On Friday March 9 John Newton, Robert Sullivan, my son Jack and I drove down from Auckland to Matahiwi marae near Hastings. Jack had flown in from Melbourne the day before, John had caught the 8 a.m. ferry from Waiheke, and Robert emerged from his house in Arch Hill with a can of cat-food for his neighbour who was keeping an eye on things while he was away. John’s wife Robyn was flying in from Wellington that evening. Donna was flying down from Auckland that night. Michele Leggott, Mark, her guide-dog Olive, and the visiting American poet Rachel Blau duPlessis and her husband Bob were driving down from Auckland. Hinemoana Baker was flying up from Wellington in between sessions at the Writers and Readers Festival. Cilla McQueen was flying up from Bluff. A large contingent from the National Library in Wellington was driving up, in particular the tirelessly courteous and reassuring Peter Ireland and Keith Thorsen. My son Carlos, Sarah, and our grandson Sebo were already up from Wellington, staying with friends in Napier; they turned up at the marae at the appointed hour on Friday. Other sons couldn’t make it: Penn had gone to Melbourne for a friend’s wedding, Conrad was with The Phoenix Foundation at gigs in Wellington, and Mischa, Laura and our grand-daughter Bella were too busy with work in Auckland.
'How can I write about Matahiwi?' I ask Donna, having got this far and ground to a halt with the sense that I’ve written a list.
'Affectionately,' she replies.
She’s right: when I look at what I’ve described, it’s a convergence of good-will around an event that I found moving and humbling in ways I couldn’t have anticipated and find hard to describe.
Robert, John, Jack and I got to the assembly area outside the wharenui Te Matau a Maui in the nick of time at 4pm. I dropped them off and took my leave. Donna and I, and several others including Cilla, would be welcomed on to the marae the following morning. I spent the evening in the lodge above Te Mata, looking across a landscape of vineyards that should be familiar by now but still isn’t. I picked Donna up from the airport at Napier about 11 pm – there were families in pyjamas and dressing-gowns meeting the Auckland flight.
The next morning we were welcomed on to Matahiwi marae, the laureate tokotoko carved by Jacob Scott was presented, and people spoke, recited, and sang. The poet Marty Smith, and the young poet and song-writer Amy Barnard had joined us earlier. After the formalities of the powhiri were complete, John Buck of Te Mata vineyard talked passionately about what the laureate project meant to him, and about the importance of the association between Te Mata, Matahiwi, and the laureate. When Jacob Scott spoke about the tokotoko he’d made, the weeks of preparation and the many flight-paths of those who’d come to Matahiwi seemed to converge and settle.
I’d spent time with Jacob some months earlier, and had given him a couple of pieces of stone from Otanerau Bay on Arapaua Island in Cook Strait. I have a small black and white photograph of an elegant little sloop moored somewhere near Otanerau in 1939, the year my mother and father married, before my father went off to the war. I’m pretty sure the sloop was the boat they honeymooned on. I told Jacob how, some years after my parents’ deaths, I’d dropped my mother’s ivory bracelet and one of my dad’s old Seamaster watches into the sea off Dieffenbach Point by Tory Channel; doing it located them in the place I associated with my childhood sense of belonging somewhere. Jacob knew the names of my sons, and we’d had a yarn session about their ancestors one night on the porch of his house near Havelock North, and another session over lunch earlier on when he visited us in Auckland.
Carlos, Conrad, Mischa, Penn and Jack have their names delicately cut into the top of the tokotoko’s shaft, which is made from the dense, heavy maire timber of the old Te Mata winepress. The two stones from Otanerau (greywacke and obsidian) that I gave Jacob are inlaid adjacent to the boys’ names, together with additions by Jacob: a piece of whale ivory (reminiscent of my mother’s bracelet), a piece of unpolished pounamu, and a piece of granite which he’d brought back from Peru. Together, these represent both the home places and the wandering ways that characterise both my living family and its ancestors. From each inlay a delicate silver chain descends – linked stories – and between the five silver chains are five delicately inscribed panels, each of which recounts a story I told Jacob; so he says.
Only I can’t possibly have told him as much as appears on the tokotoko. It’s hard to describe the extent to which both it and the hospitality of Matahiwi exceed my sense of entitlement. I feel very privileged to have been welcomed into Te Matau a Maui, to have slept, eaten, and celebrated at Matahiwi; to have taken part in the readings with Robert, Cilla, Hinemoana, Marty, John, and Amy at Hastings on Saturday night; to have become part of a special relationship between Matahiwi, Te Mata, and the National Library – a relationship characterised by obvious, deep affection.
My heartfelt, affectionate thanks to Jacob Scott for the tokotoko, Tom Mulligan the kaumatua at Matahiwi marae, Tama Huata for blessing the tokotoko and for his work with the kapa haka group Kahurangi, John Buck of Te Mata, Peter Ireland and Keith Thorsen at the National Library, Marty Smith as poet-mc at the readings and performances, Amy Barnard and her friends Julia and Maude Morris as JAM, and to my friends Cilla McQueen, John Newton, Robert Sullivan, and Hinemoana Baker for their poems.
'This has been hard to write about,' I say to Donna.
'Then just say why.'
It’s hard because the experience was at once extremely personal, and not. I was moved by the kindness and hospitality extended to me; but what matters more isn’t about me at all; what matters is the shape of the event, the kinds of relationships it provides for, the kind of future it anticipates with hope.Matahiwi marae is associated not only with Maui and his brothers and sister, but also with a time in modern history when Maori seasonal workers came over to the Coast for jobs in the freezing works and orchards. Matahiwi had a policy early on of making these people welcome. My son Carlos remarked that the swallows which were perching on phone and power lines all around the marae resembled people seated at the powhiri. The swallows came here from Australia. Perhaps, before that, they came from North Africa. Now they’re at home here. This nice fact should be left alone and not crammed into a sentimental analogy. But all the same.