Making Love with the Land: Three New Books of Queer Indigenous Poetry


essa may ranapiri responds to three collections of poetry by indigenous queer writers: HOW|HAO by Cassandra Barnett (Ngāti Raukawa, Pākehā), Ask the Brindled by No’u Revilla (‘Ōiwi), and how to make a basket by Jazz Money (Wiradjuri).

I’m at home
through names, fingers
attached to the hands, arms

JIt was the opening lines of Cassandra Barnett’s “peripheral” poem that seemed like the best place to start: home and fall. HOW|HAO is a book that hits you. You try to grasp meaning in forests of words in an attempt to communicate in a fractured language with Wheke and Tāne. However much pain there is in the gaps, the poetry itself is playful, folding the words on top of each other.

write your names
in Latin
or te reo rangatira or
witch but
write them

There’s a bravery and a surrender here, as Barnett takes languages ​​and bits of language she knows, and pushes the words against the gaps. Barnett’s writing provokes as much as it plays: for example “space rake” is a poem that brings us closer to atua, with a daring sensuality. This poem is close to my heart:

tane, wheke
your two buttons
I don’t know who I want
get inside more

Is it inherently weird to want to fuck the atua? Maybe not. But it feels. Barnett continues:

atua are iaia
atua are iarere
atua are ai
atua doesn’t need to be undone

they have never been
do like this

Gifted iaia and iarere kupu which speak of the gender or character of atua beyond that of wāhine and tāne. I see myself in this conception, iarere settles electrically on my shoulders.

FFrom this house in Te Ika in Māui, we head to the island of Maui, 7472 km away; I think of our ancestors who set out from the same place in the Pacific, our languages ​​intertwined even as they discover lands far apart. From Barnett’s poem about having sex with gods, to No’u Revilla’s poem “Don’t have sex with gods” from her book Ask the Brindled. I thought I’d feel completely disconnected reading Revilla’s book: I know us Pacific people, whakapapa in the same places, but I never expected so many things would speak to me like a great island tangata. The impact of colonization but also the stories we told, before the Christians arrived here, hums with familiarity:

I use my rosary as a rope
the way Maui carried the sun,
the way Maui transported the islands.

Maui and Māui, I wonder about their ability to pull and how their strings have traveled so many times and miles untouched.

if ‘āina is what nourishes,
if aloha ‘āina is love and lover of the earth,
then the one who feeds is the one who fucks.
‘Āina will fuck back.

what happens when the rope breaks?

make your rosary. don’t make your beads, baby.
we have always slept with gods.

Those last stanzas of ‘Don’t have sex with gods’ fill me with such joy, pushing the language, like Barnett’s ‘space rake’, interrogating meaning and finding joy and sex with the atua here. From Maui we move on to Meanjin, where I’m on a panel at the Brisbane Writers Festival with artist Dylan Mooney and writer/artist Jazz Money, and chaired by Grace Lucas-Pennington. The panel was called “Decolonizing Queer” and we were talking about so much queer joy, with Jazz leading this specific koorero/thread talking about the sex lives of our ancestors. This is what these poems remind me of. Jazz Money’s poem ‘The Space Between the Paper Barks’ from their How to Make a Basket collection lives in this same world:

when we fuck i travel in time
I enter the space between the paper bark
soft tannins
I climb under the ashes

Just as in Revilla’s poem, here we are brought back to temporal sex and earth. I love how these works say “we are here and queer and bring gender back into our stories of connection with atua and whenua!” So often we see our worlds as asexual, but that is only due to a distortion imposed by white Christianity.

These three collections are spiral journeys through time and space. I love the queer wāhine community of No’u Revilla portrayed as shape-shifters, shifting from the joy of the lizard life to the strains of religious domination; while Jazz Money’s collection spans time, being a snapshot of their writing over many years, and captures love poems in various relationships, from critiques of colonial violence to odes to ancient beings who roam the earth. Barnett’s collection, although much shorter, covers so much ground: the whole language doing double duty creating new meanings, establishing new contexts as we move between urban spaces and the forest (are there there a difference?!). The way the poetry is released, the way the language is played out in these three books, is where my joy so often comes from as a queer Indigenous writer. The sneaky turn, the little snap that opens the mind.

Revilla’s poem, “When you say ‘protesters’ instead of ‘protectors'” explains how political these small naming changes can be.

I’d call it a trick, if it wasn’t so terrifying, that your mouth doesn’t move when you talk. Your smile, shining like a church, but what kind of prayer could be trusted without proof of a free tongue?

This kind of game is deadly serious. Very often, our lives are bound together by words imposed on us by power. When we can release our tongues and crawl to the edge of language, something opens up. Money’s poem ‘ngargan’ sets out what is at stake in this piece and what can be built within this poetry.

when I cross the limits of English
I’m free
all the best things i write
are stretched at the edges
of the language of the colonizer

God-fucking and language-fucking is what we do best! We are full of atuatanga, we are full of queerness, as Revilla reflects in his poem “So Sacred, so queer”

so sacred

a ceremony

when she

my fingers

in the dirt

we feel

so weird

Our homosexuality once again linked to the earth and in turn to the gods. This poem is also a response to two other Aboriginal writers; Leanne Simpson and Billy-Ray Belcourt. We still reach out to each other, finding our queer Indigenous brothers and sisters across the land and ocean. Something I humbly try to do here.

As a last contact here is a poem for you, Cassandra, No’u and Jazz:


my queer tongue rubs against the pleasure of our gods
find new ways to fuck up the english language
I can see the words change shape in our mouths
the moon is fat and bright here in my throat
standing in front of a series of works
where we make noise but which one
an apple crumble to crumble
a colonial tradition
I’ll take these crosses and make better words
out of them as i push the testosterone t down
to zero

I slowly transform into a tuatara that makes croaking noises in
the sun

no sounds sssss here
everything is low rumble

ancestor of the snake and the lizard all the same
dragging me out of bed for your words
turn my heart into a weapon
to breathe more warm and sacred joy into this world

HOW|HAO by Cassandra Barnett (taraheke | Bushlawyer$20), ask the brindles by No’u Revilla (Milkweed), and how to make a basket by Jazz Money (University of Queensland Press, $30) can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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