Voice Carried My Family

Voice Carried My Family

by Robert Sullivan

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Love and the rearticulation of New Zealand mythology from a Polynesian perspective are the central themes of this new collection of Hawaii-based Maori poetry. The poems open up two cultural traditions—a Polynesian oral tradition and a written European tradition—with subjects that range from ancient myths to the complexity and moral ambiguity of the


Love and the rearticulation of New Zealand mythology from a Polynesian perspective are the central themes of this new collection of Hawaii-based Maori poetry. The poems open up two cultural traditions—a Polynesian oral tradition and a written European tradition—with subjects that range from ancient myths to the complexity and moral ambiguity of the modern world. Poetry lovers will find pleasure in the poems' conceptual energy, constantly yielding surprises and unexpected and imaginative angles.

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Auckland University Press
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 8.75(h) x 0.28(d)

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Voice Carried My Family

By Robert Sullivan

Auckland University Press

Copyright © 2005 Robert Sullivan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77558-230-4


For Gods And Waka
    Chant Waka

    Dive coral people
    shell necklaced lovers' nacre
    to pick up black pearls
    hold them in a word's breath
    with lips underwater oh

    Bird Waka

    On Manoa stream
    white headed blue black feathers
    glide — head reflected
    underwater like a pond
    feet cross to faster water



    Russian dolls shuffled
    like a distracted lover
    mumbling crap to keep
    him happy — impossible
    leaps over the possible


    curve of mounting her
    eyes sideways in the blue thought
    — not today my friend
    and I'm impossibly wrapped
    in the complete injustice!


    yet look to the stream
    it burbles and swerves, snivels
    and laughs as it flirts
    with desire that burns water
    into air — lost energy


    heat does that as flames
    in their licking wound the skin — veins
    bubble and scald —
    even vaporising blood
    won't share all the feelings here


    in my heart leaves fell
    neatly into an autumn
    stack for burning all
    and all and all and all these
    till I stopped sobbing, lit them

    London Waka

    On 6 February 1870, the waka Pono sailed down the Thames
    in the belly of the steamer Troy. The crew slipped their canoe out

    of the tin hull under the cover of a yellow fog. They killed
    on the first night — lobbed a bomb into a corner pub.

    Other waka joined them as vessels from the South Seas
    arrived with their booty. Soon a canoe fleet started marauding

    Southend, and the rebels commandeered some vessels.
    On they steamed to London. They fired the heavy artillery every day

    for months. The blighters even had a cheek to fire at the West End!
    The great bells of Big Ben fell down. Westminster caved.

    In a trice the capital fell to the Maori who sacked the seat
    without mercy. A marquess and a baronet were returned to the Bay of Islands

    and paraded at the Waitangi Marae. Spoils of war.
    But I'm glad to report the Maori returned the Elgin Marbles,

    and the Assyrian friezes, retrieved the woven waka sail
    first taken by Cook and housed in the Museum of Mankind.

    The Maori forged alliances with a quarter of the people of the planet
    by emptying the spoils of the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert,

    the Ashmolean. Palestine free! Rhodesia free! South Africa free! Kenya free!
    India free! Canada free! Ireland free! Australia free! West Indies free! Aotearoa

    Governor Heke has announced that the colony — England — is sending
    shipments of frozen lamb to New Zealand, and potatoes to Ireland, instead of

    We expect they will benefit from limited self-government in the long term.
    A restoration project is underway to ensure the survival of their language.

    Tane retrieves the baskets of knowlege

    I shimmied my way up the thick vine like a cord
    plugged into heaven — electricity crackled down the line
    between my hands, reflexes tightening the fingers — I took it
    as a message from the gods, onwards! So up I went

    clapping hands ankles knees to the breeze
    as the cord arced left and right in the sky — I
    climbed this thought all the way until I reached
    Io the Parentless One, the supreme deity.

    Without moving his lips he asked me how I got there.
    'Oh great lord, it was a thought
    that carried me here, and a thought that will
    return me to my family.' Young man,

    my creatures helped you here: the wind god
    Tawhirimatea launched your body and your thought;
    I let you visualise the vine; now you are here
    so that you may carry these baskets of thoughts

    back to your family so they may call themselves gods,
    and launch houses of knowledge. Take all three
    and share them. If I could I'd pour them in your ears
    but there's too many: they could spill over the minds

    of evil men so take great care of them: secrets
    to split the atom; secrets to rule a country with expensive housing,
    health care, and forcing people to fight; secret pollutants;
    secrets to clone people; secret hate. Have care

    for your return, young man. 'But lord, where is the vine
    I dreamt of?'
    'E Tane, you see that arch in the clouds? go through that door,
    it leads to the eleven lower heavens to your home
    on the ground.

    'Your vine disappeared when you saw the baskets.
    They contain all the thinking you will ever need.
    Don't get me wrong — I liked your thought — maybe
    your descendants will find one too and also climb it.'

    Gods and Oysters

    What made Tangaroa believe he was a local?
    Was it the sea touching these shores and all the earth with rain
    or its abstinence?
    Was it the chanting as the waka crew prised from their teeth
    sloppy oysters — the oohhhs and aahhhs? the slobber?
    Was it the way he leapt out of the waka and said, 'Yes!
    Build me a temple on this spot — this will be my centre
    the world's navel is here!' Was it Tangaroa's eyes registering
    belief in the eyes of his subjects? Belief! Belief! Belief!
    as he smacked his lips and parted another oyster with his teeth.

    He was the king of the oysters and all the shores they slept on:
    King of Oysters on the seabed; King of Oysters on the headlands;
    King of all the oyster deities lining river mouth gums
    bleeding into the sea. His tongue felt the pearl and his lips
    revealed it — wet and black; he tucked it in his pocket
    with the others. On and on they popped in there:
    pile of pearls in his trousers, pile of shells on the rocks.

    Only his tongue cared to remember the question. His face twisted,
    eye whites rolled up, and out the tongue-tip leapt:
    'Eeee yaaa ha ha!' the licker said. 'You're a local.'

    Voice carried my family, their names and stories

    Their names and fates were spoken.
    The lands and seas of the voyage were spoken.
    Calls of the stroke at times were spoken.
    Celestial guidance, sightings, were spoken.
    Prescriptions — medical and spiritual — were spoken.
    Transactions — physical and emotional — were spoken.
    Family (of ), leaders (to), arguments, were well spoken.
    Elders (of ), were well spoken.
    Burials were spoken.
    Welcomes at times were spoken.
    Futures lined up by pasts, were spoken.
    Repeating the spoken were spoken.
    Inheritance, inheritors, were spoken.
    Tears at times were spoken.
    Representations at first were spoken.
    The narrator wrote the spoken.
    The readers saw the spoken!
    Spoken became unspoken.
    [Written froze spoken.]

    A Biography

    We held them to catch
    this. The glass shelves
    are spotlighted to catch
    green curves, green layering
    and prices — but I only want the singing.

    The song is ancient. Flecks in the stones
    show their breeding, which
    is important. But turn the lights out
    and there is only singing. This
    stone is one of the singers:

    I watch the top waters
    flow — catching the spare light
    I lie here waiting
    for you to hold me.

    I am life and its shape,
    shaped to you.
    The song filling your heart,
    moving the blood of this stone.

    Creatures flow in the space
    around the stone, some control
    the way they tumble. When
    there is light the stone is here.
    When there is no light the stone

    is here. The presence of the stone
    fills us, ribs our hearts as we tumble.
    We have been tumbling a long time.
    When we land, we land on other stone —
    lining prison floors, reinforcing

    citadels that launder
    clothes and cheques.
    But even in the gravel
    that makes the grey stone,
    there is greenstone.

    What else keeps singing the song?
    We hear it — yet there is nothing to see.
    Our pounamu sings.
    Even in the gravel there must be
    flecks of pounamu.

    We cannot leave, we came from here.
    We cannot go back — this is our England.
    We bring pounamu up from our rivers.
    The greenstones on our chests
    are the life of this land.

    Te ao hurihuri

    The everchanging presence of the earth
    is a term, te ao hurihuri, it shifts
    like a dancer turns and turns.

    The everchanging term is the presence
    of the earth, te ao, like it shifts a dancer,
    hurihuri, turns and turns.

    Like turns the everchanging turn
    of the term is te ao hurihuri,
    the earth — a dancer shifts.

    It shifts the earth, te ao hurihuri,
    a term like a dancer.

    It shifts te ao hurihuri, a term.

    A term, hurihuri, in te ao.

    Te ao hurihuri.

    South Point, Hawai'i

    On the Big Island, where the ocean voyaging waka left
    for Tahiti, perhaps Aotearoa, we watched the mooring stones:

    smoothed by water, smoothed by hands,
    carved out to moor the waka.

    We felt the spirits soar in the wild wind around us,
    wind strong enough to break the wind mills

    littering the field. How they soared. We felt them.
    This spiritual harbour. We felt them more than the great heiau

    lying in ruins, more than the native information centre
    with its statue of a woman in chains.

    How could the ancestors know such desecration
    would arrive in this place? Such sadness.

    And yet their spirits soar here. They fly here.
    We flew here and flew, our minds and hearts flew.


For Shadows
    13 ways of looking at a blackbirder


    my shadow has come to take my place
    again — has become daring — stands in the brightest sun
    where people proclaim he is like me


    what right does a shadow have to be a person?
    a shade flits from person to bird to tree
    depending on the light's angle
    the time of day the clouds up there


    but it's hard to argue with shadows
    — everyone has a shadow, look!
    and everyone's on the greyscale
    — can't argue with that


    my shadow has my shape but not my colour
    passes over ground like earth across the moon
    doesn't whisper waits for me to make all the sounds
    when I move my shadow moves


    his boat has rum spiked with poppy
    and a hold with iron grates only shadows
    may pass through


    my shadow is an imposter
    picked the stitches of the one I cared for since a boy
    and cast it all the way to South America
    this shadow annoys me
    makes rude gestures when I want poetry
    oh to sit with Plato's shadows instead of that one


    how can my shadow call that poetry?
    doesn't my shadow know anything?


    I have decided I must have signed a contract in my sleep
    with a blackbirding devil
    that nailed this shadow to my hands and feet


    my shadow confesses a love for my culture
    through a microphone
    in the audience I roll out a smile


    I tell myself to be generous with the shadow
    looking for an identity
    looking for a moko in the darkness
    looking for the traffic light at the blood's intersection
    looking for the slight in this


    truth is I could like this shadow
    that talks like my brother even looks like him in the dark


    in the purging wasteland shantihs
    let peace rain down and sink the blackbirders
    claw off the nailed shadow from me


    free at last from irony and its grating
    I have my shadow back
    the one stitched to me by my mother and father
    the one handed down tuku iho tuku iho
    shadow finding land
    shadow only of the absence of light
    and I am glad the other has returned to its owner
    to show the nails dipped in and torn out of my blood
    for shadows never bleed


    Before we left for Hawai'i we went to visit my grandmother,
    her grave at Omanaia in the Hokianga district.

    We found a caretaker and he took us through, wondering why
    her stone wasn't in the Ngakuru cemetery across the other side.

    It took a while. He looked at the names and wondered if she'd be
    in this family's section, or that family's section,

    and every name made me think of a story my mother told me.
    I won't tell you exactly where her grave is because of my shadow

    who would like to know everything about me, and commit identity theft.
    I sense this shade even from across the equatorial water.

    Her grave is very close to Papahurihia's, of whom someone else I knew
    wrote, and took his story, took the spiritual capital

    the great prophet and our family built for generations.
    He was an expert of Nga Puhi and not just a divine.

    I try to think good thoughts about these shadows who would tell my stories,
    our family stories. So I will think the following good thoughts, addressed to them:

    you wrote these things out because you love the Maori people and our culture.
    You wrote these things out because you desired them in some way,

    wanted other people to see them in their brilliance.
    You wrote these things with love and honour in your hearts.

    Perhaps I hold too tightly to my family, and our stories,
    because I sense your desire and it frightens me?

    I think of my grandmother lying in her grave
    and want it to remain so. Hers. Face to face with our ancestor.

    Resolving the shadows of home

    night so deep the river stones wept

    night and shadows made one

    objects confused with spirits

    and day a jug yet to be poured from the sky

    The news off the Net:
    — abolish Maori representation
    — Te Heuheu sacked by the Opposition
    — foreshores confiscated forever

    I swept the pen erratically across black paper —

    words couldn't fill the night


III For the Ocean of Kiwa

    1 The Great Hall

    Stained-glass figures: Cook and Marsden,
    a WWI veteran, foundational figures of Canterbury,
    and the launch, launching Cook's caulked vessel — CC
    in the Underworld
— I dedicated her to my grandfather
    and read a poem. Finally, with glasses raised
    we launched her.

    Still I feel like I'm with the Endeavour
    making repairs off the Great Barrier,
    fothering the hull with the sails of the story:
    we had spyscopes and Venus to celebrate,
    James's soul to interrogate, the cosmos, enlightenment,
    Banks behaving like a bonobo, but a problem,
    a problem that scratches the sails as they form their skin
    of tar.

    And so I bring a new lens, two, a pair of eyes
    for the mission: Tupaia's, and another pair, Mai's,
    two other pairs: Koa and Te Weherua's. Polynesian eyes
    on Cook's several crews.

    I looked at the stained glass
    in Canterbury's Great Hall, and noticed
    one unidentifiable Maori at the lowest right
    on whose shoulders stood all the others.

    2 Tupaia

    Who am I to extol Tupaia? Star navigator. Great chief.
    Cartographer of a chunk of the Pacific Cook claimed his own?
    Loving Tupaia of the Arioi? Who am I to say these things?

    My ancestor took the name of a Tahitian: the King Pomare.
    My ancestor was a priest of the Nga Puhi nation and a prophet:
    My ancestor was a leader and star navigator too: Kupe.
    My ancestor was named for a bird: Ngamanu.

    One ancestor was a nun at Boyle Abbey, now in ruins in Ireland.
    Another was acting governor of the colony. My ancestors
    meet your ancestors. We press noses and share breath: ha!

    And ha again. Ha the breath again. Ha and ha and ha. Breath.

    These people are here and meet you.

    Tenei te mihi atu ki a koe, e te ariki. 'This greeting is to you,
        high lord.'

    Your story. Your story and your eyes are yours.

    Our people, wherever the Endeavour
    first touched land cried out for you on Cook's return:

    'Tupaia! Where is Tupaia?!' Starman of Rangiatea, ancestral

    3 Mai

    You're in the public domain – perhaps I could claim
    your story through your eyes? You were a Polynesian man,
    a hit with the ladies, a good mate of Banks
    Lord Sandwich and Dr Burney. His Majesty at Kew received you –
    what a stir, an entertainment to be cited in the Gentleman's Magazine:
    so precious that unlike many 'savages'
    HM saw to it you were inoculated against the smallpox.
    Why not? Why can't I tell your tale, slip under your skin?

    I can see you at the opera, watching Sandwich banging on the kettledrums,
    admiring Handel's oratorio, his last work before his blindness (according
    to the Boston Globe): Jephtha: I wonder if you understood
    the need to sacrifice a daughter on a divine whim?
    Being shocked by the Duke of Manchester's electrifying machine
    was a mean trick, however. Not amusing.
    I can see you in national velvet listening to the speech from the throne
    at the House of Lords. Oh my! A big noter.

    I also hear you were a dab shot at home,
    became a hero, rescued your island from invaders.

    But I can't. I just can't take the middle of your throat.
    Who would I pay for the privilege?

    I'm trying to make sense of this shadow
    that follows me across my shoulder.
    Why this discomfort? I've heard it said
    that I should not listen to 'enemies of the imagination'.

    Whose image? Who is imagining?

    4 Queen Charlotte Sound

    Two boys hopped on board there: Te Weherua,
    and his younger companion, Koa. Mind the gap!

    The boys wept when land dropped away
    — seasick, and the first Maori ever

    to leave Aotearoa that way.
    I can only imagine the song they sang:

    Ko te mokemoke
    Na te wehenga
    Apopo ra, apopo ra,
    Ka kite ai.

    Oh the loneliness
    Since separation
    Tomorrow, tomorrow
    We will see them.

    Koa was ten years old amid topmasts and mainstays,
    mizzen sails and jibs. The first to learn these things.

    After his tears Te Weherua kept good company with the officers.
    They helped to make the Resolution Polynesian.


Excerpted from Voice Carried My Family by Robert Sullivan. Copyright © 2005 Robert Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert Sullivan teaches creative writing at the University of Hawaii–Manoa, and is the author of four other books of poetry, including Captain Cook in the Underworld, Jazz Waiata, Piki Ake!, and Star Waka. He lives in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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