Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English, edited by Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan (Auckland University Press, 2010) 304 pp., $49.99
In Wendt’s 1976 essay ‘Towards a New Oceania’, he wrote the following about Oceania, of which Polynesia is a part: ‘So vast, so fabulously varied a scatter of islands, nations, cultures, mythologies and myths, so dazzling a creature, Oceania deserves more than an attempt at mundane fact; only the imagination in free flight can hope – if not to contain her – to grasp some of her shape, plumage, and pain.’[i] It is hard to believe that this influential essay was written thirty-five years ago because it is just as relevant today as it was then, when a cultural renaissance was beginning to spread throughout Oceania. Wendt was one of the major catalysts for the arts during this time, and his influence in fostering and encouraging poets to create and publish was just as intense then as it is today.
There are as many different styles (voices?) as there are poets. Some of the poems are painfully personal, such as Trixie Te Arama Menzies’ account of an uncle offering a little girl ten dollars before raping her (‘No Smoke Without Fire’); others are political, such as Konai Helu Thaman’s plea to the colonel on behalf of the poor (‘letter to the colonel’). Some voices are lyrical (e.g. ‘Ode to a Blowfly’ by Hone Tuwhare), some others are gritty and hard-hitting (‘Thank You Colonialism For:’ by Tafea Polomalu). There are critical voices of protest (e.g. ‘Speaking Out’ by Roma Potiki) as well as mocking voices (e.g. ‘Blood Quantum 2’ by Naomi Losch). Quite a few voices invoke the language of desire (e.g. ‘Pau-stina’ by Tusiata Avia, ‘Virgin Loi’ by Karlo Mila, and ‘Ship Girl’ by Briar Wood), while some others are playful (e.g. ‘Jerry, Sheree, and the Eel’ by Dan Talaupapa McMullin).
The new poets (to me) that I would like to meet and discuss their work with are Alohi Ae`a, Audrey Brown-Pereira, Karlo Mila, Christy Passion and David Eggleton (he’s Rotuman, so that’s a plus). Other new poets I have met already but would relish another encounter with are Valerie Bichard, Naomi Losch, Brandy Nalani McDougall, Dan Talaupapa McMullin, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Tafea Polomalu, Roma Potiki, John Pule, Rosanna Raymond, Alice Te Punga Somerville, and Briar Wood. Reading the works of these poets moved me in some way, whether it be a feeling of recognition, empathy, anger, or amusement. These poets feel strongly about life and people and are able to express them in language that is colourful or precise. The worst poems are the ones that leave me feeling nothing, perhaps because they are too obscure (or is it pretentious?) – these poems must be intended for readers other than myself.
There are forty-two poets whose names or work I am familiar with – the rest are unknown to me. There are some well-known poets in this collection whose work, through no fault of their own, does not appeal to me. This doesn’t mean their poems aren’t any good. It simply means that I prefer to receive my poetry a certain way, in much the same way that I like fish and chicken, but am not so keen on beef or mutton. However, I do know a few who love beef and mutton over fish and chicken, and I have the deepest respect for their choice of food. I also know some vegetarians, and these friends don’t eat meat at all, much like some people who would never be caught dead reading a poetry anthology, let alone one by Pacific Islanders, written in many different kinds of Englishes and pidgins. My choice of favourites is nothing more than a personal preference.
I like poetry that is unpretentious, which means poetry written in clear, simple English. But the ideas or the thoughts and feelings expressed or invoked should not be simple at all. In fact, I like poetry that captures complex or profound feelings and emotions in fresh and innovative ways. The way a gifted poet strings words or phrases together or uses imagery or symbolism to express an idea, experience or event can make me grateful that I have invested my time in poetry. Most poems in this collection are relatively short, and their impact on me is not as profound as I would have liked. This is why I am more attracted to the novel, the play, or the screenplay. In these genres, I can get lost inside a whole universe of characters, relationships, ideas, and worldviews. Sometimes I can be carried away on a long and pleasurable journey that lasts for days if not weeks and the emotional experience, if the work in question is very good, can be devastating or transformative. This is harder to do in a poem that is only half a page long. The best poems, however, have a deeper resonance than one would think possible in half a page. The joy of finding such a gem is reward enough for anyone interested in Polynesia and what Polynesian poets today are saying about this culture area that has fascinated Hollywood and other image-makers (including writers) for more than a hundred years now.
The poem ‘Prepare to Move Into the White House’ is a particularly good example of what I mean. The poet, Christy Passion, captures my hopes and dreams, and I suspect for millions of people around the world, when Obama became President of the United States. It is particularly observant and eloquent, and expresses a feeling that transcends Polynesia, and yet it is rooted in Polynesia. Its embrace is global, but its voice is personal and specific. Having lived in Hawai`i for twenty years, and having projected onto Obama and his quest for presidency what his win would mean for black (and coloured) people such as myself who lived then in the United States (I am now in Fiji), I am deeply moved by this poem, which is the one poem in this anthology that best captures the intentions of the editors when they dreamed about compiling this collection of marginalised voices. It is also the one poem that helps me understand and accept the subtitle of this collection: ‘Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English.’
The poem is worth reprinting in its entirety:
VILSONI HERENIKO is Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji. He is a Rotuman playwright and film-maker. He wrote and directed the award-winning feature film The Land Has Eyes (2004).