everything in their piece ‘she cut her face shaving’ works to push the reader towards a new space, from the vocabulary and imagery to the way the lines are arranged on the page.

The arrangement of the work on the page exemplifies the subtle ways that ranapiri affects the reader. Rather than proceeding straight down the page, ‘she cut her face shaving’ begins to drift right from the second line. The final shape evokes images that reflect those in the poem – the drip of blood, the curve of a neck- but also reflect a preoccupation with resisting convention.  Throughout their collection ransack, words drift and explode across the page in varying arrangements. The visual aspect connects to the subject matter, which centres on ranapiri’s identity as a takatapui and non-binary individual. This poem is a microcosm of an effect found throughout this work- the reader’s eye is physically drawn away from conventional pattern, into a new space and shape that ranapiri has created.

Form and content collide again in the fifth line. Ending this line with the word testosterone is a confirmation of a non-cis experience that is only hinted at the beginning of the poem. Positioned at half-way, this line offers an opportunity to the reader to consider the first section in a new light, and prepares them for the impact of the second section. The deliberate use of pronoun  immediately afterwards reinforces this transitionary moment. The pronoun use is sparing throughout this work, but rich with meaning, drawing connection between ownership and the body. The title itself gives context to the poem, ‘her chin’ positions the reader as an outsider in this situation. Garments and body parts that could be ascribed ownership are not, instead they become ‘the pencil skirt’, ‘the hair’, ‘the jaw’. Ownership appears again in this vital fifth line- ‘that testosterone/ bought her’. After this moment, both the Adam’s apple and the ‘lateness’ become hers again. The pronouns here own this experience, and are unafraid to do so. 

The slash is a dominant feature of this poem, and serves multiple purposes. One that immediately pushes itself forward is the echo, again,  of the ink on the page and the action of the work. Lines that are not broken up by the slash are broken up instead by the line break. Nothing goes on for longer than four words. These short, sharp lines, remind the reader of the pattern of shaving, the short strokes, and in one particularly poignant use – the ‘/cut/’ of hair seems at once to reference the ‘cut’ of the title. Additionally, it breaks the flow of the reader. There appears to be no particular rhythm to the slashes or line breaks, simply a disruption. The disruption to the face by the cut, perhaps, or the disruption to the presumed reader represented by a non-binary figure.

Another strong use of the slash is the way it abstracts the body. Every part of the body, down to the clothes being worn, have their own line. Here the body is represented not as a whole, but as separate pieces. The reader is invited to consider the way we read these pieces as masculine or feminine within the context of the poem and its title. The limited pronoun use works in conjunction with this, separating the pieces not only from each other, but also from a singular ownership of this body. Once this space between body and self is established, ranapiri jams the masculine and feminine together, setting the reader off balance. Gender has remained ambiguous before this moment, and could be intentionally misread to provide a more cis-normative view. ranapiri quashes this in the seventh line, bringing that all important ‘her adam’s apple’ into play. Immediately the subject of the poem comes into view, shedding new light on to the readers experience, and preparing us for the final two lines.

What all of these techniques have in common are the spaces both literal and figurative in the story. ranapiri seems to be again referencing the final part of their work. What is missed out, what we are ‘late’ to, preoccupies this poem, haunting every line and every sparing word. ranapiri creates in this work a space where identity can be celebrated and mourned in the same breath, the past and present as well as hopes for the future tumbled up together.

Rachel Lockwood

Rachel Lockwood is Hawke’s Bay born and bred but now living in Wellington and studying a BA at VUW. She was a 2019 National Schools Poetry Award finalist, and has previously been published in Starling.

You can hear Rachel read her poem in Starling 10 here

essa may ranapiri (Ngāti Raukawa/Tainui/Ngāti Takatāpui/Clan Gunn/Highgate) is a person or some shit / or whatever / they wrote a book of poems called ransack / it’s still in th world / the only time they use they/them pronouns for themselves is in these bios / isn’t that funny / thx goes out to their ancestors / who are as big as everything / just wow / just everything / they will write until they’re dead

Monday Poem: You can read essa’s poem ‘when i was born i didn’t say anything’ here

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