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Voice Carried My Family
By Robert Sullivan
Auckland University PressCopyright © 2005 Robert Sullivan
All rights reserved.
For Gods And Waka
Dive coral people
shell necklaced lovers' nacre
to pick up black pearls
hold them in a word's breath
with lips underwater oh
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
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.]
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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