A chorus of writers celebrate essa may ranapiri and their new poetry collection, Echidna.
Last week Auckland poet, historian, reviewer and occasional Ockhams judge Nicholas Reid published a bizarre and hurtful piece on his website in which he overtly refused to use the pronoun “they” for Wellington poet essa may ranapiri. A shorter version of the piece (minus Reid’s blathering over pronouns) was published by the Listener, where Reid reviews poetry.
As essa tweeted: “Nicholas Reid could have just wrote a review about not understanding a poetry collection that would have been fine, this book is for a specific community, instead he started his review shitting on me and an entire community.”
More than 400 friends and writers agreed, signing a letter to Listener editor Karyn Scherer and books editor Mark Broatch. The upshot is that Reid won’t be reviewing LGBTQIA+ books for them anymore. Also, his name is mud.
We asked a bunch of writers, especially takatāpui Māori, to show the love for essa and their pukapuka. Things got absolutely hectically poetic.
– Catherine Woulfe, book editor
Hinemoana Baker (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Te Āti Awa and Ngāi Tahu; she/her; musician, teacher and writer of poetry, most recently the Funkhaus collection)
Can someone please turn this incredible book into an animated poetry feature film? Animated because no bunch of humans could pull off essa’s absolute juggernaut of a poetic vision. The cast of characters alone is a box office hit! Can’t remember any other work of art that’s brought together Hatupatu, Lucifer and the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, can you? I for one would pay damn good money to watch Māui and Prometheus on Mt Elbrus gobbling liver and making ‘the rock hot / with fluids’. And if I had any cash left at all, after seeing this film seven thousand times, I’d buy an air fryer, just like my namesake in essa’s poem, and make fritters out of all those fragile, fading phobics whose time has well and truly gone. Kia kaha essa, you GOLDEN and BLOODRED and GREENSTONE EXPLOSION.
Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Hinerangi me Ngaati Raukawa, Ngaati Mahuta, Tainui/Waikato, Ngaati Waewae, Kaati Mamoe, Waitaha; they/them; writer of essays and poetry, most recently the collection A bathful of kawakawa and hot water)
Oh essa, of course you were the first to realize that Sisyphus isn’t ole getting-nothing-done.1 Sisyphus isn’t Cronus swallowing each of his children as Rhea gives birth to them nor does he force Cronus to vomit them all back up. It’s like an egg cracking in the ocean and something does come out.two Or like the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus without any engagement in the reality of sex. Pushing up the hill, Running forever up that hill, but why not that hill, or that maunga. It’s a quiet meditation, a gentle way of peeling back to reveal a petal of sun.3
There’s hope in your words like a panopticon made of kindness4, not exactly a disciplinary concept where prisoners will never know whether or not they are being watched. This is instead Uenuku’s koru unfurling in rainbows rather than Discipline and Punish, but as Foucault says “…language is not a totality of independent signs, a uniform and unbroken entity in which things could be reflected one by one, as in a mirror, and so reflects particular truths.”5 Perhaps Narcissus isn’t chasing a dark reflection through Tane’s forest6, but that mirror can instead be seen like the word mokopuna. “Puna” as in the clear wai and only mirror our tūpuna ever knew, and “moko” as in the curves and lines that reveal whakapapa. We see ourselves, as we see our tupuna.
essa you always see like the way you can recognize that of course moko is alive, it’s a peeling back, a revealing of a wairua that was always there. Whakapapa is imprinted in the way eyes move across skin and weigh each pigment in a scale,7 just as when we meet Hine-nui-te-pō her moko kauae moves as she speaks.8 essa I’m still reading your pukapuka, slowly, carefully, peeling back like there’s a clock between their legs.9 I don’t want it to end, your words are like the waiwera that splits my skin,10 or like the snake woman as she swaddles the babe.eleven
1 essa may ranapiri, “Mahuika & Prometheus Discuss the Pros + Cons of Fire,” Echidna (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022) 43
2 Essa May Ranapiri, 14
3 essa may ranapiri, “Mahuika & Prometheus Discuss the Pros + Cons of Fire”, 46
4 essa may ranapiri, “Echidna & Narcissus”, 38
5 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (Vintage Books, 1970) 34
6 essa may ranapiri, “Echidna & Narcissus”, 38
8 essa may ranapiri, “Echidna Meets Hine-nui-te-pō,” 20
9 essa may ranapiri, “Echidna & Narcissus in an apartment building”, 39
10 Roma Potiki, “snake woman came to visit”, Stones in her Mouth (IWA Associates, 1992) 29
11 essa may ranapiri, “The Snake Woman,” 16
Lyssa Rogers-Rahurahu (Ngāti Raukawa, Te Arawa, Rangitāne and Ngāti Kahungunu; they/them; writer of stories for their whānau)
I once heard a story about a room so quiet that if you stay in there long enough you can hear your joints rubbing and your blood flowing with the thumps of your heart. I spent too many hours failing to imagine the sounds of our bodies we cannot hear. But I found my answers on a page painted vividly in black letters, formatted to perfection.
Essa’s visceral imagery bars its teeth at you, opening with the dry rustling of scales. From that moment we are in the world that Echinda inhabits, we swirl with her de ella in ripples and shape-shift into bodies well-known and foreign alike. The space that Echidna walks tips us in and out of lust/love/hate/grief, never letting us drown and moving us with the rhythm of the awa it weaves into the stories.
Like essa, Echinda holds too many multitudes for me to grasp in one sitting, inviting us back to her tour around time and shape.
Essa’s words karanga to us;
“After a long silence Echinda asks
Would you run away with me here?
Alex Stronach (Kāi Tahu; he/ia; writer of science fiction and fantasy, most recently the novel The Dawnhounds)
Reviewing Echidna is hard: essa may ranapiri is a moving target, dancing between tongues, codes, tones, keys, and mythologies. Kupu should fail, in less-certain hands they’d shatter, but ranapiri is a beast of the margin, wry and mournful, playful and dignified, an artist of the unsaid and unsayable.
Hine-nui-te-pō & the Dominant Species stopped me in my tracks, haunting in its stillness, an elegy for the natural world as the mechanical supplants it, the mocking chirp of a car calling to the moment Hine-nui-te- pō awoke on Maui, not the joyful death seen elsewhere in the book (reinvention, rebirth, shagging) but the death of an age, a collective wairua, a death that seems to lowkey rattle even the great night mum herself for a moment.
Amongst the book’s beautiful chimerae – joinings made in love to each other, to our whenua, to ourselves – it’s a lurking steel beast.
Chris Tzu (Chinese New Zealander; he/him; editor of poetry at The Spinoff and writer of poetry, most recently the collection Super Model Minority)
Echidna, Echidna, Echidna… The refrain is a spell, an incantation. We have opened a gate to elsewhere/elsewhen and have invited something otherwordly to join us. It starts with the sound of birds. Our senses unfurl one by one. Echidna, Echidna, Echidna… We step onto the page, armed with multiple mythologies and the story of a Monster who is ready for violence. If I were to be crushed by this beast, I would be thankful. We gather threads and strands of faded folklore to fortify our future. Echidna, Echidna, Echidna… Have you ever had your heart stopped by a story because your body wasn’t prepared for it? Oh how thankful we are to be taken by this story – a story so rich it fills every absence and coats our own, queer, tongues with a new power. Echidna, Echidna, Echidna…
Andi C Buchanan (Pākehā; they/them; writer of ghost stories, most recently the novel Sanctuary)
We are taught that to slither is demeaning; the curse of God upon the serpent. This book moves in antithesis to that: ranapiri takes the reader in motion, accumulating words, ideas, stories, along the way.
Echidna, both character and book, slithers unrepentantly. Literally – as half human, half snake – but also in content and in language. This collection is the continuous movement that brings together what it finds on each side. It is the grains of sand beneath stirring into one trail. It is the arrangement of seemingly nonsensical ideas on single lines, eyes shifting between them, the whitespace speaking as loud as the words.
It is binaries mixed: human and monster, Eve and Lucifer, mythological and technological, light, shadow, yes, no. Dialectic in action: two opposites becoming something new.
The snake cannot step over. The snake – the slitherer – pushes forward first with one side, then the other. It twists, it oscillates. Its path includes, crosses, combines those around it. There are places within Echidna to arch up, to stand, but Item is mostly a journey that takes you – slithering, if you will let it – through something beautiful, unsettling, and new.
Jordan Hamel (Pākehā; he/him; slam poet and writer of poetry, most recently the collection Everyone is Everyone Except You)
Echidna isn’t a collection of poetry, it is, for all intents and purposes, an odyssey. Essa creates a world that is vivid and spacious. Mythic, fluid characters navigate a mythic, fluid world. Past becomes present, light becomes dark, scale becomes feather, becomes skin, becomes blood, becomes, becomes. This book is a glowing example of a poem and a poet being the product of all those who have come before them and all those who surround them. You can’t help but feel moments of surprise and joy when Poūkahangatus or Nafanua or one of the many other poetic personae turn up along the way. You gasp at their appearance like an unexpected film cameo, then you get to watch as these characters and writers layer themselves generously over essa’s poetry. It is through such an expanse that essa can displace you and drop you somewhere unexpected: a moment of innocence, a mountain, a birth, a rebirth, a death, an afterdeath, a moment that breaks you, a moment to repair.
Ruby Solly (Kai Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe; she/her; musician, taonga puoro practitioner and writer, most recently of poetry collection Tōku Pāpā)
When I think of your poems
I think in a space where time folds in on itself
For my ancestors / descendants
they know they are one and the same.
We speak so much of Rangi and Papa
that we forget from when they came.
In translation they call it nothing
but you know that it is everything
that was, can, and will be.
I close my eyes in my own te pō
and there you are braiding io mātua kore,
with the hair of rangi and papa in each hand.
Here in this darkness you are chalk outline.
White dusted hands, sweeping strokes
across what will become the page.
It takes someone who walks between
to weave together
our oldest stories
with our newest ones.
To put blankets around the shoulders
of the god’s wildest tales.
To coddle the wailing
of a friday night epilogue
beneath a full moon watching.
When we look in the background,
you are painted in the night.
Black on black shaping the potential,
picking pūrākau from the gardens of the dark
to press between the pages
of your books.
Echidna by essa may ranapiri (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $25) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.