Ekphrasis in response to Walk (Series C) by Colin McCahon
I. Bro, I noticed the absence of korowai at your tangi
II. I have made you this kahu-kurī. A taonga
for the Ngā Mōkai peoples and their descendants.
I have just now taken it off the line and
folded it with the sun still fresh on its limbs.
III. The unsteady warps and welts of this cloak have caused
the tāniko along the bottom to crack the horizon.
But Muriwai nurtures the embers of our iwi, and this korowai will
take on the spirits of every great leader and warrior who walks it.
IV. The kahu-kurī were the war cloaks of chiefs.
V. This sackcloth taonga will be your anchor now,
(let go the weight of humanity on your black cross)
it will cast threads from the living all the way
to Manawatawhi – where you’ll take your last look.
VI. And you will recognise that
a black line separates the milk of the sky, sheepish and shrouded,
from the knuckled gravel, where you took your first fall.
It was expected, bro. No shame in trying to carry that tau alone,
VII. no shame in taking direction – we are all sinners here.
VIII. If you follow the next break in the horizon
You may think it’s an invitation to walk out into the wet cold ocean
and lose your breath underwater.
It is not.
IX. Instead look to where the sky has taken up tone
long and arid, clouds formed from my fists,
arguing with our tūpuna in there.
They don’t want you to know
X. that we do fall off; into the blackout, where the shade has been drawn.
XI. Your ancestors and I worked that jute, brother,
to get it to bleed like that
with your open shores, your wounds unhealed:
Te One Rangatira.
XII. Here we both are, man,
kneeling at the foot of all this white,
at the beach broken by Christ already,
facing the grief;
XIII. I expect to see your tiny boat out there on the crooked horizon.
XIV. Sometimes it is enough
to sit and look out.
Other times you have to walk
across bone, stone and shell.
|Walk (Series C) in minature|
I came across this poem while typesetting the 32nd issue of JAAM literary magazine, the contents of which have been selected by this issue's guest editor, Dunedin writer Sue Wootton. The loose theme of the issue is ‘Shorelines’, and the poems, stories, creative non-fiction pieces and photographs in the issue deal with that theme in a variety of literal and non-literal ways.
|The cover of JAAM 32|
Sue has selected many amazing pieces for JAAM 32, but this poem is the one that has struck me the most. When trying to explain to my partner what this poem was, and why I loved it, I got really emotional in ways I didn’t expect. Not only is this a powerful poem, but it is so interconnected with other powerful stories and powerful art by powerful artists.
Standing on its own, it’s weaving the story of Christ – specifically the Stations of the Cross (also known as Via Dolorosa – the way of sorrows) – into a Māori cultural framework. It feels both contemporary and ancient, and as well as mixing times and places, it mixes between formal and informal language, and between English and Māori, just as it is weaving Western and Māori culture.
But this poem is also enriched by other powerful connections. As the subtitle says, iIt is an ekphrasis (a work of art in response to another work of art) in response to a series of paintings by Colin McCahon: Walk (series C), 1973. Colin McCahon is justly, in my opinion, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated artists. I can understand why people might not like his work – it isn’t ‘pretty’ and it moved further into abstraction throughout his career, but it never strayed from meaning.
I first remember coming across his work at university. One of his giant ‘I AM’ paintings (Gate III, 1970) used to hang in the foyer to one of the lecture theatre blocks I frequented ( it’s since been moved downtown to Rutherford House). Part of its power is in its size – it’s enormous! I never fail to feel something every time I see it. (As a wee aside, I don’t think I quite appreciated it at the time, but the university art collection, which they hang around the campus, are amazing. You get an education in New Zealand art history just by wandering around, just by living with them.)
So, for me, a reference to a McCahon painting is going to give a poem a bit of added feeling. Especially this work, Walk (Series C), which I had recently come upon in a piece I was editing about New Zealand painting for Te Ara (my day job). I suggest you go and have a look at a reproduction of this painting over here on Te Papa’s website: http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/657795. Make sure you zoom in on the painting, so you can see each section. On one level, it’s a series of fairly abstract depictions of a beach – Muriwai, on Auckland’s wild west coast (also the setting for Gildea’s poem). Slightly deeper, it’s referencing the Stations of the Cross (as is Gildea’s poem). But yet another layer to Walk (Series C) is that it’s also about poet James K. Baxter, who had died the year befor McCahon painted this work. The two had been friends but had fallen out or become estranged. Both were Pākehā, but they shared an interest in Māori and Māori culture
The Te Papa website describes the painting as follows:
In Walk (Series C) McCahon journeys along Muriwai Beach in dialogue with his friend, perhaps recounting the shared events of their lives, perhaps seeking reconciliation. This walk runs parallel to another: in Maori belief, the spirits of the departed travel up the west coast towards Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga), from where they leap off the land to begin their final journey to the afterlife. As McCahon wrote to Peter McLeavey about the painting, ‘The Christian “walk” and the Maori “walk” have a lot in common.’ Drawing on personal and particular events in his own life, McCahon used them to address big themes in his art — themes of life and death, time and loss, Christian and Maori spirituality, history and place.
This connection with Baxter adds another layer of resonance to Gildea’s poem for me. Baxter’s poems, especially the later, rawer poems, are some of my most-loved poems. I am reminded of Baxter’s religious/political poem ‘The Māori Jesus’ which, like ‘Poroporoaki, brings Christ into the Māori world. And I feel there is something of the plain-speaking of Baxter’s later work.
I’m by no means an expert in te reo – the Māori language – but for people reading this outside of New Zealand, and even some here, I thought a few translations might be helpful: A poroporoaki is a spoken farewell to the dead at a tangi (which is a funeral, but literally means to cry). A korowai is a cloak, and a kahu-kurī is a cloak made from the skin of a kurī – a Polynesian dog. Taonga means treasure. Nga Mōkai was what James K. Baxter called the people who came to live at his community at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River – he translated it as ‘the fatherless’. Tāniko are decorative woven borders on a cloak. Manawatāwhi is one of the Three Kings Islands, north-west of the tip of New Zealand. Tūpuna are ancestors. Te One Rangatira is another name for Muriwai, but literally means ‘the chiefly beach’, which is appropriate for a beach the Christ is walking on – or James K. Baxter for that matter, who in his own way was a leader for many.
When I sent a draft of this to Anahera, I wanted to her to check my definitions, particularly for tau, which I had translated as anchor – one of its meanings – because that echoed the first line in section V. I was on the right track, but I want to paraphrase and quote some of Anahera’s reply, because I think it gives beautiful insight into all the work that just one little word can do in poetry. All the layers and resonances that just a single three-letter word can have.
She said that in his paintings McCahon's often uses what is known as the Tau cross - that is the cross that looks like a capital T rather than a lower case t (as he does in Walk (Series C) to divide sections I and II). It is thought by some that Christ was crucified on a Tau cross, and it became an especially important symbol for Saint Francis and the Franciscans. You can read more about that here: http://www.thefranciscanfriars.org/taucross. She goes on to say:
The word also has meaning in Māori and I was using it to refer to the weight of an anchor and playing with the notion that it also means 'rest' – as in whakatau – which is a ceremony meaning to 'make calm'. I was taught that it originally specifically referred to the bringing in of the waka – and to make calm the sea – to bring it to rest.
There's so much more I could say about this poem, but I guess what I’ve basically been trying to say is that these layers on layers of things that mean something, especially to me, things which already have their own emotional and intellectual resonances, make Gildea’s already strong poem even stronger. And I’m really glad to have the opportunity, both here and with JAAM, to be involved in sharing it more widely.
Anahera Gildea (Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-Tonga) is a writer and mother who lives in Wellington. She is currently enrolled at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University and is working on her first novel.
This week’s Tuesday Poem editor is Helen Rickerby, a poet and publisher from Wellington. She has published four collections of poetry – her most recent, Cinema, was published by Mākaro Press in March. She runs Seraph Press, a boutique publishing company with a growing reputation for publishing high-quality poetry books, and she is co-managing editor of JAAM literary journal. She blogs irregularly at wingedink.blogspot.com and has a day job as a web editor.
And, now you're hopefully in the mood for more poetry. Good news! You can find more Tuesday Poems by clicking on the links in the sidebar.