Poetry Shelf review: essa may ranapiri’s Echidna

Echidna, essa may ranapiri, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022

they’re sharing takeaways
next to the ocean
bony butts on a park bench
the Spider signs into the air
did you know liking hot chips makes you gay
Echidna smiles does it?
there is just the sound of waves crashing
and the newspaper rustling
the grease making things
transparent

from ‘Echidna & the Spider’

Spending extended time with essa may ranapiri’s new collection Echidna is a catalyst for contemplation, deep-seated musing, sinking into the knowable, wallowing in the unknowable, brushing against the light, scratching at the dark. All this and more. essa is writing in the present tense, that intimate prolonged precious moment when their words meet screen or page but, as their dedication indicates, are writing – for to from – their ancestors (past) and descendants (future). And past present future become weave. And writing becomes weave. And weave becomes writing.

I see the word weave is used on the book’s blurb: ‘Echidna contends with three stands of tradition; Greek mythology, Christianity and Māori pūrākau, and through weaving them together attempts to create a queerer whole.’ Storytelling is weave. Weave is storytelling. Where and how did she fit into storytelling over time? Where do they fit into story telling. Who is speaking? Who wields power according to the dominant voice? Ah the power of myth to acculturate.

For decades, we have attempted to place she centre stage, to give her necessary voice, to rescue her from shadows and misrepresentation, this complex prismatic stretching she. As a writer and once temporary academic, I wanted/want to witness and engage with her publications, performances, anthologies, critiques. And now, so long overdue, we must place they centre stage, to give them voice, the non binary, the gender fluid, to rescue them from shadows and misrepresentation, this complex prismatic stretching they. As writer and once temporary academic, I want to witness and engage with their publications, performances, anthologies, critiques.

essa draws upon so very much for this heart-startling collection. I experience it as a weave of their own self, vulnerabilities, fears, dreams, experiences. As a weaving of contemporary spaces, mythological and cultural inheritances, and above all the wounding slam of colonialism. This is the kind of book an author has given every inch of skin and blood to. I am reminded of Tusiata Avia’s Bloodclot.

Again I am also reminded that the books we write are woven out of the books that precede us, the communities we write within and beyond – as much as life, imaginings, daring. essa acknowledges this in their poem dedications and ‘Notes’ and the connective tissue of their poems. Here is part of the community they gather: Tusiata Avia, Tayi Tibble, Roman Potiki, Aimee-Jane Anderson O’Connor, Hana Pera Aoake, Tina Makereti, Sam Duckor-Jones, Ruby Solly, Stacey Teague, Whiti Hereaka, Keri Hulme, Rangi Faith, Robert Sullivan, Anne Marie Te Whiu, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Reihana Robinson, Elizabeth Kerekere, Hinemoana Baker, Sinead Overbye, Michelle Rahurahu, Harry Josephine Giles, Carin Smeaton.

The collection. Echidna, the she-viper, cave dweller, mother of monsters, half woman half snake: she is myth and she inhabits this world. She meets Narcissus, and she starts an instagram account, plays video games, eats takeaways. She squashes sandwiches into a tupperware container and she wraps herself in cliches. She meets Ureia. She is a night cleaner. She is the pulse and tension of this collection. She will keep you reading.

standing in the shower now she scrubs vivid from her tails      kids’ comics
and lyrics     from the radio     Black Parade and a Riot! of melodrama    when
she gets out   lifting her unruly  form over the threshold     she wraps clichés
around herself to get dry    the mirror fogged over      hides a reflection she
doesn’t see herself in

from ‘Echidna Goes through Her Emo Phase’

Māui and Prometheus also make an appearance or two in a steaming hot relationship. The poem ‘Prometheus Collects the Body of His Lover’ hugs the right-hand margin and the collection slows right down to heartbreak, to held-breath, to astonish us as the poem shifts vantage point and embodies grief.

he takes small sips
black and bitter

there was a Prometheus who would howl at this
would take up patu and strike
a Prometheus who would burn the house down
and leave with the body
and bury him in the rich soils of his kāinga
a Prometheus who would try his hand at succeeding
where Māui had failed
but that wasn’t him

not now

essa offers sensual hooks so poems become tactile, aromatic, igniting taste buds. There is the physical and there is the intangible. The form of the poems shift like the shifting voice of the storyteller, the point of view swivelling. Sometimes a poem might appear like two salt pillars, sometimes ravined with space and ache, sometimes wider gaps punctuate the line, allowing room for float and drift.

And the sound. There is the music of the storytelling voice, a voice attuned to holding a listener entranced, to composing aural connections, undulating chords. Yes, it is music for the entranced listener.

Books find you. You find books. Poetry, like storytelling, has an incredible ability to invigorate every body pore, in ways that both heal and challenge. We need poetry in these turbulent times. We need this book. This remarkable groundbreaking Echidna.

essa may ranapiri (Ngaati Raukawa, Highgate, Na Guinnich) is the author of this book. Their first book, ransack, was published in 2019. They will write until they’re dead. 

Te Herenga Waka University Press page
Poetry Shelf Monday poem: ‘Echidna & Nafanua’

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