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Hone Tuwhare has died

bringiton's picture

With simple words, a unique voice, passion and humility and good humor he offered a message of hope and honor that transcended politics and race, and more than any one person led a reconciliation between black and white that has brought real promise to end more than a century of institutionalized hate and degradation. Hone Tuwhare was Maori, an extraordinary human being, a heroic figure.

He was born in 1922 to a noble lineage fallen on hard times, and came of age at what was the low point for the native peoples of New Zealand. The same old story of colonization and exploitation, of treaties and laws and unfathomable foreign regulations that destroyed the Maori social structure based on land ownership by taking their land and with it their wealth and their cultural identity. Tuhare dropped out of school at an early age and found a job with the railroad, where he educated himself from their library.

Politically active, a community leader and protest organizer, off-and-on member of the Communist party and a prolific poet, Tuhare crisscrossed the country and traveled abroad, gently but insistently pressing for Maori civil rights and, through his performances and lectures, transformed white New Zealander’s impressions of Maoris. While large inequities persist, a restoration of Maori land rights and increasing legislative power have made things much better than they were, achievements that are in great measure the result of Hone Tuhare’s life and work.

Meant to be read aloud, with cadence and attitude, from his meditation on the thoughts of a hollow-bronze warrior’s statue, trapped in canyons of concrete, forever frozen in place:

To a Maori Figure Cast in Bronze
Outside the Chief Post Office, Auckland

I hate being stuck up here, glaciated,
hard all over and with my guts removed:
my old lady is not going to like it

I’ve seen more efficient scarecrows in seedbed nurseries.
I can’t even shoo the pigeons off

Me: all hollow inside with longing for the marae1
On the cliff at Kohimarama,
where you can watch the ships come in
curling their white moustaches


If I could only move from this bloody pedestal
I’d show the long-hairs how
to knock out a tune on the souped-up guitar,
my mere2 quivering,
my taiaha3 held at the high port.
And I’d fix the ripe kotiro4 too
with their mini-piupiu-ed bums twinkling: yeah!

Somebody give me a drink: I can’t stand it

(1) meeting place. (2) war-club. (3) spear. (4) girls

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bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

Glad you liked the poem, leah. There are a couple more at the associated link along with some biographical information; The Times of London obituary is here.

Tuwhare’s poetry is meant to be read aloud, with emphasis, in the Maori way. When he read his voice was most often gentle, but with a resonance that created sonic layers to match the complexity of his words.

In the example above I cannot help but laugh at the wordplay, the guitar, a phallic instrument of both music and seduction, also called in English slang an axe, which he replaces with mere, the traditional war club, and then the taiaha, a ritual, ceremonial spear used to demonstrate authority and prowess, held erect (at the high port) to impress and “fix” (hold the attention of, impale) the young girls with their miniskirts parading in front of him – Yeah! The old warrior unable to move, trapped forever in the artifice of white-man’s cities as are the majority of Maoris, the majority of all of us, but still virile, still alive, still true in spirit to his ancient self.

Many years ago I was visiting New Zealand and one day came across a flyer advertising a reading by Tuwhare for that very night. I had no idea who he was or anything about him, but a local friend offered to go with me and a good thing too as it was sold out. My friend, however, is a woman of some considerable influence, being a national hero herself, and so in we went, seated up front in two chairs brought to the edge of the crowd.

Tuwhare was the last of three poets (no one but a fool would follow him) and absolutely commanding. It was one-third reading, two-thirds performance art with his voice driving the words, making them sing and soar and transfixing the audience, not a sound, not a breath to be heard, only his great voice and the magic of his words. He came from a long line of ritual storytellers and had been taught from infancy, and it showed; never a false pause, never a break in cadence, every word, every syllable, spot-on, exactly as it should be, harmonious, seductive, powerful, overwhelming, like being touched, caressed and held. The sense was that even in a crowded room, he was speaking only to you.

This is perhaps his most widely beloved poem, no perspective here but for the human one:


I can hear you
making small holes
in the silence

If I were deaf
the pores of my skin
would open to you
and shut

And I
should know you
by the lick of you
if I were blind

the something
special smell of you
when the sun cakes
the ground

the steady
drum-roll sound
you make
when the wind drops

But if I
should not hear
smell or feel or see

you would still
define me
disperse me
wash over me

And this, a 1978 protest poem crying out against the proposed logging of old-growth forests, trees that eventually were incorporated into the Pureora Forest National Park; direct, firm and to the point as was the title of the volume it comes from, Making A Fist Of It:

Guvment Agencies
Have given Private Enterprise
Permission for to strip
And rip-off Kauri, Totara,
Kahikatea for to supply
Timber for million-dollar
Yachts and mansions
Stop your raping of the land.
Fuck off.

Afterwards he was introduced to my friend and I, he was so delighted that someone famous would come to hear him and they chatted for a few minutes before she left for home and family. I had nowhere to be and as it happened neither did Tuwhare so I rode my friend’s coattails and the exotic attraction of my foreignness to join a small group of other admirers and a couple of his friends for a late night. We talked for hours about language, poetry, song, politics and human foibles, many stories and much laughter. He had a non-linear mind, every topic leading to another but in unexpected ways, connections so ephemeral they weren’t evident until the story was fully told and then immediately on to another, and then another, all with boundless good humor and compassion.

Tuwhare had been in failing health for several years and so death was a release and yet, very sad to know with finality that there will be no more poems; that his warm voice itself is stilled.

Hone Tuwhare
JO BEAUMONT/Southland Times

Somebody give me a drink: I can’t stand it.