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August 18, 2014 | by  | in Arts Books |
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waha | mouth [Review]

waha | mouth by Hinemoana Baker
Victoria University Press

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing Hinemoana Baker read a few poems at the Wellington book launch of Essential New Zealand Poems. Her poems suit being read aloud. Not only is she a terrific reader, but you are struck first of all by the sound of the poem – and then, a second later, the feel of the poem. And Hinemoana Baker’s poems are full of sound. You can hear the sound of her words bumping up next to each other, or gliding smoothly round sharp corners, or shifts in pitch and tone.

waha | mouth is Baker’s third poetry collection. True to its title, it’s full of sounds and spoken words and stories passed from mouth to mouth. Reading these poems on the page is different from listening to them, but one word springs to mind: texture. These are poems you can feel under your fingers and hear ringing very clearly in your mind. Often you can taste and smell them, too – some of my favourite moments are when Baker turns to familiar foods and smells: “toasting marshmallows on birthday candles”, or “woodsmoke lifts from my pillow”.

She has an eye for an image that will make you smile and shut your eyes for a second. And she uses words so well that they always clash bewilderingly and beautifully on the page.

But waha | mouth makes up far more than sounds and tingly sensations (though these alone are so good that they’re just about enough to make me love the book). The poems trace themes of grief, death, family histories, memory, love and illness with precision, quiet confidence, and dark humour. They also span large distances, from Paekakariki Beach to Lake Michigan.

This collection will please any poetry reader who isn’t too bewildered by being soothed and startled at the same time. It’s impossible to be bored by Baker’s poems. They are always doing something slightly different or looking in a slightly different direction. She can work with small poems; she can work with huge ones. She often looks to concrete details, but sometimes she looks past them. It seems like she could make something beautiful and strange out of any form at all.

Long poems like ‘candle’, ‘part 1’ and ‘magnet bay farm’ pull us deep into the speaker’s mind, while others, like the series of short vignettes in the middle of the book, take us to all sorts of places and pinpoint many voices.

Two of my favourites are ‘manifesto’ and ‘what the whale said’. “‘Come on Poetry,’ I sigh, my breath/ whitening the dark. ‘The moon is sick of you.’” reads the first, while in the second, “I swallow/ the volume of a lagoon.” At a glance, these two poems couldn’t be more different. And yet they sit side by side in this book, which is part of what makes waha | mouth so special and memorable. There’s that same awareness of the sound of the words and the exactness of the image. These are two of the most beautiful things I’ve read in a while.

If you like poetry, especially New Zealand poetry, waha | mouth won’t just give you something to think about; it’ll make you notice sharp, textural details in the world around you. It’ll alert you to the way words and letters work on the page. There are few poetry books containing as much variety, humour, precision and ordinary beauty as this one. I’m excited about whatever Hinemoana Baker comes up with next. You should be, too.


NZ Twitter Poetry Night is “a thing that sometimes happens.” Every few months or so, people on Twitter get together and record themselves reading poems – it can be a poem they’ve written, or a poem they especially like. When everyone’s sent their recordings in, you get to sit in the comfort of your home and listen to loads of people reading lovely and weird and excellent poems. It’s happening on Sunday 24 August at 8 pm. Have a look at to see how it all works.

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