“The unity of the Whanganui River peoples is expressed in a famous saying, ‘te taura whiri a Hinengākau’ (the plaited rope of Hinengākau). This refers to the three closely connected groups of the river, and before them to the ancestor Tamakehu’s three children: Hinengākau of the upper river, Tama Ūpoko of the middle, and Tūpoho of the lower Whanganui.”
I live in Taumarunui, among the descendants of Hinengākau, in the upper reaches of the Whanganui River. This area corresponds with the Catchment section of Airini Beautrais’ new poetry collection, Flow: Whanganui River Poems. The remainder of the collection is organised in similar correspondence to the plaited rope of Hinengākau: A Body of Water covers the middle reaches of Tama Ūpoko, and The Moving Sand covers the lower end of Tūpoho, including the city of Whanganui and the shore where the river empties into the Pacific Ocean. Each section hosts 33 poems.
Airini Beautrais hails from the city, a sixth generation New Zealander holding familial connections with my part of the river. Beyond her structure of the collection, Beautrais makes a subtle illusion to this profound image of our awa in Spring—black, red and white, beautifully conveying the river’s inclusion of all it is connected to:
The wide-mouthed estuary.
A pattern of veins
in brain or breast.
The taut threads
of a plaited rope.
is a person.
its own maps.
Many will recognise another allusion in this poem, more direct this time, referring to Parliament’s recognition, in 2017, of the river’s legal identity granting it “all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person,” recognising the river “as an indivisible and living whole from the mountains to the sea.”
It is this unity Beautrais portrays in Flow. Originally setting out to write a series of histories of the Whanganui River for the creative component of her PhD thesis with the International Institute of Modern Letters, Beautrais abandoned a narrative approach for the sort of patch-work presented to us. It was a brilliant decision. Instead of one narrative, we are treated to a plethora of wonderfully crafted pieces, strung together geographically, allowing us to flow down the river through time amongst railway lines, bush, rain, mud, soldiers, map-makers, workers, floods, eels, trout, grayling, whio, kakahi, tee trees, and other assorted characters, voices, flora, and fauna comprising the river environs.
I have never reviewed an entire collection of poetry. In fact, I have never read an entire collection of poetry. As I’ve written elsewhere, I hate poetry. But I was compelled to read Flow for three reasons: First, in writing my first novel, Redeeming Brother Murrihy, I had spent many years researching and contemplating the river from its headwaters to its mouth. Beautrais’ bibliography contains many of my own sources, including David Young’s Woven by Water, the Waitangi Tribunal’s Whanganui River Report, and Ron Cooke’s Roll Back the Years series. I then heard Harry Ricketts proclaim, in his review on Radio New Zealand, “If you only buy one book of poems this year, buy this one!” (I‘ve since learned that Harry Ricketts served as one of Beautrais’ thesis advisors, but am so impressed with the collection, I have no doubt his words were born of genuine enthusiasm for it.)
But it was perusing the book’s contents at the Whanganui Literary Festival that prompted me to purchase it. In particular, the first section, Catchment, caught my attention as it is filled with poems set around my area: the Central Volcanic Plateau, Te Rohe Pōtai, the main trunk line, Ōngarue, Manunui, Kākahi, Ōhura, Tokirima, Pureora, Ōtunui, and several locations here in Taumarunui. Beautrais visits these places at sporadic intervals between 1864 and 2014 capturing a myriad of voices, expressed in a vast variety of poetic forms suited to their eras.
A sad lament, Surveyor’s grave employs call and response to emphasise the remoteness of a surveyor’s death in Tāngārakau in 1893:
But deep, far deep, in dip and hill
Lay me down, lay me down
While we were camping, I took ill
Oh lay me down in the moss.
My belly tight with stabbing pain
Lay me down, lay me down
I’ll never know my home again
Oh lay me down in the moss.
Into the Ground uses fourteener lines of colonial ballads and unique rhymes betraying some lesser known Irish influence in these parts, this time in Kākahi, 1905:
I’m with a fellow lying in the shadow of the wall
when by the bar a scuffle forms, and swells into a brawl.
A lantern is knocked over, then a flagon of potcheen
and soon the flames are licking all around the whole shebeen.
Inroads (Ōhura 1913) utilises an a-b-b-a rhyme scheme akin to Petrarchan sonnets. This one felt odd reading aloud, more interesting than enjoyable:
Sunrise lights the valley’s pipe,
spits polish on the camera lens.
I pack my notebook and my pens,
and give my muddy shoes a wipe.
Roads (Central Volcanic Plateau, 2013) was the first poem to truly draw me in, perhaps because parts of the poem are set, not only in Taumarunui, but in the old cemetery around the corner from my house. Beautrais has ancestors buried there, Rene and Elizabeth, with links to France and Ireland. Their son and grandson contributed to the construction of Highway 41 over the Punga towards Turangi.
The road out of here (Upper Retaruke, 1927) tells a story similar to the famed Bridge to Nowhere in the Mangapurua Valley. A soldier returns from war to be gifted a plot of land by the governments but is stricken by economic hard times and government neglect.
While one my favourite aspects of Beautrais’ work is her use of subtle allusions, others are more direct and had me searching for them online. The thief in This’ll do me (Ōngarue, 1962) references a song about George Wilder sung by Howard Morrison. I live with the layers of pumice described in Buried forest and know the spot in the cemetery in Tributaries marking graves from the 1918 flu epidemic, though I’m not familiar with the Forest Service in Treetops.
In Treetops, Beautrais revisits the a-b-b-a rhyme scheme and this time it worked for me. I can relate to the Pureora area from my mountain biking excursion along the Timber Trail. This piece is about a protest movement in 1978:
I knew what we would have to do.
We gathered eighty friends or so,
and brought them down, so they would know
the threat first hand. But no one knew
what we had planned. When they’d gone back,
we made our next move, went and got
a camping permit. There was not
one law being broken. Near the track,
but not too close, we chose our trees.
My brother made a whistling noise.
We’d climbed a lot of trees as boys,
but never ones as big as these.
Huihui (Taumarunui, 2014) is set in what is commonly called Cherry Grove. Beautrais starts and finishes her first section with poems set at this confluence of the Whanganui and Ongarue Rivers. Here, allusion to the awa’s personhood status is clever and playful, injected in lines describing a day at Cherry Grove after weeks of rain:
Ōngarue is opaque, mud-and-shit
coloured. Poplar leaves float on its surface;
big, round and yellow, like fantastical coins.
Joe steps into Whanganui,
the other prong in the fork. The water answers yes
to all of Mountain Safety’s unsafe-to-cross criteria,
it is moving faster than you can walk;
it is above your knees; you can’t see the bottom.
In Part II, A Body of Water, Beautrais leads us through the middle reaches, the region of Tama Ūpoko in the plaited cord. This section contains longer poems (though there are no poems longer than four pages in the collection) interspersed with very small verses about grayling, whio, dynamite, kākahi, kōura, tuna (eels), hīnaki, lamprey, and a very sad one about the extinct wattlebird (huia). Beautrais continues with her variations on forms, but abandons the dating trope of the first section. The poems seem to loosen as a result, as if she were further freed in her experimentation with voice and rhythm as we meander downriver.
There’s no better example of this marrying of form and content than in the title track, Flow, filled with rich river vocabulary and a repetition that mimics and mirrors the relentless movement of the river:
to the bend, to the wend, to the wind, to the run,
to the roam, to the rend, to the sea, to the foam,
to the scum, to the moss, to the mist, to the grist,
to the grind, to the grain, to the dust;
This contrasts with the poem that soon follows, Western diversion, in which the relentless river meets human interference, and the reader is slowed, even impeded, by the longer lines of verse:
Hills must be levelled, the pumice stone crushed to span across valleys;
ninety-five tonnes of machine scrapes at the fracturing rock.
Map-making is alive with alliteration, a favourite device of Beautrais’. This poem describes a taniwha attack.
Trout immerses us into the underwater world of the of spawning trout. There is remarkable rhythm and rhyme in this poem:
Yellow sac’d alevin clustered in hiding
together, translucent, light-bending
freckled and blending
o stone-colour, matching
each roll to the current’s tug, latching, unlatching.
I was excited to reach the Jerusalem (Hiruhārama) region of the collection. After all, the Whanganui is the river in the sub-title my book, Redeeming Brother Murrihy: The River to Hiruhārama. In Fire, we meet missionaries Jean Lampila and Richard Taylor, including a reference to Lampila’s famous challenge to Taylor to demonstrate their faith by walking on fire. Foundlings is a very moving poem about “Mother Joseph”, Suzanne Aubert, and her work bringing orphans from Wellington to Jerusalem. A terrific example of voice.
And, of course, I was on the lookout for James K Baxter. Again, Beautrais prefers her allusions subtle and, I believe, this was her way of avoiding an explicit narrative approach. Baxter is granted a terrific introduction in the poem, Summer, though he is not named:
You must’ve stunk, musky, skunky hippie
walking up the road to Jerusalem.
In that same poem, there is a mention of bees, presumably a reference to Baxter’s poem, Wild Bees. But Beautrais lets none of these legendary figures dominate, as their presence has done in the impressions of this part of the river for so many of us Pākehā over the past century. Instead, other characters, less known, unnamed, are given space to breathe and assert their presence. The remainder of Summer diverts attention to those who lived with Baxter in the commune at Jerusalem in the late 60s and early 70s.
This variety of voices, present throughout the collection, is mainly constituted of Pākehā voices. Beautrais acknowledges this in her dedication, citing, “The significance of the relationships between Whanganui iwi and the river cannot be adequately expressed by a Pākehā writer.” This is all fine and good. Beautrais is writing from her perspective and from the perspective of voices recorded through research. But enough voices are present to depict the connection and living history between the river and its inhabitants. Kupe makes an appearance or two. Flood is a more overt presentation of these voices, capturing several in response to the flood of 2015, and alerting us that the river in Flow is now reaching the city, a city whose relationship with the river is not always peaceful. Even the flood speaks:
Did you imagine I’d go wide as this?
Lap up your streets?
The lumpen stopbanks easy to dismiss;
where water meets
tarmac is where things really start to flow.
Perhaps my favourite poem in the collection, Listen, expands on civil unrest in the city of Whanganui. In fact, if there is one criticism I have with the collection, it is that I wish there were more descriptions of urban life. It’s a small matter, and Listen is so good, it makes up for it. This poem includes Beautrais’ major themes of time and truth highlighted by her ingenious device of ending all six of the 10-syllable lines in her stanzas with the same six words, though in a different order: “time” “to” “listen” “truth” “about” “us”, with poignant messages to politicians, this one an allusion to former New Zealand premier John Ballance, whose statue was decapitated at the Pākaitore (Moutoa Gardens) occupation in 1995:
Dead premier drinking your beer, listen.
The river you’re in is one that cuts us
through. Rolling in the thick bed, headless, truth
disjoints you. On the bank, tram tracks mark time,
a vintage daydream easy to succumb to,
still, with the sense of things not talked about.
Voices spoken need ears to hear. Again, it’s a theme I developed in Murrihy, and one I appreciated seeing so brilliantly addressed in Flow.
Beautrais finishes Section II with Beachcombing, and we realise we have reached the coast for Section III: The Moving Sand. This section is comprised entirely of sonnets, but each with their own variation on the 14-line structure as we again witness Beautrais’ experimentation with and mastery of form, exploring different line lengths, rhythms, and rhyme schemes.
I’ve never understood why Whanganui City isn’t a tourist mecca. Shouldn’t it be the Tauranga of the west? New Zealand’s greatest river touches down at the Tasman sea with surely all the excitement and variety of features as where the Nile meets the Mediterranean. From the city’s heights, you can capture views of both Mount Ruapehu and Mount Taranaki. The place is a macrocosm of many a New Zealand small town, with active schooling, sporting, and artistic facilities. Perhaps the poem, Lieutenant, explains this conundrum to us:
And though the air is cleansing, I still feel
a proper beach should have white sand
But that’s not all, as Beautrais explains in Dead Port:
Never deep enough: it is a river mouth.
It will never bustle like New Plymouth.
At times, we do get a more modern urban feel here, particularly in Heads Road:
While you were working nightshift out at Mars
Petcare, you had a rented house near here.
Your shifts pinned on the wall: these patterned bars
of shocking pink. Something going somewhere
is what I think of, in that part of town.
And, despite my desire for more of this, Beautrais does include many aspects of the city familiar and unfamiliar to me, both past and present: ports and ships, the holiday park, cafes, meat workers, a jail house, bluffs, the observatory. And she finishes, fittingly, where the river truly completes its journey at the North Mole.
I can’t recommend Flow: Whanganui River Poems enough, particularly if you are familiar with the regions it encapsulates, but also if you enjoy poetry in all its lustre. Lyrically, these poems flow, touching on the surfaces and depths of the people, places, and times of this area and, indeed, on a wealth of human experience.
Flow: Whanganui River Poems is available through Victoria University Press or you can request it from a book store or library near you.