Poetry Shelf review: Hinemoana Baker’s funkhaus

Hinemoana Baker funkhaus Victoria University Press, 2020

A woman carries in her arms

a heavy rectangle of sky –

roofs and treetops.

She places it in the back seat

of her car to calm down.

You and I sit

like separate circles

of a Venn diagram

unaware of the fabled

tasting zones of the tongue.

from ‘flomarkt’

Hinemoana Baker’s new poetry collection is peppery, salty, sweet. The poems form a bridge between two homes, Aotearoa and Berlin, and the overall effect is a book you want to keep reading. Again and again and again. I have been reading funkhaus since it arrived in my postbox May last year. Some books are like this. The German word ‘funken’, we learn in the blurb, is ‘to send a radio signal’. I love the idea that poetry becomes a form of broadcast. I love being an antenna, picking up the static, the silences, the connections across eight months.

funkhaus is on the Poetry category longlist of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The shortlist will be announced on March 3rd.

Hinemoana has always achieved a stop-you-in-your-tracks fluency, maybe because she is a musician and her ear is attentive to the sound of the line, regardless of the subject matter, the personal admissions, the political acumen, the light along with the biting dark. I am listening to funkhaus and admiring the pared back melodies, both the acoustic and the electric.

Pepper blacks the pan so never

Shake it near me, wait

For the flagrant animation

In my bed base

In mountain situations

Sleep swaddled, wake ecstatic

from ‘Narcissist advice column’

What has gripped me more than anything – and maybe this particularly matters in these Covid times – is the way most poems are peopled. Yes there is a mesmerising view out the window where the birds are flying in formation. Yes there is a new vacuum cleaner. Yes there is the question of whether extinct species might be revived. But touch the beating pulse of this collection and you will feel people. Unlike the camera that gravitates towards the people-emptied landscape, Hinemoana draws people in close. Think loved ones, friends, family, passersby. Sometimes a poem is infused in the surreal and you imbibe a scene that tilts and sticks. This is is the start of ‘friday night’, a little beauty of a poem:

Way down south

in the south

of the  south island of himself

over greyscale trees.

Eagles and meteorites are not.

On other occasions the poem is grounded in the personal. There is always the gap, the quavery silence, the unnamed pronouns (I, we, you, he, she, they), the spiky detail that fascinates, the heart of experiencing, of imagining, of replaying. I especially love ‘aunties’, a poem Hinemoana read for Poetry Shelf (2019). This glorious tour de force of a poem makes people (aunties) utterly, movingly, wittily, wincingly, gorgeously present.

We had a marching auntie and an eyelash-curler aunty, a

headscarves one, a lavender talcum powder aunty and a satin

running shorts one. We had an aunty who was laid out on the

sheepskin rug by that uncle when she was six, and seven and

eight. These might be the same aunties. We had an aunty who

died on the same day as her own sister and turned into that

white horse on the green hill. A drawn-on-eyebrows aunty who

said I don’t care how good they are at yodelling they’re giving

country music a bad name those girls.

Ah but I also love ‘mother’, ‘waitangi day’, ‘if i had to sing’, waiata tangi’. Find the book. Find your own clearings.

Hinemoana crafts poetry as flourishing movement. In part as melodic flow but also in the way poems come into being in surprising ways. The unexpected paths and sideturns. The underlays and overlays. The semantic chords and the visual alerts. In ‘fox’, an animal is spotted outside in the snow (‘The most powerful things / are the ones we simply come across’). The poem entrances as you move from this sweet epiphany to loss of appetite, your own child dying, to the skin as kidney to:

Climbing into the air outside your door

a tufty plant grows from a cobblestone.

And there –

there is the sandwich board with pictures of fruit

and words you don’t understand

which make nothing happen.

Another sublime example is ‘flohmarkt’, the poem I quoted from at the start of the review. Here we move from the striking opening image of woman and sky to tongue myths to dog and bike owners, and then to chairs. This is how poetry can move. It is gap and it is breathtakingly resonant. Here is the end of the poem:

I live with a surplus

of chairs, mostly empty.

My one, with its smooth

wooden arms and your one

if you were here.

The kind of chair you never want

to get up out of

the kind of chair for which

prepositions were invented.

Maybe this sounds old-fashioned but for me Hinemoana’s poetry gets down to the essence of things. There is an addictive economy that opens out into lush and surprising fields of reading. Like a yin and yang effect. Like poetry as a basket of essential oils that you flick on your wrist and carry all day. That work for each of us differently. That sustain and delight, that get you moving and thinking. That change as you wear them over the course of eight months. Poetry as essential. Poetry as skin tingling essential. It feels essential to Hinemona – to be writing poems, to be travelling across the poetry bridge, that arc of static and connection between Berlin home and Aotearoa home, to be grounded in her friends and whānau, her writing support crew. She acknowledges the vital support of those who have offered aroha and wisdom, publication and recording opportunities, reviews, translations, festival invitations in her endnotes. I offer a small thank you to Hinemoana – each book is a gift and we are all the better for residing within your latest one.

HINEMOANA BAKER is a poet, musician and creative writing teacher. She traces her ancestry from Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Te Āti Awa and Ngāi Tahu, as well as from England and Germany (Oberammergau in Bayern). She is the author of the poetry collections Funkhaus (VUP, 2020), waha | mouth (VUP, 2014), kōiwi kōiwi (VUP, 2010), and mātuhi | needle (co-published in 2004 by Victoria University Press and Perceval Press).

Hinemoana has edited several online and print anthologies and released several albums of original music and more experimental sound art. She works in English, Māori and more recently German, the latter in collaboration with German poet and sound performer Ulrike Almut Sandig. She is currently living in Berlin, where she was 2016 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer in Residence, and completing a PhD at Potsdam University.

Victoria University Press page

The Spin Off review (Elizabeth Heritage)

Pantograph Punch review (Arihia Latham)

NZLA review (Kiri Piahana-Wong)

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