John-Paul Powley, Kaitiaki o te Pō: Essays, Seraph Press, 2018
John-Paul Powley writes with ease and grace in essays that present entwined threads. Simplicity and richness coexist as he reaches down into the truth (his truth) of his experience. This is what draws me into his collection: the need to explore the personal truth of both past and present. It feels utterly explorative, vulnerable, testing, mobile. It feels humble.
The opening essay resembles a reflective walk, a sequence of interconnected musings, particularly on grief. John-Paul is watching Brideshead Revisited, he is walking through the grounds of Victoria University on his way to a History Conference that starts off tediously with an Education Minister who speaks of herself rather than from an accumulation of listening and then, when Justice Joe Williams suggests the role of the historian is as kaitiaki o te pō (caretaker of the night), includes moments of epiphany. John-Paul is walking through the past as he walks to the conference, retrieving his younger self and more importantly a university friend who had recently died in London. The essay is a deft weave of experience, ideas and feelings: of moving with the past into the future, of processing loss and carrying that loss forward, of shifting the way he carries the dead within him. Reading the essay is akin to taking a walk. I stop by certain vistas and objects and let the embedded ideas reverberate. A plaque, for example, unnoticed by the young John-Paul, now resonates. An old oak tree had been axed by bureaucracy to make room for a single car park.
The second essay also drew me in to close attention as John-Paul navigated his masculinity, his femininity, his gender identity – however we might define such concepts and ways of being. The fact others thought he was gay when he was not gay challenged him as both child and adult. We travel through his school-boy choices that threaten to put him at the bottom of the social ladder. He loathed the misogynistic lyrics of Guns N Roses, he picked leg warmers as his favourite item of clothing and pictured a leg-warmer dance scene when the class sniggered at him, he fell in love with Marlon Brando and cried when Marlon died. He got to shave before his Y8 peers did and it felt like a badge of masculinity. He wondered when he would ever be at the arrival point of himself. When as an adult he became Dean, at the high school where he taught, he wanted to protect the bullied and ended up being called a ‘faggot’. The layerings of confession and experience are deeply affecting. John-Paul asserts this is not a coming-out essay – I see the essay as an opening up of gender experience that resists location within either/or.
If the essays are deeply personal they are also political. One essay considers why Anzac Day irks him: he pinpoints our blind spots (indifference? ignorance? need to ignore? to privilege white narratives?): the New Zealand wars and the Boer war in the claim ‘we’ lost our innocence in Gallipoli. The notion of noble sacrifice. The whole business of remembering ‘them’ when who exactly was ‘them’. The way remembering begins at WWI.
John-Paul teaches (or has taught) history and social studies and that occupation strongly influences the weave of writing. When he visits a beach and the adjacent town with his children, he reflects upon the grave of Parnell but he also reflects upon the graves of Te Puni and his family. The dampened down stories, in the master narratives, are drawn to the light. It feels so important to be reading these essays, to be acknowledging the unspeakable violence and theft and wrongs done to Māori, to be widening our view of history. It feels so right that his students will not be limited to a Pākehā-centric view of the past.
This book feels like part of our coming together; of the contemporary call to reconsider who and how we are at both a personal level and within our communities, both past and present. It is essential reading.
Seraph Press author page