Kōiwi Pāmamao – The Distance in our Bones

When a poem uses both te reo Māori and English, references to te ao Māori are often glossed over. Anahera Gildea explores why, and calls for more educated readers of Māori writing.

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When a poem uses both te reo Māori and English, references to te ao Māori are often glossed over by readers. Anahera Gildea explores why, and calls for more educated readers of Māori writing.

          Ko Papatūānuku kei raro
          Ko Ranginui kei runga
          Ko ngā tāngata kei waenganui
          Tīhei mauriora.

          He uri ahau nō Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-tonga
          Ko Anahera Gildea tōku ingoa.

The feeling of my brain unfolding exponentially when I encounter an outstanding poem is the feeling of being woke. As a poet, and a hungry reader of poetry, I find there is nothing that quite matches that moment when comprehension meets complexity meets cognitive dissonance and the whole lot gallops into the glorious sublime – taking me for a ride on the splendid and wingéd uninmaginable.

You may have noticed I used the word ‘woke.’ It’s a borrowed term that's now made its way into general usage, but originated in the African American vernacular. It gained popularity with the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, but its modern usage is thought to have emerged from Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher” with the repeated refrain, “I stay woke.” Its meanings have evolved and transitioned as different communities have gotten hold of it, ranging from a decree to question the dominant paradigm, a statement of raised consciousness, a self-ascribed expression of socially conscious allyship, through to a trivialising piss-take.

There is no simple definition of ‘woke,’ but, for me, its use implies a deliberate act of consciousness – a willingness to check your privilege, bring critical thinking to social issues, and to acknowledge historical prejudice. It’s a powerful word. A word that a poet might relish. A word that harnesses the multiplicity of meanings that language can take – the ambiguity that allows words to be the breakers of boundaries – to move across time and place.

Words that cross language boundaries are called ‘integrated borrowings,’ and as a writer who peppers her work with te reo Māori, and who references te ao Māori, this form of literary code-switching (the practice of moving between languages) is of particular interest to me. In the case of Aotearoa, te reo Māori ‘integrated borrowings’ are words that are, by general consensus, considered to be understood in their own right in New Zealand English.

In December 2017, in his infamous interview with Kim Hill, Don Brash pontificated on the interchangeability of the word ‘whānau’ as a stand-in for ‘family.’ And despite the fact that his mistake in itself provides a convincing case for compulsory te reo classes in Aotearoa schools, it also highlights one of the central problems faced by ‘general consensus’ and translation – the assumption that there is, or can always be found, consensus of meaning across languages, and that translation is a simple process.

Given Brash’s perceived limited understanding of many things Māori, it is not a stretch to suppose that for him, using the word whānau does not include giving birth

Even though Brash suggests that the word ‘whānau’ is superior to the word ‘family,’ there is no evidence that he understands the meaning beyond the most common English translation. ‘Whānau’ can be more than biological family or even metaphorical family, it can be any collective with a shared purpose or interest, and is often used to refer to groups of entities, like celestial bodies. It also means to give birth, or to be born. Given Brash’s perceived limited understanding of many things Māori, it is not a stretch to suppose that for him, using the word whānau does not include giving birth.

When it comes to a close reading of poetry, and of literary works in general, assumptions like this can be crippling for poets writing in te reo Māori, and for readers wanting to understand their work. All words change in usage but when the definitions being applied to a minority language come overwhelmingly from the dominant culture, they can lose cultural complexity. The ideological information that is being freighted within them slides incrementally toward partial meanings deemed acceptable by the dominant culture.

The need to identify the literal ‘twin’ of a word is a crisis of translation no matter the field, but, for poetry, this need feels closer to transgression. When we read a poem in English we expect to be delighted by the ambiguities found in the language choices. My concern is that the current approach to reading poems written in English, the dominant language of Aotearoa, but that code-switch to te reo Māori means that elements culturally specific to Māori will be glossed over, whitewashed, deemphasised, trivialised or minimised as simply as the glossary they were required to provide suggests.

When I write (be it poetry, prose or non-fiction) it’s in English, but I regularly find myself using te reo Māori words and phrases throughout my work, as do many Māori writers working in English. While in the initial phase of creating a piece of writing I don’t use te reo Māori in a conscious way, it’s not artifice. I never sit there and think, which Māori phrase could I use to jazz this up, or to invent connection, or to claim identity, or to resist colonisation? Yet, all of these accusations have been levelled at Māori writers writing in English, from academics and literary reviewers alike. American academic Stephen Yao accuses Māori writers of employing “exotic decoration and simple markers of ethnic difference.[i][ii]

Aside from these comments being defensive and horrifically eurocentric, the obvious problem for me is simple – readers like Yao and Evans don’t fucking understand. The problem is not the writer’s use of te reo Māori in literature, but that Aotearoa needs more scholars and educated readers of Māori writing. Even when a translation of te reo Māori is provided, that translation does not necessarily equal a fluency in meaning between cultures; non-Māori readers are still coming to the work from their own world view. The ‘general consensus’ of ‘integrated borrowing’ only provides a shallow understanding.

The problem is not the writer’s use of te reo Māori in literature, but that Aotearoa needs more scholars and educated readers of Māori writing

To have a deep understanding of Māori poetry and an accompanying ability to interpret those texts, critics and readers desperately need a paradigm shift and a re-centring to te ao Māori – a Māori world view. When a poem using te reo Māori is viewed solely from a Pākehā standpoint, a reader cannot hear the poem’s cultural specificity. Though the worlds Māori and Pākehā live in may be visible to each other, and rendered so especially in literature, that does not automatically mean they are translatable, and certainly not without an understanding of the other’s world view.

Poetry is part of the fabric of Māori culture; it is in the oratory; it has been a way to hand down genealogical, historical, and spiritual knowledge, and it is whakapapa. I began this article by invoking my ancestral parents, Ranginui and Papatūānuku: “Ko Papatūānuku kei raro / Ko Ranginui kei runga.” In Māoridom, we trace our genealogy back all the way to what non-Māori would consider to be inanimate objects – the rivers, the mountains and the land itself. These are my ancestors. Whakapapa is utterly fundamental and in te ao Māori everything begins with, is surrounded by, and originates from whakapapa. ‘Whakapapa’ is also one of those words that New Zealanders commonly think they ‘know.’ It is usually translated by Pākehā as ‘genealogy,’ but it literally means ‘to make into layers’: to layer things one upon the other, just as I am doing here.

Another word New Zealanders often bandy about is ‘aroha.’ I can enter any gift shop and find stylised love hearts saying ‘aroha’ scrawled across greeting cards, on posters, fashioned into ceramic wall hangings, and glazed on to pottery. It’s an integrated borrowing, but while ‘aroha’ is an equivalent word for the English ‘love,’ it does not mean sexual love or even the exact equivalent of romantic love.[iii] If we break the word down, ‘aro’ which is routinely translated as ‘to focus’ literally means ‘to face you’; to face the length of my body to your body. And ‘hā’ is the breath, the breath of life even. So to give you aroha is to face you, openly and compassionately, sharing breath. It is the love of yearning, caretaking and deep respect.

What about ‘wairua’? We think we know it. It means ‘spirit’ or ‘soul.’ And yet there are layers of meaning that, if you know them, will open up a poem. ‘Wairua’ is a compound word made up of ‘wai’ and ‘rua’: wai means ‘water’ and ‘who’; ‘rua’ means ‘two.’ In stories I was told growing up it goes like this. In the beginning Ranginui and Papatūānuku were joined in union. They had a heap of kids (seventy or so) and one of those children separated them – Tāne. Those children were conceived of the wai (fluid/who) of Papa and the wai of Rangi. The union of these two wai is how ‘wairua’ came to be, and once Rangi and Papa were separated the space between them became the realm of ‘wairua’. Similarly, when a child is conceived now, the parents provide the necessary fluids, and the ‘wairua’ is formed in utero.

Though the worlds Māori and Pākehā live in may be visible to each other, and rendered so especially in literature, that does not automatically mean they are translatable

The story continues. When Māori die, our wairua does not die. Instead it reaches up toward Rangi, and travels along te ara wairua, that liminal space, and a specific route, between Ranginui and Papatūānuku. Eventually it reaches te rerenga wairua (the leaping-off place) at the very top of the North Island. This is also the place where, geographically, two oceans meet – the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean. In te reo Māori these oceans have many names but are variously called Te Moana a Rēhua (the sea of Rēhua – male) and Te Tai o Whitireia (the sea of Whitireia – female), or Te Tai Tama Wahine (the east coast) and Te Tai Tama Tāne (the west coast). They are the female ocean and the male ocean. The two waters. From here our wai-rua leaps off and is rejoined with its ancestral self. This depth of meaning is far removed from the simple translation of ‘spirit.’

There are so many poems that speak to the issues involved with code-switching and translation, but only limited space here to contend with them. However, “Haka” by Apirana Taylor (2004) is an excellent place to start:


          when i hear the haka
          i feel it in my bones
          and in my wairua
          the call of my tīpuna
          flashes like lightning
          up and down my spine
          it makes my eyes roll
          and my tongue flick
          it is the dance
          of earth and sky
          the rising sun
          and the earth shaking
          it is the first breath of life
          eeeee aaa ha haaaa [iv]

Immediately on encountering Taylor’s poem there is a word a reader might think they know – ‘haka.’ If nothing else they might relate it to the All Blacks, but the word is much more complicated and nuanced than that. For a start, there are multiple types of haka and contrary to popular understanding they are not all ‘haka peruperu,’ or ‘whakatū waewae,’ or ‘tūtū ngārahu’ – war dances performed with weapons and designed to browbeat or dishearten an enemy. Haka is the word for all ceremonial dances including those performed for entertainment, like the ‘ngeri.’ These weaponless forms of haka were highly expressive displays of feeling and emotion designed to rouse the blood of the onlookers. They were equally as forceful and loud, using similar gestures and facial grimaces, but did not require set choreography.[v]

Taylor’s poem uses the freeform style of the ‘ngeri’ to express an intensity and a joy that is evidenced not only by conjuring the actions of a haka, but also in the word choices like “dance” and “the rising sun.” There is a mighty hopefulness and celebration that begins deep in the ‘bones’ and the ‘wairua,’ travels through ancestral time (‘the call of my tīpuna”), through mythological time by referencing Ranginui and Papatūānuku (“of earth and sky”), and all the way to “the first breath of life” – to creation itself and the origins of all of humanity.

We now know that the word ‘wairua’ puts the reader directly into that space between Papatūānuku and Ranginui. So when the poem’s speaker feels the haka “in my wairua,” Taylor is directly and deeply evoking the creation myth. At line four, the speaker feels the haka in “the call of my tīpuna,” or the call of the speaker’s whakapapa and ancestors. While a non-Māori reader may think of immediate ancestors such as their great-grandparents, Taylor’s use of the word ‘wairua’ and its relation to the Māoridom creation myth suggests the speaker’s ‘tīpuna’ includes their whakapapa and ancestors back to Papatūānuku and Ranginui. Deities of the celestial world are present.

The movement Taylor describes in the poem is joyous, energetic, and electric. The “haka … flashes like lightning / up and down” the speaker’s spine. The poem’s speaker is part of a “dance” where their “eyes roll” and “tounge flick.” And it is not only the “haka” that “flashes,” but also the “call” of their “tīpuna.” For the speaker, hearing the haka is to feel and dance with the earth and sky, Māoridom’s ancestral parents. The haka takes the speaker back to creation: Papatūānuku makes the “earth shake” and Māori burst forth with “the first breath of life,” tīhei mauriora, the breath taken by the first human, the breath that gives us the right to speak: “eeeee aaa ha haaaa.” Taylor’s haka is a dance of celebration of the atua, to whakapapa itself, to ancestral history – to Māoridom’s original parents whom time does not bother.

A further layer is added to this poem when a reader understands that another word, often used to denote soul/wairua, is ‘kōiwi.’ This word also has multiple meanings. It means bones, it means iwi or tribe, it means corpse, and it means self. It is common to hear Māori people say, when asked if they are related, that they ‘have bones.’ They share whakapapa; they are related. When Māori writing uses the word ‘bones,’ even though it is an English word, I wonder if it’s ever possible not to invoke this aspect of meaning. When Taylor’s speaker says of the haka, “i feel it in my bones” he is again suggesting the haka invokes his whakapapa, but deepening that further by referencing every tribe, every kōiwi, that has gone before and that stands here now.

My entire genealogy is invoked by Taylor’s poem – not some Māori artifice or just some old ghosts

My entire genealogy is invoked by Taylor’s poem – not some Māori artifice or just some old ghosts. When I read it, I’m reciting my own genealogy along with Taylor’s speaker, and carrying it all the way back to the beginning of time. ‘Haka’ is about whakapapa. It is central. It is everything, because my wairua is not simply my soul, it is my connection to my ancestral self, to my land, to my history, and to my future. A key to understanding ‘Haka’ is that, for Māori, distance over time is concertinaed; there is no distance in my feelings for my ancestral parents, just as there is no distance in my feelings toward my immediate parents. This is what it means to recite my whakapapa. This is what it means to have wairua, or seek wairua, or be bereft of wairua.

Some may conclude it is not crucial to understand ancestral whakapapa when approaching Māori writing – that it is simply story. Yet, as a whānau of readers, word lovers, and writers, we hold stories close regardless of our culture. We let them influence us and alter us. We let them inform our identities, from The Velveteen Rabbits of our childhoods all the way through until now. One of the things that stories, words, and narratives do, then, is collapse what I might term a kind of geo-fictional space. The stories you read as a child, and the fictional destinations they take you to, are as much a part of you now as they were then. In a similar way, the creation myth for Māori is a destination, an imagined place that immediately bridges distance across time. Time has concertinaed and the ancestral history that shaped me continues as building blocks of my identity. When attempting to grasp a Māori world view, there is no relationship more important to understand than this.

The relationship between the poem, the poet, and the reader is, in my opinion, fundamental when it comes to deciphering meaning. The ability to close read poetry is the ability to understand the nuance and many meanings of language, and to flesh out that understanding with a knowledge of literature, culture and historical factors. Readers of poetry are crucial to meaning making: we need their astute, informed and associative thinking.

In 2012, academic and poet Alice Te Punga Somerville described Māori literature as critically uneven, citing the fact that at the time of her writing there had “only been five published book length treatments of (English language) M[ā]ori literature, of which only three focused solely on M[ā]ori texts (specifically fiction), and none was written in New Zealand or by a M[ā]ori scholar.”[vi]

As if to reinforce the truth of her claim, the book Puna Wai Kōrero, an anthology of almost 80 Māori poets, beginning with the first recorded poem written in English by a Māori author over 100 years ago, was published in 2014 – it is the only book of its kind so far. I was asked to review this book in 2016 and because of this delay, I was able to scour the reviews that had gone before. What struck me was that although the commentary was generally positive, it was also terribly thin. It felt as though the reviewers had not been able to access the depth and complexity, nor the richness and sheer delight of the poetry within. What’s clear to me is that if this is the caliblre of contemporary discussion on Aotearoa Māori poetry, we urgently need to upskill.

My invitation to readers of Māori poetry is to bring better critiques. Ones that are fearless and robust, but that also commence from the perspective of, and celebrate, a Māori world view. Once you start to comprehend the multiple and complex meanings held in the bones, and creation, and wairua, and whakapapa, and so much more, the imagery in Māori poetry becomes more than just metaphor: it becomes the language of transcendence. Here to inveigle you into its layers is a poem by writer and academic Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, written in 1994. Wrap your thinking around the deep mythology and significance of the lizard, the importance of water and its movement, Aotearoa’s political history, the rituals of death, the many realms of te pō, and so much aroha – a love that contains unlimited compassion and immeasurable yearning, because by reading Māori poetry Māori are reunited with the bones of our ancestors. Once you know this there is no going back – it’s how we stay woke.

          For LMS 145, a bone flute at the British Museum

          bone: resting lizard stretched
          along the grain: bone
          that once lamented and rejoiced
          that once sensed the blood’s
          currents and rhythm: bone
          that once sang bold songs
          of triumph
          that once lifted a warrior’s arm
          you are mute: bone
          your silent eloquence
          your dozing reptile
          tell me more
          than a million melodies
          above the water in the
          fierce fluid moving night
          bone: moe mai rā,
          moe mai, moe mai. [vii]

[i] Stephen Yao. 2003. Towards a Taxonomy of Hybridity. Wasafiri: 18 (38)

[ii] Patrick Evans. 2006. ’Pakeha-style biculturalism’ and the Maori Writer. Journal of New Zealand Literature: 24 (1), pp. 11-35

[iii] Joan Metge. 1995. New Growth from Old. The Whānau in the Modern World. Wellington: Victoria University Press

[iv] Apirana Taylor. 2014. Haka. In Puna Wai Kōrero, eds., Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan. Auckland: Auckland University Press, p. 316

[v] Jane McRae. 2017. Māori Oral Tradition. He Kōrero nō te Ao Tawhito. Auckland: Auckland University Press

[vi] Alice Te Punga Somerville. 2012. Once Were Pacific: Maori Connections to Oceania, London: University of Minnesota Press, p.xxvii

[vii] Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. 2014. For LMS 145, a bone flute at the British Museum. In Puna Wai Kōrero, eds., Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan. Auckland: Auckland University Press, p. 322