Indigenous voices, colonial language, Cilla McQueen

Whetu Moana – Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English
ed Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri & Robert Sullivan
Auckland University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1869402731

Captain Cook in the Underworld
Robert Sullivan
Auckland University Press, $21.95,
ISBN 1869402812


“Before had England
even before had
there was a voice
and the voice was
(Imaikalani Kalahele)


I found Whetu Moana linguistically absorbing. English, our attenuated lingua franca of the computer age, finds full and lively form in the contemporary poetry of Polynesia. An oral culture seems to be retaining a breadth of English elsewhere becoming archaic.

The legacy of colonialism, English is a major means of communication, joining and defining the Pacific peoples. Wendt points out that the Polynesian world “is as broad and deep as it is high”, a limitless seascape. The coastline is viewed from the other side – otherwise.

The indigenous voice speaks the language of the coloniser for many reasons and in different ways. It can adopt tone and intonation faultlessly in satire or respect, enact violence on it, shift its referents and pull it out of shape to fit a new usage or circumstance, or treat it like Shakespeare and extract haunting music:

But when WE speak it,
when we slur that language like sinews
of vine-floss extracting our teeth,
grind it with coral and ironwood in our mouths,
When WE tell of the gritty taste,
we’ve got to have a Tongan way
of doing it.
(Loa Niumeitolu “When we tell”).


Pidgin packs a punch, slowing down the reading eye to give an accurate aural rendition phonetically. Kathy Banggo obtains painful immediacy in “Fly, Da Mo’o & Me” (“Befo time, I wuz bright,/But no mo now”); similarly Joe Balaz in “Da Last Squid” with his description of how “wen I wuz growing up/tings wen accelerate,/and da whole island/wen just develop out of control/into wun huge monstah city.” From the tensions of ”sorting new cultural identity” comes Tim Pa’u’s baffled cry, “sapose to pi me pro!”.

The poetry of the cultures represented here (Cook Islands, Hawai’i, Maori, Niue, Rotuma, Samoa, Tonga) is diverse and inclusive, and has “the commonality of the ocean, of a shared vocabulary, of our communal cultures and values, and our colonial experience” (Wendt).

This “interconnected web” links such different voices as Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s, telling of Maori soldiers dying far afield, “the fighting man/performs the rituals in his heart and guts./When Death sings in his hair and crackles/to his fingertips he becomes fully alive” (“Tohi”); Hauanui Kay Trask’s “Each of us slain/by the white claw/of history” (“The Broken Gourd”); J C Sturm’s level voice, “The new repeats the old.//We are simply variations/On original themes” (“History lesson”); Mahealani Kamauu’s “It’s the same old, same old-/ They move in/And before you know it/They take over” (“Host Culture (Guava Juice on a Tray)”); Tuwhare at his most serious – “for in the tumult of my/separate hells, pummelled/I have been beyond shine or/recognition” (“Wry Song”), cheeky – “It worries me now to buggerise around with/words designed to shape a panegyric” (“Laconically canonical”), and natural – “Gissa smile Sun, giss yr best”.

Variations in layout emphasise rhythms of spoken language. Wendt’s hand-drawn poems allow the eye alternative traverses of the page. Language is slowed and changed in other ways, from Karlo Mila’s “combinations/mutations” to the banter of Samuel Cruickshank’s sophisticates in “The flash whare on the hill” who “raise our crystal goblets/To our delicate/ngutu lips/and say “cheers black/arse, take that!” “(“Black Arse”).

Michael Fanene-Bentley’s “My sounds I do not hear” reminds me that the people of a place experience it differently from the outside observer. The sense of place is subjective, its interior maps not necessarily correspondent with exterior ones. When the palagi interviewer asks the poet about the sounds he takes for granted, “Do you not hear these sounds, or are you deaf, like that tree?”, he thinks, “Hang on, these are my sounds, I’ve heard them all my life” (“My sounds I do not hear”). The same lack of mutual comprehension is evident in the awful cultural dislocation of Ta’i George’s “Do Your People Tan?”: “ ‘DOOO/YOOUUR/ PEOPLE/ TAANN?….’ What kind of question is that?”

These poets give a glimpse of Polynesia from the inside. There is doubled pain in Kathy Banggo’s “bruddah dahk too, ah/but he ony fake/he light”, anger in Audrey Brown’s “fuck…..u one lousy aka-dem-ick?…….//the dizzy-land of poly-nesia inc”. Irony abounds, infecting even the Pacific stereotype of “tropical seas …. grass huts, semi-naked dusky maidens, portraits of captains Cook and Bligh” (Wendt). Historical reality was grimmer and still reverberates.

Michael O’Leary affirms “Only the darkness knows who I am and silently laughs” (“Noa/Nothing I (an irony)”). “We are still one in Polynesia/united more so now than ever/in our quest for our self” (Lemalu Tate Simi in “Two-in-one”). Sia Figiel’s placid “A last note on the fat brown woman and shoes” conveys the elemental affinity shared by indigenous peoples:

the feet of the fat brown woman
Are grounded nicely to the bellies of
Her mamas
The fat blue Pacific
The fat brown Earth.


In a world where “the wind talks/the river talks/the tribes of rocks and stones talk”, Apirana Taylor “can breathe and communicate/because it’s a house/without walls”(“The Fale”).

Whakapapa links the Polynesian peoples. Jacq Carter hears “the call of my tupuna/the strongest karanga I know” (“For a tipuna wahine”). As Michael Grieg sees it, “we move through the historic past,/Advancing, looking back,/Moving into the future.//We are never alone” (“Himene Tuki”). In Robert Sullivan’s “Waka 99”, the present generations are “blood relations/of the crews whose veins/touch the veins who touched the veins/of those who touched the veins/who touched the veins//who touched the veins/of the men and women from the time/of Kupe and before”.

Voyagers hold on to these strands and liens of whakapapa reaching into the stability of a common ancestral past. Although Tracey Tawhiao notes that “your value system’s undermined and your culture denigrated and no longer do your beliefs command any respect” (“The Phantom of the Maori”), Sullivan asks “our ancestors to wake” and their stars to “burn on waka past the end of the light” (“Waka 100”).

Astral navigation is a Pacific art, cartography a western one. Kellyana Morey sees in her islands “the geography of blood and tissue/collapsing under greedy fingers” (“The Islands”). Rore Hapipi’s “The Seventh Day Adventist” catalogues colonialism’s nightmarishly rapid cultural changes: “The 2nd day I woke up with a fright/To find that people were mostly white.” Naomi Losch’s “Blood Quantum” points out that “They not only colonised us, they divided us”.

Since decolonisation in much of the Pacific, Polynesian peoples have found themselves minorities, intent on saving their languages and cultures from “colonial amerika, late/20th century,” while “we speak of our own fathers dying young,/of men as a fragile breed, endangered somehow” (Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard’s “death at the christmas fair: elegy for a fallen shopper”). Cruickshank sees the need to “pull the mana of our tupuna from/within our globalised selves” (“urban iwi: tihei mauri ora!”) to “Rise up” with Kalahele “Out of the/ ashes of colonial/thinking” in order to navigate in the present, drawing on the “immense psychic power” of the ancestors (Witi Ihimaera).

Much of the poetry draws on spiritual traditions of oratory, chant and invocation. Pacific rhythms underlie the language giving aural cohesion to the whole with their beat and energy. For instance, Iona Levi: “drag your raggedy ass for porridge gas/standover tactics buy you bread and butter” (“Holiday Camp”), while David Eggleton, in “Republic of Fiji”, sets up a counter-beat: “Degei spits a gob of gold into the sky over Nadi,/and knocks heads of gods together, sucks out sap”.

Priscilla Rasmussen considers “Poetry, Polynesians, postmodernism/and palms with points” and finds “this ain’t poetry … too sedimen-ta-ree/ rudimen-ta-ree/ and full of me”, wondering “will/you/read/me?”  There is a lovely natural pulse in Brandy Nalani McDougall’s “Ma’alaea Harbor, Father’s Day”: “Once, a whole bottle, salt-etched green, unbroken,/let sunlight spark a fire in your hands. Over/our young heads – a faint flash – today’s sun, falling”.

The anthology has the synergy of a moving waka. Despite the “gritty taste”, English serves the poets well in its expression of the indigenous voice. As Wendt says, “Outlawed atua have surprising ways of conquering the present.”


In Captain Cook in the Underworld, a revealing Polynesian reading of the English colonial mindset, Robert Sullivan explores and converses with the Other in the incarnation of James Cook. Mindful of “twenty-first century hindsight”, Sullivan introduces his theme of guilt and recognition with an “Absolution chorus” for that “man of his day” “who didn’t know that to presume discovery//was a lie”.

Drawing on poetic modes from Homer to Dante to Walcott, he starts this “argosy in our Cook’s heart” by invoking Orpheus, “poet exemplar”, to sing “spirit songs of the lyre …. for fiery Venus, … Aphrodite of your spirit guide”,  among the islands of the Pacific; Venus “placed to guide you through the shades far/toward the southern land” which “you’ll be proud//to call your own”.

The dramatic narrative unfolds in long lines, fluent metrical stanzas blending many voices. With a shipload of scientists to “confirm an astronomical chart/and the psyche’s template”, Cook’s mission is mapping, even so far as “To complete the chart of the planet – our purpose//to place Britain as the star of the world chorus”.

As in a Greek drama, hubris is his undoing. Venus reminds him that “the Pacific peoples/are patient to a fault …. but remember you are the new ones here”.

At first he sees the indigenous people as “nubile and agile innocents”. To them his expedition is the “imperial cool,/the vanguard of the coolest king to rule/from the far side of another ocean”; Cook himself “The biggest kill machine/with a crew to match”. Cook describes his journeys with his “leprous cargo of VD and guns” as “parades/painting the world map pink”, surprised that the Hawai’ians who deify him as “divine Lono” can as readily plunder him and “just die” when they are shot.

When Aotearoa is sighted, “We need to start a map/I want every detail of this place planned”, so as to “solemnly stake Great Britain’s claim/to sovereignty over this domain/ which shall be known as New Zealand”.

Back in the Islands, more ferocious resistance than Cook anticipates after an attempt at discipline ends in massacre: “Shoot to kill/was the order, there was no thrill,/just the slow dance of men bleeding to death”. “We had people on board”, he explains, “mercy was too risky”.

Godlike, yet aware that his God who “lives in London …. will grind/my bones at idolatry”,  he is stirred to debate the existence of the soul – his own and those of “these idolaters”, and finds that “There are no stars/to steer this course, for heaven/has turned me on the compass needle heading/nowhere”. It seems inevitable that he should meet his end in the ocean, which “closes around Cook like a mother,/takes him in as another/ … speck in the sea”.

“Now I take off that cloak of culture/ and wear the culture of the Pacific, your soul’s future,//dear Cook, I sing in my Maui throat.” In Rarohenga/Hades, Maui/Orpheus invites Kuki to “meet the souls brought here by warriors,/and by your unequal muskets”. Forced to admit “that/you were human,/our kind, but so uncivilised we believed/you were a grade below us”, he eventually weighs the souls of those “People of conduct” against his own. But it is “too late for an explorer of fate,/too late to explore the heart, the soul of the matter”.

Originally commissioned as a libretto, this is a bold, uncompromising poem.


Cilla McQueen’s most recent book of poetry is Soundings (University of Otago Press). 


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