Piri and Hone (and Me)

Spring 2002. Me and my great mate Piri Rewa take a trip to the Catlins to call in on Hone Tuwhare. The poet. THE poet.

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I’ve got a story for you Piri, one that you might recognize, eh? 

I reckon the telling might make the whole thing worth it, if you know what I mean. A refund on the dollar cost. If words have value. I hope they do.  

You’d best sit yourself in for a long one eh? Tall but true. Quite an adventure we had. I hope you savour it, like that “one true girl” in the fireside of your memory, cuddled in close to your heart.

We leave for Kaka Point on a Monday, to go and meet Hone.

I drive and you guard the stereo and a bucket of cockles. We got them from Long Beach the day before. In our stubbies and singlets with our dicks falling out of our shorts. Wading back up to our waists in the drink. Up and over the mudflats. A story in itself, for any other mates, on any other occasion, but we’re about to meet Hone.

Hone Tuwhare. The poet. THE poet.

Rain

I can hear you
making small holes
in the silence
rain

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

you would still
define me
disperse me
wash over me
rain

Hone Tuwhare 1922-2008

We roll down from Dunedin without too much fuss, find the turn at Balclutha after a little confusion, then follow the directions Hone gave me when he was pissed. We find the Presbyterian church, all right, then turn as we were told.

What a frustrating bloody hour after that. It’s like trying to find the holy grail, eh? We check out the nice crib with the red trim and the fresh-mown grass. Very poetic we think, but unlikely to contain the poet we know. Sure enough, no one there. No one next door either – at the surfer’s cottage with wetsuits and boards lying outside ready to be taken like cockles. We leave them where they lie. We try to rouse the resident in the lived-in house with greenish  bricks but no one home. Probably not answering the door actually, what with a long-haired hippy-type pressing his grubby palms on the glass, peering through the window and a gruff Māori challenging whoever’s inside to come on out and present yourself at the top of his lungs.

Maybe s/he’s watching us when we walk down the drive and you find the caged lamb, crying for its mother. You stick out your finger for it to suck while I scratch its carpet head.

Eventually we peer over a fence and find a rough crib with a hand-written stick telling us to

“eff off!”

And a porno sellotaped to the window. I peer into a cramped room with a day bed and shelves of books and think fuck, it must be his writing shed, where’s his house? Then you rock back on your heels and nod me towards the noises coming from inside. Good hearing you’ve got. Hone comes to the door in a sarong. That’s all.

“I learned to wear them when I was in Samoa.”

The look on his face when he sees you holding the cockles. He’s delighted and he rushes us inside. We sit down in the other two chairs. Yours buckles. He puts the kettle on. I put some cockles in a pot on the woodburner stove and boil the fuck out of them while you fix the chair.

Hone is very pleased with you - you in particular - and you pass some conspiratorial glances between the two of you as he tips the boiled kettle directly into the bucket to loosen them up. The two of you begin to crack those wee bastards open raw. Fuck me days, but he loves that shit. He’s slurping them down.

“It’s like going there on a lovely woman and trying to make the little birdie sing,”

he says with a naughty smile, tounging the shell and trying to drink as much of the sea as he can. He packs them down at a pace. We all do and I look around the room. It’s a shack all right. It has personality. He eats OK, does Hone, vegetables scattered round the room and meat in the fridge. The makings of a roast.

“Take a look in there, fish heads,”

he says pointing to the freezer. It’s stuffed full of the ugly bastards.

“I made the fisherman give them to me. They take good care of me the fishermen. I said to them ‘why don’t you put them in the cray pots?’ They said ‘it’s too rough out there for crays.’ Crays love fish heads. I love fish heads too.” 

I’m necking Hone’s whiskey and you’re being very modest. I’ve never eaten raw shellfish, and I’ve certainly never drunk straight whiskey while I was doing it. You’ve got territorials tomorrow, so you’re not touching a drop. Around the room are bits and bobs and paintings - originals and photocopies. Beardless Baxter’s portrait on cardboard leans on the floor against a kitchen island. Hone’s original Montana Book Award is blocking a hole in the wall. Books litter this place like old dinners. I see Toni Morrison’s Beloved and think I should read it. Thanks, Hone, but I don’t want to eat that plate of rancid corned beef for dessert. Thanks, mate. I’m all good. We’re all good.

He tells us stories, does Hone, about being young in Auckland. Sounds like he comes from very poor beginnings indeed.

“You must make yourself small, my father always told me. You must be humble Hone. Don’t make yourself big. Make yourself small.”

And so he does, or tried to do. Funny how things turn out.

“I left school in standard six.”

He tells us his father couldn’t afford to educate him further. For four years

“I hung out with my dad.”

Until his father managed to get him an apprenticeship at the railway works, basically selling him into slavery for

“Tuppence farthing a day. Tuppence fathing!”

The wages make him bitter still. They also made him a boilermaker. We don’t know what that is. He can’t explain or maybe he can, but I don’t understand. I still don’t know. We also don’t know how he became this poet that he is. With a color photocopy doctorate sellotaped to his wall.

“Doctor! Doctor of Literature. Pff. I can’t even mend a broken leg,”

he says, shamefully. He loves to read he tells us. Always did, ever since he could. It must have been an addiction all right because when he was a boy (late 1920s! Early 1930s!!) all he had to read was the Old Testament. Christ, what a weird way to go about it. He doesn’t start writing until he has a lifetime of experience under his belt,

“My late twenties, maybe early thirties,”

he thought but he’s done a hell of a bit since then.

“Twelve books,”

he says, most of them lying in manuscript form in the sleep-out we explored out back. Boxes of typewritten pages, hand corrected, covered in mold. Seaweed is growing through the carpet. Is it you Piri who wonders if Tangaroa stands in awe of Hone? Sneaking out of his own realm to catch a glimpse of his chief supplicant’s latest offering. I see typed or printed pages of Shapeshifter. The book that brought us here.

Hone takes the time to put on some pants and grab a royalty cheque then takes us down to the pub to buy us booze or rather to buy me booze. Territorials tomorrow, eh Piri? I get it, but he doesn’t and you have to shrink like a bullied dog to stop him from making you drink and you do well, you’re strong. You also play a mean game of pool, defeating me (or did I win, you sneaky bastard, the memory is coming back to life!) and then playing Hone in a very funny match. We either watch him drink a dozen oysters from a plastic tub or see it from his description. I’m drunk.

I’m drunk and make conversation with a South African couple who moved here to work in the prison - I saw it called the Milton Hilton in the Otago Daily Times - not by them though. They work there. The darts are way off the mark on the board you’re crouching under with Hone. Conspirators. He schools you in the art of verse. ‘Quite scarily,’ you later say. So we socialise more with some shearers and a bigot then you drive us all back to the shack.

You’d snuck back earlier you cunning bastard! So we have a juicy roast cooked and waiting for us when we get home. Complete with the sweetest kumara I’ll ever eat. Cue some more chats all right, and Hone searching throught the house for this and that, talking about life and bullshit. He even writes poetry with us, imagine that!

He’s most impressed with your reading and I think you even surprise yourself, you poet you, by how good you are - the writing and the reading it.

“This bloke should become an actor”

he says of you and your modesty almost hides your swelling pride. Almost, I say, ‘cos I see it. Then he writes a poem with me. With me! I write one line, but he likes it well enough to finish it for me, signing and dating it. To tell the truth I don’t think we talk about much after that. He’s very boozed and pulls out a dry joint from his writing desk. I puff. His company is pleasant enough. You kip out on the floor, you piking bugger! At the point that the whiskey’s done and the conversation’s gone to rubbish and we wake early the next day to make our way home. Territorials, eh?

Hone is glad again to see us but I don’t think he remembers our names. I get a feeling that he lives in a cloudy stew of then and now. Memory, presence, imagination. But he poses for some crazy photos and waves us off. He even writes a poem for your girl (?). You silly bugger you’ve made your choice now, by God. Getting rid of that girl will be like removing a tattoo if you present her with that token of love.

So we drive back to Balclutha and stop for fish and chips. From the fella who once paid for a helicopter to find his lost pig dog. I buy some juice and a cheap CD, yee ha, and we breakfast on a picnic table by the bridge.

Then we race home, a mite too fast unfortunately, and we get stopped by a policeman. Fuck me days, you say - very wittily I think at the time - as he gives you a fine for $570. The mother fucker. This being you who chose spring roll over fish to save $1.10. For a moment there you look like one of those gaping fish heads, hauled from the depths of an old man’s freezer only to be dunked in a pot and dropped to the bottom of the sea. Christ I feel sorry for you, and still do now, but we’ll get off $400 right? Speeding on a restricted with a passenger, who’s been on a full for < 2 years. We’ll get off everything except the first word. I get the policeman to breathalyze me to prove I’m too pissed to drive. Beep beep beep. I’m way over the limit. You’re helping out a drunken mate and you just got unlucky, yeah? Seems to happen to you a bit I know. But you could have been a fucking boilermaker I suppose. Whatever that is. Don’t feel too bad, bro. Fuck it was a good trip, and you know me, I’ve always got your back. 50:50. Mates forever, yeah?

We drive slowly back to Dunedin; stop in at my place to eat a pie.

What a trip eh? What a story.

I thought I’d better write it down for you once you left so that you could never forget. Have I missed a bit? Is there something I left out? You better correct it then. Write it in your words and make sure I hear them. Read it out. That way you do and only you. Kōrero, yeah? Utu perhaps. Reciprocation, balance, revenge.

Sorry to play the Pākeha all the time, but what I mean is write it down, like a letter, like a story, but read it out to me, please. You actor you.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to remember.

From Arthur Meek to his good mate Piri Rewiri Keiha Rewa (I got that from the ticket!), 15th October 2002. 

This image belongs to the Hone Tuwhare Charitable Trust.