Launch Speech for Ransack

Ransack by essa may ranapiri was launched on the 18th of July at Poppies Bookshop in Hamilton. The book was launched by Waikato University Senior Lecturer and writer, Tracey Slaughter. 

Pick up this book and you’re at the threshold of a tactile journey. Spread its pages in your palms, take a preliminary flick through its surfaces – and long before your eye has a chance to grip the words for any meaning, you catch a glimpse of the black shapes stretching through the paper, like a body trapped beneath white sheets. It’s a body that appears in a myriad of states in one of the beautiful letters to Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s tauntingly androgyne character, that recur throughout the sequence: ‘a body resembles a 1 when it is lying prone. It moves from 5 to 6 when it struggles in sheets. And 9 and 10 when it finds something to eat…A crowded 3 when it crawls across the bathroom floor.’ Like this body, in its semaphore of poses, the black shapes never stop striving and ranging throughout the poems that attack and caress these pages. The forms of the poems collected in this book muscle and scatter, cluster and strafe, and you know you hold a book that has issues with the language, that is restless with its structures, full of lust for its syllables, shot through with rage for the limits it has inherited. You know you hold a book that is written with a body that needs the language, urgently, to give it fresh shape; everywhere the words move with the energy of a body forced to ‘ransack the language’ for ‘another landscape,’ stretching and tearing at spaces anywhere on the ‘spectrum of XX to XY.’ It’s a body tired of choking on pronouns, the ‘one-or-the-other narratives’ we’re caught in, a book alert to the linear glint of killing alternatives that gatekeep our culture, ‘like knives,’ Essa writes in one poem, ‘that never need sharpening.’ It’s a book determined to use its ‘tongue as rope’ to haul a new horizon into being; it pulls the body over the edges of linebreaks to birth new blood into stillborn words, and it reaches back to genesis, to history, to the amniotic and the indigenous to hook new words, new sounds, new skins to the light, to dredge free new places to stand. It’s a book determined to speak from ‘the material body of the writer,’ delivering words that glisten fresh from ‘the constellated nervous system’; it drips with the insides of the language, lived and tender and mammalian and juicy, and utterly beyond the imagined gender divide. Blood-pressure and synapses, fingerprints and follicles, shaft and thirst and saliva and cunt, the body is caught here in all its glory and its suffering. Everywhere the forms ‘wear the climbing muscle’ of a body that wants out of the ‘worldwide web of hurt,’ a flesh that craves exit from the ‘cultural surveillance’ of the oppressor’s language, a body that’s been forced to swallow the backwash of binary discourse and that ‘spits up power.’ It’s a body that wants ‘a whole new in-the-world’ and will battle and taste and bloody the language to make it. But that battle comes at a cost – there are poems of pain here, poems of breakage, lines that speak of a dysphoria snarled in the innermost meshes of the self, a trauma ‘promoted by cultural signifiers,’ lines that tighten with ‘the strength of scarring.’ It’s a brave and breathtaking confrontation with the wreckage that the slenderest particles of language can leave in us, if we don’t use them with an ear for the bias they wield, for the legacy of hate they’re soaked in. It challenges our ‘simple blindspots of identity’ and the damage they continue to do. It reminds us of the movement of bodies unaware of the ‘bolt grooved back’ on the floor of Pulse nightclub; it reminds us, boldly, that we live in a country where a ‘white story [was written] on black graves.’ It’s a waiata cut from the gut and the memory, from throat and sky and tipuna. This book is a taonga. You need to own it. Aotearoa needs to read it. So too does the world. I don’t need to launch this book – this book has been launching itself, since a voice first spoke in an ordinary classroom at the University of Waikato, full of the adrenaline and tremors of the first day sharing their poem with a workshop group, and that voice shook and rose and claimed the room, and the heart-muscle of everyone in it, who knew, in an instant, they were listening to a born poet. I don’t need to launch this book – though I can’t describe the way it feels to stand in this place and to remember the sound of that voice first cutting itself free inside that classroom. No one needs to launch it, because this book launches itself, over and over, into the void, into the joy, into the tangata, into the future – more than anything into the language, and back into the body where that language lives, and where it can ultimately never be limited, or gendered, or colonised, or lost…not while beautiful, brave new books, and authors, like this go on existing. So please join with me in celebrating Ransack, a luminous mark on the human language, and a momentous event for poetry here in the Waikato. Essa, long may your words go on making ‘ballet into a bullet,’ and tearing our tongue into new embodied forms.