Poetry Shelf Occasional Reviews – Alice Te Punga Somerville’s Always Italicise: How to write while colonised

Always Italicise: how to write while colonised, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Auckland University Press, 2022

And then you skype with me late one afternoon to practise your speech
which begins with your
pepeha as if that is the most ordinary way to start
when you’re eleven years old.

How were we to know – even to guess – that this language would be your weapon
Your strategy
Your bullet-proof vest

from ‘Anchor’

Alice Te Punga Somerville’s new collection offers four vital sections: reo / invisible ink / mahi / aroha. Sections in their own right but the discrete boundaries blur as movement and connections abound. The categories strike a chord, deep seated, poignant, as though this exquisitely designed book becomes a register of life – how we speak, how we are unseen and unspoken, how we work, and how we love. Importantly, how we become.

Alice was once told foreign words need to be italicised, to be rendered apart from standard English. This alienating process includes te reo Māori. Yet some words are adopted by English and slip off tongues without e-strange-ment: think pizza, pasta, cappuccino. Think haka and marae. Inconsistent. Alice puts the shoe on the other foot and italicises the English language leaving te reo Māori as notforeign. It is poem performance yes, but more importantly it is action.

The overturned italics convention, carried across the length of a book, is an insistence. It is personal, it is political and it is ancestral. We are what and how and why and where and who we speak. The historical and contemporary silencing, the historical and contemporary othering of language is inexcusable.

Alice’s poems are writing on the breath, breathpoetry, utterly fluid; it is writing on the breath of memory, story, change, ideas, feeling. Her poems carry the rhythm of life – of reo, invisible ink, mahi, aroha. There is the rhythm of prayer and the rhythm of waiata. The poetic rhythms and crafted fluencies carry the reader across eclectic subject matter.

Alice is spotlighting indigenous worlds, an indigenous presence, replying to colonised worlds. She is building a poem space and a poetry home. Many poems are dedicated to other people, underlying the idea we write within nourishing communities of readers, writers, thinkers, mentors. And for Alice, this includes the academic, acknowledging her poetry is in debt to her life as an academic. The academy is joy but it is also challenge, with settings that are racist, privileged, biased.

Books reach us at different times and in different ways. As readers we establish myriad travel routes through a book, we bring our own experience close or hold at a vulnerable distance. Books are my life rafts at the moment. With the road ahead still bumpy, still uncertain, I hold language and love close, I work and take little steps each day. I see Alice’s glorious, ground-establishing poetry collection as her mahi, her aroha. It is a book spiked with anger and it is a book stitched with love. It has made me smile and it has gripped my heart. It is the most affecting book I have read this year.

Pick up coffee cup and printed pages, open the screen door, walk back inside.

My eyes take longer to arrive than the rest of me:
they’re still adjusted for the brightness outside;
I bump into things, blind, while I wait for my whole self to arrive,
and realise this is the only worthwhile way to proceed anyway –

All of me, all at once:
anger, frustration, cynicism, hope
and, in the centre as well as the outer reaches, love.

from ‘Too’

Alice Te Punga Somerville, Te Āti Awa, Taranaki, is a scholar, poet and irredentist. She researches and teaches Māori, Pacific and Indigenous texts in order to centre Indigenous expansiveness and de-centre colonialism. Alice is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. She studied at the University of Auckland, earned a PhD at Cornell University, is a Fulbright scholar and Marsden recipient and has held academic appointments in New Zealand, Canada, Hawai‘i and Australia. Her first book Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) won Best First Book from the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association. Her most recent book is Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook (BWB, 2020).

Auckland University Press page

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