Following the stars, James Ritchie

Star Waka
Robert Sullivan
Auckland University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86940 213 8

Robert Sullivan is himself a star by whose directions we may sail with some certainty. His work has already established him as a writer of skill and accomplishment, a true denizen of the literary world, a poet of precise vision. This book is a product of his time as Literary Fellow at the University of Auckland.

It contains one hundred poems, 2001 lines for a new age, and he describes it as having three threads. The first sequence creates a multi-layered construction of star-waka-ocean notions and allusions, glances, shards, fragments, images by which he is inviting us to share his voyaging in explorations totally of the mind. As we read, we are reminded that we, Maori, Polynesian, Pakeha are island people, surrounded by oceans whose vastness has protected us from other influences but allowed our own explorations of ourselves. This section sets up a thematic framework for what follows.

The middle sequence takes modern mental artefacts and events, the Net (electronic yet kupenga), DNA (analogous to the history of personal descent, whakapapa), and places them in the voyaging framework. The section becomes a merging swirl of knowledge in the vortex of current consciousness as we “circumnavigate” our cultural property, a “definition of these islands”, “dragging the bags / across the Tasman into the holy see, / we watch and wait for justice.” There is necessary work to be done by the reader here; this is a complex and rich lode.

Then, in the third thread, the earlier ones are twisted into a single connecting strand, the notion of the waka voyage as “[piecing] together our intelligence / from the two thousand year mission”. Sullivan invites us to journey with him in our immediate or daily expressive exercises as we integrate our originality from all the sources available to us to evoke a cultural space. The vision persists beyond the reading. Its metaphors stay with you. Driving to work is just another voyage. Everything requires navigation, thoughtscapes, mindmaps, relationships, memories, libraries. What navigators we are! Like all good poetry, what is evoked here is at least as important as what is said; what is read is more than what is written.

Sullivan writes in English, yet his themes are strongly Polynesian and he will be characterised by most as a successful Maori writer. However, it is the fusion by which he addresses the realities of contemporary culture that is the powerful achievement of this book, indeed of his work as a whole. These poems could not be produced in te reo Maori alone, any more than could the images and messages be expressed without reference to waka, to the starpaths that guide indigenous navigators; they could not be a product of a continental world view, or of the island mind alone.

There is poetry that sings of daffodils, or of death anywhere, but this poetry is clearly of this place, not by lauding the grandeur of mountains or magpies or other objectifications, but by digging deeper into how we navigated to be here and what the explorer’s consciousness is composed of. Sullivan’s poems invite us to try on for size the qualities of ocean sailing, of exploring, of navigating and starpaths as defining our cultural character, a set of available attributes which you can take or leave. I found the fit at times, and mostly, comfortable, sometimes a hairshirt, occasionally just not me, but generally us.

This is truly indigenous writing, not in the cult sense in which that descriptor has been trapped for post-colonial political ends, but as reflected by who Sullivan is, and where he sees himself as belonging. You could engage in lengthy sociological writing to achieve this aim. You might do it with historical writing or in novels, in writing for stage performance or film. Witi Ihimaera does it by more forced and forceful interdigitation of myth themes from everywhere. But Sullivan simply sets it before us as, daily, he works it out in thought and in word while up to his elbows in the charivari of experience. Poetry is his chosen vehicle because poetry, through compression, through intensity, through evocative power, does it like no other medium.

We have not before had a poet as assuredly in possession of this territory. Tuwhare comes near to it because his is the voice of the personal and intense feelings of a bloke whose experience transcends class, race or indeed category, and whose gravelly voice evokes ourselves. You go inward with Tuwhare. Baxter, in evoking Maori themes, rams it up your nose with a crucifix. But with Sullivan you just go spinning everywhere in a daring and unpredictable journey. His verses skim and float. He dives and surfs and rides and just travels across myth and fact and theory and feelings, across oceans of many waters of many moods and star-packed skies of guidance and direction and the dark wonder of sheer space. As you turn the page you do not know what is coming next.

This should never have been described as a narrative poem as some commentators would have it. That is to place it in the context of story-telling, of epic or of description, of lineal script. None of these is appropriate. There is no plot here. The plot is it.

Now I come to this work with a background that I should share (though it is in no way necessary to appreciate the poetry). The waka consciousness it demonstrates arises, in its modern sense, from the revival of Polynesian ocean sailing. This showed that Polynesian navigators were not wondermen of strange and unusual genius but adventurers who were, at the same time, human computers encoding great streams of information into their trimming of sail or the steering oar. The other important ingredient in those first modern voyages was the sheer power of belief that the journey was possible, that ancestral guidance would be effective and sufficient. Thus we arrive at now.

What then of the other tradition, derived from Cook, the uneducated navigator genius exploring and mapping with new technology in old ships, on to the Auckland Anniversary Day Regatta? What of the Pakeha drifters who washed across the Tasman to settle here? Or those who leapt off the shores of England, of Ireland, of Croatia to migrate over unknown seas to unknown shores? Settlers we call them now. Crazy adventurers, seekers of a risky shift, refugees and escapists perhaps. It is their descendants who sail the summer harbours in their youth, who design new vessels for their sailing desire, who desire new vessels, who won the Americas Cup. We are, in a sense, always at sea.

Moving back in time and returning to the poetry, to the many layers of now, of boys in boats, champion women windsurfers, of New Zealanders wandering the world, exploring the edge, we can baldly state that Sullivan is merging two traditions into one culture, one basic theme of this work. Beyond it lie the navigators of those two traditions, restless, explorers, confident beyond reason, destroyers of the myth that any great continent lay to the south, bringing the reality of sea-laden journeying to replace the mystery of terra incognita australis. It is as voyagers that we occupy and possess Pacific space; we were never up to much as settlers.

Then, further and deeper down, we reach the knowledge contained in the Maori metaphor that we descend from ancestral seeds, and when we look to their origin we see that we are never lost. It was with this certainty that the navigators of both cultures could confront the enormities of the unknown. In both destinies exploration is a culturally patterned deep inner need that will be fulfilled whatever the outcome.

And finally we detect in this poetry a level that expresses humanity’s greatest quest, that urge to leave no thought unthought, no place forever hidden, no experiment incomplete, the place where destruction and creation coalesce in discovering the new, whether that be the structure of the atom or how to play new tunes on old flutes.

Sullivan treads lightly through all of this with wit and a gentle grace: “There is a Kupe in all of us, who struggles for love, / and with the forces of the deeps. I look for him”. For Sullivan poetry is an everyday thing to be re-discovered every day and yet, maybe, it might last forever – or not, as the case may be.

James Ritchie is Emeritus Professor at Waikato University.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review
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