Poetry Shelf review: Ruby Solly’s Tōku Pāpā

Tōku Pāpā, Ruby Solly, Victoria University Press, 2021

Over the past year, in all my musings and readings, books have felt so very precious. Books crossing myriad categories, books for adults and books for children. Poetry has been especially precious. Aotearoa is alive with poetry communities; there’s such a richness of voice on the page and in the air (and on the screen). And it is so valued.

Pick up a poetry book, hold the book in your hand and feel its preciousness. I picked up Ruby Solly’s debut collection and it felt like I was holding love. The love imbued in the stitches and seams of its making. The photograph will hold you still and steady and already you know that in this book people will be at its heart. Its core.

Enter a poetry book that catches your heart and every pore of your skin, and you enter a forest with its densities, its shadows and lights, canopies and breaths, re-generations. You will meet oceans and rivers and enter different ebbs and flows, different currents, fluencies. You will reach the sky with its infinite hues, dreamings, navigations, weatherings (storm washed, sunlit, moonlit). You will meet the land with its lifeblood, embraces, loves, whānau, anchors.

This is what happens when I read Ruby Solly’s Tōku Pāpā.

When you first told me

that you gave me the name of our tupuna

so that I would be strong enough

to hold our family inside my ribcage,

I believed you.

The collection is in two connected parts, like the two parts of a heart, ‘awe’ and ‘kura’, two nouns linked by feathers, leading us to the ‘essence of soul’, ‘strength, power, influence’ and the red feathers used as ‘decoration, treasure, valued possession, heirloom, precious possession, sacred, divine law, philosophy, darling, chief’, and the ability to glow.

The untitled poem that begins the collection (quoted in part above), before awe and kura, addresses ‘you’, and in this heart-opening the poet draws deep into the knowledge and love and whānau that shape and nourish her, the wairua, the dark places and the light.

I am reminded of Robert Sullivan’s terrific poem ‘Voice Carried My Family’ (AUP). Voice carries Ruby, and her voice ‘carries’ everyone she thanks in her acknowledgement page. The collection has myriad tributaries, but a key river is finding voice. She is addressing her Pāpā. She is voicing her relationship and that voice is modulated as musician, as poet, as human being. She is listening to the past and the present, she is writing a river, an ocean, the sky, the land. A forest. A whānau.

The words flow like a solo instrument, with the poet as bow and breath.

There is stillness and movement, and there is always heart. You will find yourself in the scene, and the scene will pulsate and be luminous with life:

We sit together in silence,

deep in the mountain’s quiet heart.

Watching our breath melt away

the walls around us.

from ‘He Manawa Maunga’

There is a road trip to the ballet and a machete blade to be readied for work. Custard tarts are eaten as a car fills with smoke. There are swimming lessons. There is underwater and above water. There is finding the current and then finding breath. There is warmth and there is wisdom.

I especially love ‘Eulogy’ and the father wisdom:

As a child

whenever I was angry,

inconsolable,

my father would tell me to write a eulogy

to the person who had caused me pain.

He said that by the end of it

I would see

that even those who cause us pain

are precious to the world.

from ‘Eulogy’

This precious book – that in its making, its stands, rests and journeys from and towards so much – is the reason why I cannot stop reading and sharing thoughts on and writing my own poetry. The book is a gift and like so many other readers I am grateful. Kia ora Ruby. Thank you.

Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a writer, musician and taonga pūoro practitioner living in Pōneke. She has been published in journals such as Landfall, Starling and Sport among others. In 2020 she released her debut album, Pōneke, which looks at the soundscapes of Wellington’s past, present and future through the use of taonga pūoro, cello, and environmental sounds. She is currently completing a PhD in public health, focusing on the use of taonga pūoro in hauora Māori. Tōku Pāpā is her first book.

Victoria University Press page

Ruby talks with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon

On Poetry Shelf: Ruby’s poem ‘Pōria

On Poetry Shelf: Ruby’s poem ‘Dedication

Ruby Solly premieres a video for her new album Pōneke and a wānanga with essa may ranapiri

Cover photograph: Taaniko Nordstrom and Vienna Nordstrom, Soldiers Rd Portraits

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