Poetry Shelf review: Robert Sullivan’s Tūnui | Comet

Tūnui | Comet, Robert Sullivan, Auckland University Press, 2022

6.

I’d written ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’
because it reminded me of buses in Honolulu

at the airport and Waikiki. The open-air buses
aren’t like decolonisation though. Decolonisation

is not worrying about cultural identity,
and not translating and not having to explain

things like a family and hapū do such as wānanga
because the wānanga is the explanation

or learning mōteatea by our ancestors,
or prophecies of our spiritual tūpuna, or sadness

at the fighting on the other side. These
decolonisations make up life.

 

from ‘Te Tāhuhu Nui’

Robert Sullivan belongs to the iwi Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu and Kāi Tahu. His debut collection, Star Waka (Auckland University Press, 1999), marked the arrival of a significant poet, and has been numerously reprinted. Robert has published a number of collections since, and with Reina Whaitiri edited Puna wai Kōrero, an anthology of Māori poetry, and with Reina and Albert Wendt, Whetu Moana and Mauri Ola, anthologies of Polynesian poetry in English.

Robert’s new collection, Tūnui | Comet, stands on the shoulders (hearts, lungs, mind) of everything he has written and edited to date. Voice has carried his poetry, his family, his whakapapa. Voice is the weave that remembers the touchstones of his previous collections: Tāmaki Makaura, the Far North, colonisation, Cook, family. I have never forgotten his premise that voice carries us. And voices carries this collection, all that it holds close, all that it challenges. It is there in ‘Kawe Reo / Voices Carry’:

Voice carries us from the foot of Rangipuke / Sky Hill / Albert Park
to the Wai Horotiu stream chuckling down Queen Street carrying
a hii-haa-hii story—from prams and seats with names and rhymes,
words from books and kitchen tables.

In writing poetry, Robert is speaking to for with from. He is conversing and he is voyaging, and his writing is the river flowing, the currency of water and air vital. Each poem sits in generous space on the page, each poem given ample room in which to breathe, in an open font, allowing space for the reader to pause and reflect.

The collection weaves in past, present, and future – who he is, was and will be – mythologies, histories. There is the drive to write in te reo Māori, to nourish the language’s roots, to write poems without English translations, to insist upon a need to speak and grow with his own language.

Robert acknowledges he writes within a community of poets who have shaped him. He carries a history of reading, of considering the work of others, particularly Māori and Pasifika poets. There’s a homage to Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. An imagined barbecue with Hone Tuwhare. A reminder the notDeclaration of Independence was actually yes, an assertion of mana by the rangatira (for Moana Jackson). There’s walking on Moeraki sand to remember Keri Hulme’s place names.

Voicing: colonisation decolonisation. The poem ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’ reminded me of the caution I bring to facts and figures, to encyclopaedic entries, to the way statistics can be hijacked, research findings manipulated. I am reminded of the hidden narratives, the misrepresented experiences, the sidelined voices.

2. Ruapekapeka

I have visited once and seen a hilly field
from memory—hard to take the scene in
without props. There was a church service
and worshippers fled out beyond. Never
swarmed the bunkers and trenches.
Flicked between ancestor Wynyard
and out neighbouring great chief Kawiti.
I do not know the buried knives. We gathered
in this hill of ash, dead bees and pollen.
We left carvings in the earth and flowers there.

 

from ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’

Tūnui | Comet is poetry of acknowledgement. It is poetry of challenge. And it is profoundly moving. In ‘A.O.U’, the poem sings a mihi for Ihumātao. In ‘Feather’s’, the speaker is wearing blood and mud splattered trousers at Parihaka (‘we’re a little band of brothers /marching hundreds strong’) and the feather is in flight:

Whiteness
of the mountain
the ploughs
and feathers
the children’s
singing
witness

I say challenge, do I mean voice? Voicing different versions. Wanting to wrap Old Government House in Treaty pages and lavalavas and knock on the door and ‘say open sesame’. Or stepping back into the sailing boots of Captain James Cook and twisting the eyeglass to imagine afresh the what if.

Or what if I stayed in Aotearoa
and shared our science,
our medical knowledge,
our carpentry and animal husbandry,
our love of books
and conservation values?
What if we had gained the friendship,
love and trust of the Natives,
and returned that equally
at the time, not needing
to constantly gaslight
and to make amends?

 

from ‘Cooking with Gas’

Reading Robert’s intricate, sweetly crafted poetry affects me on so many levels. There is aroha in the pen’s ink, there is fortitude and insight, there is history and there is future. There is uplift, and the need to refresh the eyeglass, the mouthpiece. Read the excellent reviews of Anton Blank and David Eggleton (links below); they celebrate the arrival of a new book by a significant poet in multiple ways, and how it inspires on so many levels. My head is all over the show now, and reviews are getting harder and harder to write, but I hold this book out to you. It is a beacon of light on the horizon, and I am grateful for its presence.

Auckland University Press page
Anton Blank review at ANZL
David Eggleton review at Kete Books

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