Waha: Mouth, by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press, 2014), 64 pp., $25; Dark Sparring, by Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press, 2013), 98 pp. (with CD), $28; The Art of Excavation, by Leilani Tamu (Anahera Press, 2014), 80 pp., $25; The Bond of Time: An Epic Love Poem, by John Puhiatau Pule (Canterbury University Press, 2014), 88 pp., $25
The South Pacific is not one thing; it’s pluralistic, multi-layered, a site where ideologies intersect and cultures clash. For those who inhabit its archipelagoes, it’s a matrix of specific memories, genealogies and responsibilities. Four New Zealand poets of Polynesian heritage in their most recent poetry books write about the South Pacific as central to their identity; and though they write in individual styles and convey personal insights and perceptions, they share many motifs, drawn from mythology, history, the beach, island flora and fauna, voyaging and ocean currents. And all refer either directly or obliquely to ‘Oceania’ – the concept proposed in the mid-1990s by the Tongan writer and teacher Epeli Hau‘ofa, advocating an ‘oceanic identity’ for Pasifika peoples, who have always been joined by rather than separated by the sea. Belonging to ‘a sea of islands’ creates a contemporary regional identity that begins as an ancient myth of origin and generates a world of metaphor.
Of the ocean, Hinemoana Baker writes to a friend, in Waha: Mouth: ‘like Epeli says it joins us. We stand on either lip of a moon-sized crater filled with Pacific’ (from ‘point the canoe’). And the creatures that inhabit it are fabled and mysterious:
I groan with fathoms.
You glimpse of ray,
the volume of a lagoon.
(from ‘what the whale said’)
In her book’s first poem, she writes:
The boat was a mouth, the word was a whale, the moon was a flying fish, the swoop of a letter. I miss you, it’s like a cave in this mouth.
Things primal might be spoken of by the primal cave of the mouth, which might in turn evoke the primal island of the self, which is perhaps the quintessential modern perception of the individual. Of Māori ancestry, Hinemoana Baker as a thoroughly modern poet enjoys exploring codes embedded in language: the ways they might be forced to reveal gender inequalities, or other forms of false consciousness.
She accumulates and compounds various kinds of ‘promotional’ rhetoric, zeroing in on Public-Relations corporate-speak, which she then slices and dices into bureaucratic gobbledegook to sardonic comic effect.
In 2009 she was Arts Queensland Poet in Residence, and in 2010 she took part in the University of Iowa International Writing Programme. Some of the poems in Waha: Mouth, which is her third collection, suggest that journeys bring out her talent for transformative ways of seeing – as if being out of your comfort zone, being off-balance, is a good thing: a corrective to normal vision. She does a metaphorical cartwheel and this 360-degree turn then allows her to discover her environment anew, alive with fresh possibilities.
Hers is a traveller’s collection of glimpses and rich linguistic textures. Overseas, New Zealand is ‘the land that vowels forgot’, as Americans struggle to understand her English. Slippery perceptions invigorate her, even if, sometimes, when she withholds information in a poem it can blur the meaning and lead to uncertainty and guesswork. It is not until you read the notes at the back that you discover that a poem called ‘for the umpteenth time my father talks to me about what he is leaving me in his will’ is a poem made out of words and phrases found in the 1991 A Dictionary of the Māori Language, compiled by Herbert Williams.
But if Baker doesn’t mind misunderstandings, and occasionally manifests a contrarian, hermetic outlook, she compensates (as an act of reciprocity) by offering much musicality – lilting, cadenced phrases that lift your mood with their whimsy, much in the manner prescribed by Bill Manhire, whose classes in creative writing she attended at Victoria University. Her poem ‘tinkerbell’ is about seeing a kind of monster, a phantasmagoric, wraith-like creature (possibly a trick of the light) linked to the totemic animism found in customary Māori arts and crafts.
In a sequence of poems set in Queensland, she writes:
Across the state, the bones of mother and father
dinosaurs are swimming up through the surface of farms
(from ‘i am in the laundromat’)
And then in another poem in the sequence:
Alfoil, Servo, Vinnie’s, chillaxing, langpo, footy.
The sign I walk past every morning offering me a Tradies
(from ‘the abbreviations’)
Her magpie eye has discerned examples of Australian or Ocker English for New Zild delectation – though isn’t that more likely to be Tradies Brekkie scrawled on a signboard as an Ockerdom abbreviation?
Elsewhere, in the poem ‘manifesto’, poetry itself is depicted as a four-legged pet, best kept in a wire-cage as a bit feral. But if poetry is a wild beast, and taming it is a test of will and passion, Hinemoana Baker in this collection manifests plenty of ability to do so. She not only pounces on words, she enlists them as props in entertainments: ‘We wrote words on pieces of paper and stuck them to our foreheads.’
Probing with quick flicks of linguistic derring-do, Baker proves a single word can be weighted and emotion-freighted, as in a stanza from the long poem ‘candle’:
The stone with a muka rope
tied through a single chiselled hole
the one we’ll give a name to when it washes up
a thousand years later in the shape
of an island white with gulls.
In ‘magnet bay farm’, Baker produces a version of Kiwi pastoral whose modernist antecedents stretch from Allen Curnow’s ‘House and Land’, to Kendrick Smithyman’s ‘Demolishing the Farmhouse’, to Hone Tuwhare’s ‘The Old Place’. It commemorates that fallen Eden, the homestead of the colonial settler and its legacies:
Let’s not mow the thistles, the salvia.
Let it all go feral, let the empty tanks boom at noon.
Let the blowflies and barleygrass whack the windows.
In Selina Tusitala Marsh’s collection Dark Sparring, the effervescence of this poet’s affirmative action verse surges at times like an Auckland king tide, exultantly evoking oceanic rhythms and melodies. A follow-up to her 2009 collection, Fast Talking PI, it also overlaps with it, as some of the poems pre-date publication of the earlier book. One feels that the gestation of both books has been slow, careful and considered, as both clock in with a large number of smartly crafted individual poems. Both books are also wonderfully augmented with audio CDs, in which the poet’s clear enunciation and semi-chant, semi-rap style is enhanced by the ukulele-playing of musician Tim Page. The new book has thirteen of its poems set to music, with the musical stand-out being the poem ‘Boxing’, where the doomy rock band backing and trance-like vocals reminded me, surprisingly, of nothing so much as a richly atmospheric Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds number. It is an anomaly, however, as the rest of the tracks on the CD are catchy in a more obviously Polynesian idiom.
The poems in the book are arranged in sequences, but all are characterised by a swaying propulsive style, a drumming and jabbing text that begins with rhapsodic poems about intense journeys, interwoven with rather polemical poems on consciousness-raising issues: feminism, Pasifika, underclass ghettoisation, institutional racism, mainstream media prejudices.
But if some poems want to seem to pick a fight, they’re also seasoned, sure in their rhetorical emphasis, skillful in their oratory, so that you end up admiring the banshee vengefulness, or else the unflinching examination of cultural fault lines and frictions: ‘Yes, New Zealand’s a lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky country’ (‘New Zealand’s a Lucky Country’) – where ‘lucky’ becomes more biting and bitter with each repetition. In the poem ‘Checklist’ – ‘Weathers the judgement of other Pacific islanders regarding the authenticity of one’s cultural identity’ hangs in the air as a provocative tick-box statement.
These conscience-pricking poems are placed in a contrapuntal relationship with praise-poems, such as the rhapsodic ‘Airport Road to Apia’, and the even more rhapsodic ‘Chant from Matiatia to Orapiu’, the rhythms of this last poem chock-full of blissed-out moments marking a boat voyage around Waiheke Island landing jetties, and a shipboard view of a coast alive with human activity – the lines of the poem rendered as a gliding, zigzag wave.
Selina Tusitala Marsh, who now lives on Waiheke Island and who is a lecturer in English specialising in Pasifika literature at the University of Auckland, acknowledges the importance of Albert Wendt as a mentor, especially when the going got tough, as if the problems the poet faced in her day-job were not just those of gender and ethnicity, but also of class: universities being a bastion of middle-class values whose discriminations could be subtle.
The long middle section of the book is a memorial – by way of a series of raw aching elegies – for the poet’s mother, who died of cancer. Marsh takes us eloquently on this journey as well – a while after it happened – through the stages of diagnosis, treatments, remission and so on, ending with the cathartic rituals surrounding the death, funeral and wake; building up to the way members of the Tuvaluan community came around and took charge, with music, dance and song.
So the book’s underlying theme of physical movement – dance and martial arts – is embodied throughout in the phrasing, in the use of language and stanzas as a kind of pulse, a means of uniting contradictions and arguments into buoyant patterns.
The last section maintains the momentum, with the first poems I have ever encountered about Thai kick-boxing, an activity the poet has not only taken up but embraced with relish as another means of giving shape, structure and meaning to her poetry:
The area above
The upper lip
Is a prime spot
For the boxer looking
To knock out his opponent
Close to the nervous system
Like all points close to the nose
When struck it causes tears
Weakening the opponent
And what is this
Said the Muay Thai master
(from ‘Floating Ribs’)
Marsh is a poet of ambiguities and crossovers, of margins, of borders and borderlines. Her borrowings (from Muay Thai teachings, and so on), slippery and shifting, are a means of undermining certainties. Quoting texts from disparate sources, she makes them oracular. Throwing out her lines as if to cross the Void, the Polynesian va, the ocean, she establishes connections. In this way she is a spell-caster, potentially able to drag everything into her vatic utterances, which name the world into existence.
As an Aucklander, she needs to wrest communality from a disparate multicultural environment: poetry is a form of self-determination. One poem here celebrates ‘day 89 of my sister’s sobriety’, which occurs on the same day that the death of Amy Winehouse is announced. In another poem, the poet goes off not in search of the redemptive but in search of a good laugh, and finds it at a screening of Sione’s Wedding; though ‘academics and social workers’ find ‘un-PC’ its ‘lampooning of everyone/everything’.
Yet undoubtedly the mood in Dark Sparring is mostly sombre: the poem ‘Galu afi’ commemorates the cataclysmic inundation by black waters of a tsunami that hit Samoa in September 2009, while in ‘First Spar’, a series of kick-boxing sparring partners are women who in their daily lives are shadow-boxing all kinds of oppression – or sometimes just the malign interventions of Fate. Yet the last poem ‘Salt’ holds out promise, with the image of the night’s stars looking like a simple sprinkle of salt, even as the poet continues to mourn her mother’s passing:
as if Matariki
leapt off calendar pages
turning in my veins
down through my fingers
bending to pluck
a purple orchid.
Leilani Tamu’s first collection of poems The Art of Excavation is an excavation of her own family history, as well as an ‘excavation’ of some of the histories of island groups in the South Pacific. Her book is divided into four sections, which the poet has compared to the ‘four pillars for understanding Pasifika culture: history, colonisation, cosmology and genealogy’. The book is bolstered by a glossary as well as by substantial endnotes that sketch the poet’s antecedents as intrinsic to the project: she is of Samoan, Tongan and Pākehā ancestry, while her husband is from Niue. Tamu trained at the University of Auckland as a scholar in Pacific Island histories, then worked for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a diplomat in Tonga, before resigning to return to Auckland.
Her poems offer social realism garnished with mythic elements – deities and legendary creatures – and while the book as an entity contains mythopoeic resonances, it’s most striking as a satirical and even excoriating commentary on the post-colonial status of the South Pacific. Tamu has both researched her subject in ‘dusty archives’, and undertaken her own form of fieldwork, moving around and observing paternalism and other dodgy practices close-up. In her poem ‘A Third Person Note (regarding Mr P.P. Pumpkin Eater)’, set in Tonga, she writes of ‘the Government of the Land of the Long White Fluffy Marshmallows’ engaging in double-speak, where to ‘Espouse the doctrine of private sector development’ means, in brackets, to ‘debunk any notion that community-led aid projects are sustainable’. In another poem, set in Samoa, she writes: ‘Apia’s sordid history / has been rewritten to make our ancestors look like saints … the truth remains locked away in archives.’
Tamu combines passion and knowledge with verbal concision and a dry tone in her poetic reportage on the South Pacific’s afflictions, shaking out her Pacific kaleidoscope to hint at examples of aggressive Christian missionary evangelism, and the presence of China in the background of many big economic developments.
The first section of the book is also titled ‘The Art of Excavation’, and is dedicated to Albert Wendt, whose early collection of verse Inside Us the Dead, with its satirical poems on the Pacific of the 1970s, was especially influential.
For Tamu, as for Selina Tusitala Marsh, the beach is a liminal site of conflict, where ‘the promise of the beach’ has led to: ‘putrid/historical waste’, and ‘decaying colonial muck’. Distaste marks her view of the former capitals of the colonies: Levuka ‘lifts his club and hammers / at his coup coup clock’; Pape‘ete is a ‘Polynesian bombshell in a colonial time-warp’. And, all in all, ‘Paradise Pasifika’ is now ‘a passive maiden’ subject to the ministrations of the tourist trade, together with other more shadowy players; and it’s ‘smothered in fake frangipani leis: handmade in Taiwan’.
Tamu is also a tomb-raider, fossicking amongst ‘nature’s gloop’, looking for the graves of notable German colonists in Samoa, such as the medical doctor Berhnard Funk and the plantation owner Thomas Trood. In the end this historical disinterring and harking back itself becomes slightly glutinous and faintly repellent: what is the poet searching for, really? Her cataloguing and odd juxtapositions of found objects produce their own kind of kitsch: ‘Earth’s blood’, ‘our ancestors’, the skull ‘crushed / by a China-loan bulldozer’. Meanwhile Albert Wendt is praised as ‘the excavator … digging / through … decaying colonial matter’ with ‘the deft touch / of an orator’s tongue’.
There’s a lot of chiaroscuro; one’s not quite sure what’s going on in all this murk, this examination of ‘hijacked history’. The vigilante-style trials of pernicious hierarchies that wind back confusingly on themselves feel slightly suspect, artificial, the rhetoric of accusations a little unnerving, because such assumptions and declarations are random-seeming or somewhat scattershot.
More interesting in the quest to assert ‘a spiritual homeland’ is not so much the gestures towards ‘talo roots’, ‘shadowroot’, ‘coral bones’ and ‘bloody-eyed horizons’, but the metaphoric conversion of the active undersea hydrothermal vents ‘deep within the Tonga Trench’ to ‘the trench-like birth canal / that gave life / to this ancient place’. Here, cosmology and genealogy are brought vividly into alignment and then personalised, as the poet gazes into the ‘black lacquered pools’ of her daughter’s eyes, as if she too is enfolded in this oceanic fecundity.
At first glance John Puhiatau Pule’s book-length The Bond of Time: An Epic Love Poem seems to be sampling a picturesque Pasifika, but as his poem continues, any sense of theoretical posturing and positioning, of a jostling of seeming contradictions only just held together, falls away and you are left with his pure shamanistic intoning, a sub-Blakean envisioning distinctive in New Zealand poetry, if also slightly wilful and disruptive – of straightforward sense – in its incantatory mode of address.
One might think of the Niuean poet, painter and novelist Pule as being a latter-day incarnation of the ancient Polynesian cult of Arioi, a society of orators, priests, navigators, performers, warriors and lovers, that once sailed along well-known trading routes connecting the ‘sea of islands’.
In his introduction to The Bond of Time, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman points to the ‘sensual abundance’ of Pablo Neruda’s love poetry as a suitable comparison, and certainly there is that same sense of a prodigious festival harvesting, of heaped offerings displayed before the beloved. Pule’s long poem is an exhaustive catalogue that seems to draw on collections of distinctive objects, and Pule himself says that during the poem’s composition he was haunting the Auckland Museum.
In fact he was 21 in 1983 when he completed his first version of the poem, which was published in a limited edition in 1985. In the 1990s Pule revised the poem, and it was published by the University of the South Pacific in Fiji in 1998. So this is the third edition, again revised.
As a poem it’s a sustained experiment, a lyric address to the beloved, his muse, who is also conflated with Polynesia, whose attributes his muse takes on. The poem, an inspired vision, rolls forward stanza by five-line stanza in waves of poetic connections for over eighty pages. It possibly borrows its hymn-like tone of celebration from the Bible – the Song of Solomon – while its notes of melancholy chime with the lyrics of modern rock troubadours, as well as with the dreamy imagery of John Keats’ Endymion. But beyond all these influences, Pule has crafted his own kind of bastard baroque, passing into a rococo Pasifika:
The brilliant blue of the sky floats its clouds across buildings, and here you come, your purse full of grapes and nuts, ornaments and flowers garland your head when you walk through vineyards.
The well-spring of imagery is made to sound inexhaustible, as though it might stretch on into Eternity – and in this it smacks of the Beats, the Beatitudes and Allen Ginsberg with his harmonium, yet in its rise and fall of its language, its chant of naming, it also evokes the minimal music of Philip Glass or Terry Riley. In fact, the rich pickings of fruits, animals, sea creatures, flowers and so on are repetitive in their specificity; what matters is the effect: the way his purposive iconography evokes female beauty and sexuality, an interwoven abundance, along with intimations of the transience of life.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman indicates French symbolist and surrealist poetries as another point of comparison, and at least one stanza suggest Guillaume Apollinaire as a plausible influence:
The Eiffel Tower resembles the tallness
of your freedom. The Arc de Triomphe
is pure and beautifully triumphant;
rapidly entering the hearts of men
and women that surround your life.
But beyond the supposed influences, John Pule has pushed on with his own sense of excess and accomplishment, traversing oceanic feeling with what amounts to an extensive number of small, stanza-sized pictographs rendered in words. His is a painterly technique, sometime pointillist; he uses the odd rare word – ‘eleutheromania’, ‘aconite’, ‘jocund’ – like dabs of colour, highlights. His poem is a curiosity, creating its own logic, its own weather; steadily unfurling its scroll of imagery that twists and turns but remains resolutely itself: epiphanic, precocious, mesmeric – wave upon wave of language rolling in.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Review Online.