Recently I went on a road trip. And on this road trip I took a ton of books (as I am wont to do). One of them was poet Nicola Easthope’s new book Working the Tang, and now I am going to write about it.
Disclaimer #1: Nicola had asked me if I would write something about her book and I, conversely, asked if she would write something about my album.
Why do we do this? I suspect it’s because, when you go to so many lengths to make a thing and put it out in the world, you want to know how it is received. You want to feel that someone has actually taken the time to engage with it. You want to know how it lands in the universe of their life. I know this to be true for myself. It is one of the greatest feelings when a person comes up to you and reminds you that the thing-that-you-made has been a part of their world somehow.
As ‘local’ artists, who may not be so visibly tapped into the ‘industry’, it can possibly feel that the thing-that-you-made has disappeared into the ether from whence it first came. We don’t get to see Billboard Charts, Writer/Reader Lists and Prizes (at least not straight away) and so we experience this peculiar vanishing….it’s a very lopsided equation that can feel like…
(ALL of this incoming energy + time and dedication and love) = the thing-that-you-made X duplication and dissemination = mysterious disappearance masked as silence.
Energy In, in this case often does not feel proportionate to Energy Out.
This is not about being wildly recognised, though perhaps for some artists, if there is no sense of acknowledgement from the sending of a new thing into the world, it could be that a quiet subconscious need for recognition or fame gets turned up a little.
Through the process of making my latest album I understood more the importance of making art for oneself, but as with any physical object, it is nice to know that it somehow finds a place – that the thing-we-made has become a part of someone’s life – somewhere, somehow.
Disclaimer 2: Although Nicola and I talked in terms of ‘review’ (because that’s the official language of this process), this will not be a review in the traditional meaning of the word. A review implies good/bad, appropriate/inappropriate, skilled/unskilled, whether-you-should-buy-this-or-not etc
The other reason I’m not writing a classic ‘review’ is because:
Disclaimer 3: I am not an expert on poetry! The form, the rules….I cannot speak technically on such matters…I would not even want to try to be an expert on whether a body of poetry hangs together well or makes sense etc etc
I am very fortunate in that I lived with Hinemoana Baker for 9 years and what I mostly learned for myself is that poetry is a beautiful form that is like a condensed puzzle. I became relatively comfortable with not understanding every word or nuance or possible meaning. The writer has given a series of clues as to the workings of their mind and experience of life. They have left this marvellous trace of snapshots and of DNA that all belong together somehow.
These have merged in the mind of the writer, and now they get to merge with my own mind and experience – which may be very different to that of the person who wrote it.
SO – in the spirit of my latest fascination with what I call The Intersection Game – the way different aspects of our lives creatively intersect – I will be writing about Nicola’s book Working the Tang as a companion guide to how my life has been in the last few months or so.
What better way to interact with someone’s made thing than to incorporate it into the life you are making? It becomes a compendium, a life-hiker’s guide, a living document.
This is what makes art purposeful. We get to see where the new addition intersects with our lives. We see what we make of them and with them.
Once I got this point of view under my belt it became somewhat of an exciting journey. The book went everywhere with me – even up this mountain….
I had romantic notions of getting quite a bit of reading done in this type of setting but the hut was full of bods from the Czech Republic and it was howling a gale and I was scared (I just made up that last bit….kinda) so the book didn’t get read much but it did get dog-eared and some water spilled on it from leaking bottles.
Now that’s when you KNOW you’re breaking in your new poetry book!
Poetry takes quite a bit of immersion for me and it’s definitely easier for me to read than to listen to – for some weird reason I get lost and my mind wanders when listening. I guess that’s why I write songs – the music anchors me to the words.
For this reason, I need to write about this companion book in parts. It is divided into sections (four of them) so I too will divide my musings into sections.
a spit of salted land
I have to admit that when I saw the title I knew I was in unfamiliar territory. I have always been more aware of my Maori heritage than of my British one. The British seafaring stories have conjured images of ‘aye ‘aye me ‘earties (that’s pirate speak I know – it shows how far off I am). The working, pioneering spirit of the colonies…hell, I don’t even know how to talk about it.
I know that my tupuna Te Marino Gilbert married William Gilbert a British ship carpenter who left his ship close to New Zealand waters because the captain treated a Maori boy unfairly by sending him up a very tall mast in bad conditions.
So the cover bearing an image of rugged women in dresses toiling over an open fire in the seaweed green of an ocean landscape brought up a sense of the inadequacy I felt around this aspect of early settler life.
I know how to work the ting – I don’t know much about working the tang.
So up Mt Taranaki it goes…an interesting dovetail because the peak I climbed that day with my nephew was named after the first European woman to climb it – Fantham’s Peak.
The collection begins with a section called a spit of salted land.
I love salt. It’s one of my favourite condiments. In fact, I get teased a bit as I am known to just twist some sea salt into my hand and eat it as is. No lemon. No tequila.
Salt to me is the lifeblood mineral and so here we are at the first poem Salt blood song.
This section calls to the DNA of a person and of the land. “I’m six parts loch ‘n’whisky”.
I took this book on a road trip where I was trying to work out my percentage compositions. I am parts whole-foods healing enthusiast, novice behavioural neuroscientist, traveller, climber/exercise adventurer, philosopher, songwriter, personal development devotee, personal metaphor enthusiast, and builder wannabe; and I was on a trip to try and work out how to incorporate all of these into a new and fascinating life.
“I’m whisper of the manor
I’m flagstone of the mill…” (Salt blood song)
This section a spit of salted land had three themes that stood out to me:
holding or being held and wrapped
being bound – material and genealogy
I had decided a few days ago that I was going to write this today, and as fate has it today was the day that Hinemoana was in Nelson for her Mum’s unveiling – a year to the day after she had passed. Blessings and love to Lea – her angelic voice, her crafty Scrabble ways, her tipple, and her crazy dangerous mobility scooter.
She is now a ghost to us. Today, as Hinemoana sang Kauri Tree (a song I wrote for my mother) at the new gravesite , I sang it also from Queen Elizabeth Park beach facing Te Wai Pounamu, perched on a post.
“Ghost dust drifts…” (Working the Tang, Birsay)
“Phantom pleasure drums
and ghost-kin rise…” (Skins)
All through this section are wonderful descriptions of the composition of the world, the composition of our genealogy – we are held together by all of these things – the spittle, the bone, the earth, the forest particles, the air – we are held in this space and woven, knitted together. The DNA of nature and of our natures. Marvellous.
The descriptions gave me a sense of being earthed into the physical and yet…..
And yet these ghosts fly around us. “…who will unite her….” (Skins)
The ghosts of our past.
The ghosts of our departed kin.
The ghosts of not knowing.
“…to hang and to hold from this day back…” (Ōkārito)
The poem I loved the most in this section was Locus – and it was one that made the least sense but it spoke to me of that feeling of ambiguity – where am I from? where am I going? what of the ghosts?
“as you walk you become the vanishing
as you walk you lose the point” (Locus)
Lea has vanished.
The former me has vanished.
Sometimes this new landscape is easy to sit with and sometimes not.
“the ranges hold the storm
the ranges bite the neck…” (Locus)
And very soon in this poem things become scrambled into a form of idiotic, beautiful nonsense…
“snow monkeys sit with ice on lashes
coast monkeys pick snail from pools
shop monkeys flip fish in milk and flour…” (Locus)
Of late, I have been all about neuroplasticity and this poem describes to me those quintessential moments when reality as we know it becomes jumbled. We are reaching for a new location, a new state and it’s almost there….but in the meantime it’s friggin’ confusing!!!
A state that Tony Robbins says is a fabulous thing because you are about to make new connections. It just feels damn uncomfortable at times.
Life can get so crazy that even the furniture takes on a ghost-like appearance.
“The table took up most of the room-
round oak top, four solid legs curved
at the knee. It must have been brought in
legless, torso rolled through three doors
like a cartwheel.” (Centrepiece)
And that’s how we are. Ghost-like moving through, searching for the next piece of our life-sized composition.
And then we change shape.
This book is a feast for the senses – the landscape, the smells, the materials, the furniture, the clothing, the body parts, the tree and hill and rock parts swarming together and metamorphisising – and so are we – even when there are ghosts hanging over our heads saying
“Do you believe in ghosts?” (Night in School Croft, Birsay)
And so I continue my road trip even today – from Mt Taranaki, up the island and back home to a newness that is still in part mysteriously cloaked from me.
Today they wrapped Lea in sparkly pink paper – very fitting for her. I sang across the ocean and together we worked the tang – the tangi – while Lea changed shape again and made her way to somewhere else.
And me? I’m still guessing my next moves – looking for wooden birds and ruru.
Making new connections with others, with the land and with myself.
“Oh heavy flowering brain
winding up the central nerve….” (Okaarito)
“Say you’ll meet me there on the horizon…” (Ghost in my Mind)
Thank you Nicola for allowing us to take the salt, the blood and the song with us.