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There is No Harbour by Dinah Hawken

A very thought-provoking collection of poems that see both sides of events, the Pākekā settlement in New Zealand and the desperate fight of Māori to retain their lands.

Dinah Hawken has dug deep into her own family history and that of the Taranaki landscape where she grew up. Some of her poems take the form of letters to a mother and father back in Cornwall, England. They describe the early days of settlement in the 1840s, planting crops and clearing land. They talk about the size of wooden houses built, and are full of hope for the future. We see Jane, the poet’s great-grandmother, growing from child to teen and then marrying Joseph. They have a large family, but their existence is fragile as war rages around them. For those in isolated rural locations, there is little safety. This short verse seems to sum up the situation:

I know Jane is exhausted.

She is cooking outside in the coastal wind.

The washing is damp, Jesse is crying.

We need to leave again, she is thinking,

to the blockhouse in Pātea.

And from the notebook of Oswald, the poet’s grandfather, comes this short paragraph which gives such a clear picture of how these early settlers were living:

‘Home was a whare built by Dad and James MacCrae. I can just recall it. It was on the edge of a gully: a framework of small poles, raupo walls and a roof thatched with toe toe. It had four rooms with doors and windows but no floor.’

The conflicts of the Taranaki Wars feature heavily on many of the pages, the back and forth of lands lost and taken, lost and taken back. Titokowaru appears many time, but I particularly like this eleven-line poem, ‘Titokowaru to Colonel Whitmore:’

This is my word to you.

You were made a Pākehā

and the name of England

was given to you for your tribe.

I was made a Māori

and Aotearoa was given to me.

You forget that there was a space

fixed between is of great extent – the sea.

You, forgetting that,

jumped over from that place to this.

I did not jump from this place to that.

The character of Titokowaru appears many times, first as a fighter and then as a pacifist, and it is interesting to follow his story elsewhere to get a sense of what was happening in the whole region during the Taranaki wars.

I must make mention of the cover illustration for this collection, a Greek amphora, with its terracotta and black colours, using the same style as the ancient Greeks but including Māori symbolism. The resistance leader Titokowaru sits at his fire in the same pose as many representations of Achilles playing chess with Ajax. Around him are silver fern trees where a Taniwha lurks. Above and below are streams of tiny figures representing the settlers leaving their ships with their sheep and horses and bullock teams. These illustrations by Marian Maguire are a wonderfully different take on New Zealand history.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Victoria University Press. RRP $25


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