Ode to Te Whiti-O-Rongomai

               'A system of water-supply and the installation of electric
                 light has brought Te Whiti’s pa into line with the most
                 advanced ideas of municipal development.’
                 Mr O. T. J. Alpers, 1902

                 ‘Te Whiti was a prisoner at Opunake for a short time, and
                 the buttons coming off his trousers, volunteers were
                 called for the work of sewing them on again. I was given
                 the important job.’
                 Mr J. C. Hickey, Opunake Times, 22 March 1927


Te Whiti o Rongomai, the great bearded god
of electricity beams down on you

and shines approvingly and flickers
roundly and blows

the occasional fuse. But the lights of Parihaka
stammer onwards

into the new millennium. All those years like box-thorn
or gorse grown up the flank

of you, as we sit at your feet, studying the scriptures of circuitry, the wiring
of habitable towns, the falling light of comets and

errant stars. Here, I applaud the aching limbs of your
fife and drum band,

you — their conductor — in your bowler hat with its wind-battered raukura.
I praise the light

their disciplined music sheds on both you and the descendants
of the Thames Native Rifle Volunteers.

Like you, I can imagine the Opunake Hotel public bar
crammed ceiling-high with loaves of bread

anticipating a siege, long engagement, the possibility
of reprisal,

a half million warriors flowing like lava from your mountain.
But instead, a quiet morning —

Taranaki lost in clouds, after a night of electrical storms, fragments
of meteors, the cool vacant debris

of space. Also like you, I am worried about the health
of my family, descended as I am

from one J. C. Hickey, a man, by some accounts, responsible
for the introduction of box-thorn, gorse and wire gates

to the Taranaki. A notable brawler,
a one man travelling circus,

who famously fist-fought any person, Maori
or Pakeha and, after your arrest, Te Whiti o Rongomai,

upon whom fell the task of sewing new buttons
on your trousers. One version

has it that lots were drawn as to which constabulary member
landed ‘the important job’. Another version, that this man’s brother

had taken a Maori wife and the family connection
rendered him appropriate. Either way,

the passage of this small needle through your trousers
was the one detail of the invasion

he chose to remember when interviewed for the Opunake Times,
aged 80, in 1927. No mention is made

of his brawling tendencies after 1881, although a propensity for
civil disobedience later came to light

when he became the first citizen to run livestock
on the Opunake common, his twenty five head

of cattle successfully evading not only the bylaws but a
marauding ranger.

Not that I would presuppose a pacifism on his part,
perhaps at most a more

reasonable nature, cut but only slightly of your cloth, Edward,
or Eru-eti as you were known.

And as you were a bird once, ruru or native owl, and your friend
Tohu an albatross,

so my great Irish grandfather was known as — an irony that would not
have been lost on you — Cockatoo.

Watching the years trundle past, attended by
what beliefs we can muster

and this ever-present disbelief — what you might ask, has
become of us, Te Whiti o Rongomai?

We replace our gods like light-bulbs — only the current is
constant. And what of your illuminated province,

all darkness and hail
storm, across which I have led expeditions

into history books — in which I find you, your eyes
which have known the flash of lightning but seldom

the photographer’s bulb. They search me out, Te Whiti o Rongomai
while the god of bad weather and dissolving stars

studies the calm ocean of your brow, the peaceful
furrows of your face. He studies the shadow

of a boy running from the wharenui, hands clasped over
his ears, to escape the deafening roar of

the poi, swinging from the long arms of your many sons and
daughters. A line of roaring propellers.

Later, the women join in a haka
to flatten the soil, raise the mountain.

The view from the grave, as you know, is a long, undulating
one. Elevation a concern only

for the living and their business. They gather above us, as we speak:
aeroplanes, their bellies so crammed with phosphate

they can hardly take off. But there is a richness you bring to the soil
which cannot be dropped from a height.

All this we have seen in our lifetime: cables buried under sea
and earth, explosions of gases

in the atmosphere, waterspouts, satellites, the infinity motif
of the circular milking shed.

But there is another grid, laid as a blanket over your province:
one of fife bands, poi dances

your descendants gathering around a teapot the size
of a small room, just as the pa are placed

around Maunga Taranaki. If only the sky, the ever-present
sky, was a sponge capable of soaking up

whatever suffering we offered it, or a fog in which the lesser gods
of war and anger might be dizzied

and lose their way. The mountain climbs the mountain
track to reach its own

summit, sifts through relics of itself:
a box of bayonets wrapped

in wax-paper, a children’s hut
of stacked cannonballs,

each native feather of each living bird, stitched
into the mountain’s cloak.

Bowler hat and feather, feather
and bowler hat

Te Whiti, last year when a meteor was reported
flying above the Southern Hemisphere

I knew it would be drawn to your mountain. And sure enough, it broke up
over Maunga Taranaki.

Te Whiti, we share these flaming and extinguished stars
just as we share brass bands, certain Biblical

co-ordinates, a sense of disbelief and this recurring
belief. I have stood on the floor of your wharenui, where

your quiet room once was — the building itself burnt down
years after your departure

not by electricity but by an earlier form of light
and warmth. Leaving only a concrete floor-plan

your walls and roof now every star and falling
star and starless night

since then. And it is your wiring that keeps the heavens
radiant. In another sense, the source of the light

outlives even you — an electrical lamp
at either end of your grave.

As you were once, asleep and awake, so you lie. The mountain
our dark tent too, all black air and

thunderclaps and climbers
falling forever downwards.

But you wouldn’t want to make
too much of your mountain,

Te Whiti, even if the electricity of your province remains
light years ahead of the rest of

the known universe, because it is also true that farm machinery has
drowned out your wood-pigeon, your

ruru. So what of this affinity, then, that which
we feel.

Perhaps because we were all diggers, a river of shovels
edging towards the sea

accompanied by the stitch, stitch,
stitching of Irish peasant hands

as people of mercy, love and a facility
for making whole, we now sit

by your trouser-leg and
sew, as the descendants

of Cockatoo Hickey will sit
for all time

attending each miserable thread
and the stitch, stitch

stitching of this conciliatory

Gregory O'Brien was born in Matamata in 1961. After training as a journalist in Auckland, he worked as a newspaper reporter in Northland before returning to study Art History and English at Auckland University. A prolific poet, he also written a novel, Diesel Mystic (1989) and many articles about art. He works at the City Gallery in Wellington and also convenes Victoria’s Poetry Workshop, but is currently in France with his wife Jenny Bornholdt and their two sons. His most recent book, After Bathing at Baxters, is a collection of his best essays.

O’Brien comments: “My mother’s family comes from the Taranaki township of Opunake, not far from Parihaka Pa, which was an important site in 19th Century New Zealand history. The Parihaka leaders, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, led a campaign of passive resistance against the colonial government from the1860s until the 1890s. Events at Parihaka climaxed in 1881 when the Crown invaded the pa (or village), dispersed the communities gathered there and systematically destroyed the buildings and cultivations.

“Taranaki is a province well-known for its electrical storms; the township of Parihaka (under Te Whiti) was famous for its advanced electricity supply. The poem is a kind of choreography, bringing together various elements, making connections as well as reconciling opposites (personal history and official history are brought into close proximity, as are Maori and Pakeha cultures, the past and present . . .) The form of the poem owes something to Neruda’s Elemental Odes and the late sonnets of James K. Baxter.”

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New Zealand Book Council writer file
City Gallery Wellington