24 Feb 2021

Poet Ruby Solly - inspired by ancestors

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 24 February 2021

Wellington PhD student Ruby Solly is a poet, musician and music therapist. Her first book of poetry, Tōku Pāpā speaks to Māori growing up outside of their papakāika. Her poems embrace knowledge handed down from her ancestors.

Solly tells Kathryn Ryan that many of her peers wrote about things like relationships, but she wanted to focus on things that were deeper and would stay static.

Tōku Pāpā Ruby Solly

Tōku Pāpā Ruby Solly Photo: Sounz/book cover, Victoria University of Wellington Press

“I always knew I was going to have the same whakapapa and the same dad, so those were the things that I felt that I needed to sort out in my head and the book was a way of doing that.

“It was also a way of modelling what it looks like to sort those things out and what those relationships can look like for other people, especially with things like land and ancestors.”

Solly says she and her father had lost much of the cultural practices of Māori, but there were deep elements such as parenting that remained.

“Parenting practices is something that always stays, culturally, even if you’ve lost other parts due to colonisation and other factors. I think a lot about iceberg models that show a lot of these things underneath the water, things like parenting practices and the way you see yourself, the relationship with where you are, and these things we can’t see as easily as native dress or housing structures.

“Parenting is something that’s always there and ties us to who we are. For me, knowing I was Māori first was the most important thing and it’s something that my dad always made sure of.”

She says that wherever she and her father lived, there was always a sense of community.

“There was always a connection in a systemic way of looking where everyone is connected to everybody else. To do that, you need to really know who you are and why you’re there or else people will see a sense of falseness.

“I’ve had several people talk to me after the launch of the book saying, for them, that was their moment that they realised they hadn’t looked into it and it’s something they want in their life.”


Six Feet For a Single, Eight Feet For a Double

My father leaves school to dig graves.

The first break is the hardest.

The pressure of foot on steel,

the smell of earth rising.

Koia koia, e tau e koia.

The men sit with packed lunches,

talking about the weather

next to holes they have dug themselves.


When he leaves the job, he keeps his shovel.

Always comes home to dig for the whānau.

Koia, koia, e tau e koia.

He keeps me playing graveside,

tells me off for climbing the pile of earth.

Sends me to find things;

the grave with the lamb,

the grave with the clasped hands.


He says this is how the dead speak.

A lamb for a child,

clasped hands pulling each other up to heaven;

but this is not the only way.

The atmosphere traps us in our bodies,

holds our teeth and tongues in place.


My father says he has no rhythm,

but when he digs you see it in his body,

the flow through the earth into the feet, contracting the calves

through the spine, to chiselled arms,

through ageing hands, into the shovel

and back into the whenua.

Koia, koia, e tau e koia.

With each beat he piles up dirt higher and higher,

making a lofty mountain

for us to bow to.

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