Review: Whai

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Whai is Nicole Titihuia Hawkins’ debut collection from a new press in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, We Are Babies, which is off to an impressive start with a place on the longlist of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards’ poetry category.

Far out - I’m going to need to work hard to keep up with Nicole Titihuia Hawkins (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Te Wairoa, Ngāti Pāhuwera). I read Whai with Te Aka, the Māori-English dictionary, in my other hand and the first thing was to look up whai. As a verb it means to search for, to perform karakia, to play string games, to acquire. As a noun it is a stingray. All those meanings bundled up in my head like the lines of the colourful piupiu on the cover.

Whai is Hawkins’ debut collection of toikupu from a new press in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, We Are Babies, which is off to an impressive start with a place on the longlist of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards’ poetry category.

It is written in a mixture of te reo and English and proceeds like a kapa haka performance in seven sections: Waiata tira (choral song), Whakaeke (entrance song), Waiata Tawhito (traditional song), Poi, Waiata ā-ringa (action song), Haka, and Whakawātea (exit song). Hawkins works as a high school teacher and her love for her students shines through. I especially enjoyed this from Kaiako Dialogues:

Pō Kanikani

I ask for gum in the van

The kids want in

You won’t be pashing anyone tonight

you don’t need it

Then why do you need one, Whaea?

I Ruru pivot from the passenger’s seat

so they can see my Kahungunu eyebrows


Oi! Don’t you fullas say eww!

In the truest of Tūhoe tones

Uh, oh sorry Miss

we meant Eww-lah-lah

Hawkins writes in the kinds of free verse that is so fashionable these days that I’ve come to think of them as ‘normal’ poems. There isn’t much in the way of rhyme or formal scansion – instead, these toikupu hold a different kind of density. The sense of multiplicity intensifies as Hawkins writes amidst languages, generations, cultures, meanings.

There is a lot going on but there is no confusion or lack of purpose: Hawkins’ multiplicity is clearly a strength. In Hihi the verses are labelled A, E, I, O, U (which I automatically sing) with each holding a different meaning of hihi. I only knew about the bird, but hihi also means straight line (in mathematics), feeler or tendril, and ray of sun.

A lone beam undoes her cloak

fingers the length of her spine

grazes a lesson at each notch.

Fierce protector of the land

she turns to face the darkness

The shadow contours her Māori Maleficent

her hair in horns the last defence.

As the collection progresses Hawkins writes less in English and more in te reo, until the final poem, Aho, is entirely in te reo. Aho is another word that contains multitudes: it can mean fishing line, weft, genealogical line of descent; or, in mathematics, chord or sine. In Tuia Hawkins writes, “I’ve fought 20 years / to feel these kupu / I’ll spit them wherever / I like / don’t you know who my ancestors are?” I am mindful too of this from A culturally responsive pedagogy:

To you they’re all same

every call, every

action, every

rolling of eyes

all haka


It is true that until recently nearly all written kupu Māori looked pretty much the same to me. In response to Hawkins’ wero I set out determinedly in the fog of my own English-language dependence. If Aho is a line then I can follow it, even though I don’t yet understand it. It ends:

Haere, haere, haere ki runga

ki Ngā kurakura o Hinenuitepō.

Near as I can understand, this is an invitation to go, go, go up to what we call in Latin the Aurora Australis. It’s a gorgeous image to end a pukapuka that glows with a sense of whakapapa and community.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage