Poetry with Brownies
You probably have to be a Kiwi to catch the lovely pun in this title. It’s Waitangi Day here Downunder in New Zealand. To celebrate, I went to a poetry reading at our National Library. The ‘brownies’ were both real in the form of delicious squares of home-made chocolate and more importantly, Maori poets. There was a formal line-up of established guest poets and an open mike. I had gone with two books slipped into my handbag, in the event, that it had become appropriate for me to take my turn during the open mike. I soon realised, this was not my time or place to read.
I arrived as the readings had begun and there was standing room only. Stupidly, I’d worn sling back heels (pretty yellow shoes), and thankfully, some generous person, perhaps noting my grey hair, offered me a seat. Imagine my shock when after sitting down, I looked up and at the back of the head of a rapist. This man had once been a sort of friend. We were not close friends, but he was a friend of a friend. This man is a poet. He is tall, handsome, wears kaftans and wrote poems about Vietnam. I know him, but I also know he’s been in jail as a convicted rapist. I’m ashamed to know him. I’m ashamed of my shame. I’m uncertain what is the right reaction. I don’t want him to know I’m sitting behind him. I try to make myself smaller. I remember how I used to love encountering him – the larger than life and lavish kiss on both cheeks as he bent in his tall handsome way, expansive in kaftan and greeting. I gave away his signed poetry book when I read about his conviction. The thing is, it seems he was guilty not once but twice of rape.
So, here I am, to celebrate Waitangi Day. In my handbag is a poem published in the ‘Friday Poem’ publication with a line about my first sex having been ‘technically’ rape, but that I’m from a generation who knew how to take half the blame (along those lines). This poem is burning a hole in my handbag. This is a poem I had planned to read at open mike. This man in front of me is confronting me, my poem and my beliefs.
Should I offer him compassion? Is he the sum of these rapes, or is he more than that? Has he served his time, and should I forgive? All of this is swirling around inside my head, but then thankfully, I am seduced by the poetry. It is raw, it is political, it is passionate, and it is visceral. I forget my misery at where I am seated and lose myself in the best poetry reading, I’ve ever attended. I’m reminded of poetry readings in the past, where people contain their emotions, control their voices, insist that the words themselves should speak as if the words need no encouragement or timbre from the owner. But this is different. These poets do not care about that. They read with a force that emanates from within. The words fly out carried by their emotions, their life force, their humour. These are mostly young Maori with stories to tell, some of them for the first time ever. I am overwhelmed at the beauty of the readings, the impact, the rawness rendered into such lovely language, the anger and pain transformed by poetry, but not diluted.
I am unable to live inside my head and listen to the poems and have surrendered my heart as well.
I slip away, unnoticed by the rapist (once a friend), slyly, and somewhat ashamed of myself. I catch up with two friends I am happy to see, and we marvel at this beautiful morning of poetry. I think about my own poetry still inside my handbag, safely within the book covers.