Poetry Box November challenge – using poetry forms
Atua: Māori Gods and Heroes, Gavin Bishop, Penguin, 2021
Gavin Bishop’s Atua: Māori Gods and Heroes is one of those special books I imagine the author has germinated and carried for a long time, working with a publisher who has invested time and love to produce a book worthy of the original idea. The book is a treasure house, a gift, a kete stocked with an abundance of knowledge and wisdom in both the narrative and the artwork.
I am so moved by this book. It is like I’m holding a set of lungs breathing as I read, a warm heart beating, because the book is invested with significant life. Gavin begins in Te Pō, the dark nothing, and moves through to Te Ao, the light, the world. He leads us to Ranginui e tū nei, the great sky father, and Papatūānuku, mother earth. He guides us to some of their offspring, the seven gods given the most important jobs. He draws us through skies, oceans and the land, while the stars, the sun and moon, plants, trees, animals, birds and humans come into being. There is conflict, jealousy, respect, growth, wisdom. There is maternal and paternal love.
Each page is a resting stop. Read the narrative. Sink into the artwork. Linger over the little pockets of information, harvest new knowledge. Check out kauri or kawakawa, te waha o Tanē the dawn chorus, fish that ‘swim in sea water lit by the sun’ and fish that favour the deep. I learnt there are 28 native bee species that live in tunnels, not hives, and that don’t produce honey. You will meet the sacred and you will encounter the everyday.
The ink in Gavin’s pen is fluid. He looks forward to the past and acknowledges the present. I am always curious about the way illustrations are made, both the process and the media. I asked Gavin to describe it for me, and was delighted he used the word ‘old-fashioned’. There is something very satisfying abut stretching watercolour paper, squeezing paint from a tube, and sharpening the point of the brush when needed. The artwork is incandescent. Lovingly produced. I am drawn to the textured skin of the figures, the moods on the faces, the ability of paint to animate. This is art and it is stellar. From Gavin:
My approach to illustration is totally old-fashioned. I draw everything on pieces of paper and colour them in. All my pictures go through a lot of stages. The first sketches are very rough and done quickly. It is a matter of getting a fleeting idea down on the paper before it flits away. Just as I am going to sleep is a particularly ripe time for inventing very rough and done quickly. It is a matter of getting a fleeting idea down on the paper before it flits away. Just as I am going to sleep is a particularly ripe time for inventing images. They present themselves and won’t give me rest until I have scribbled them into the notebook I keep by the bed. Next day, in my studio I redraw them more slowly, firming them up and imaging how they might fit on the page. Tracing paper is one of my main tools at this stage of things as it is again later when I transfer my drawings from sketching paper to watercolour paper to take the final art. I still stretch the watercolour paper by wetting it and allowing it to dry. That way it doesn’t matter what techniques you use later, the paper will always dry flat which is important when it comes scanning. Colour is provided mainly by the use of coloured inks, liquid watercolour, acrylic and poster paint.
I find myself returning to the book over and over; as the tūī cawkles at me from the mānuka, as the pīwakawaka flits and zags, as I tend the garden, and gaze at a midnight moon. I picture this book in the arms of a parent as they read to youngsters, as teachers hold it up to a class. It is a book of Māori gods but it is also a handbook for life. How to be kind to earth, how to be kind to ourselves, and to those near us. I am reminded how stories have resonant, necessary and enduring power, and can be sung, whispered or rendered in paint. How we pass stories along, and as Gavin suggests, adding this and that. I hold this book out to you, hoping you will hold it out to someone else, young or old. It has earned a place upon our shelves of book taonga.
Penguin page and author bio