Wednesday, September 27, 2006


My thanks

I'm humbled and honored to find that one of my books, What Is Buried Here, has been reviewed most kindly by Jenni Russell in her blog Chanticleer, here.

My great thanks, Jenni.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


The night gave birth

Poking around a used book store last weekend I found The Path of the Ocean: Traditional Poetry of Polynesia collected and edited by Margaret Sinclair, published 1982 by University of Hawaii Press. The region encompassed by the anthology is broader and more organic than the designations on modern maps; the collection includes poems, chants and songs from Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, the Society Islands, the Tuamotus, the Marquesas, Easter Island, Mangareva, the Cook Islands, Tuvalu, Kapingamarangi, Tikopia, and New Zealand. (I've given all place names here as they are given in the book.) Although the term "traditional" tends to suggest work by unknown authors, in cases where the authors' or composers' names are known they are given with their poems in the book.

My knowledge of this part of the world isn't what I'd like it to be, and the fascinating information in Sinclair's introduction makes me want to seek out more. Sinclair describes millenia of migrations across vast ocean spaces in small vessels, from island group to island group the cultures reaching out across the world. From such a life comes a poetry profound in its connection to the living world, an oral tradition rooted in the earliest creation stories. A great philsophical sophistication flowered. Sinclair writes:

A Polynesian poet was trained in a formal school or by a master bard. When a student entered a course of instruction in poetry, chanting, music, dancing, he also entered a strictly patterned and austere way of life. His days were concentrated on learning--memory training--and perfecting his skills. In addition to chanting and dancing, many schools taught genealogies, myth and legend, temple ritual, the art of narrative, the art of oratory and astronomy. The trained troupes of chanters and dancers for both religious and secular purposes. The kind of training varied from island group to island group.

In the Marquesas, a father who wanted his son or daughter to be educated built a special house for a school and brought a bard to live in residence. The students were generally over twenty--they had to be serious and mature. Poetry, with music, dance and sacred lore, was a vital part of the pattern of society and as such could not be left to immature impulses. The bard himself had to maintain his skills and techniques. To prove that he was not in decline he often engaged in contests with other bards. In Mangareva there were experts, always of noble birth, called rogorogo. They had the role of historian, reciting genealogies, composing and singing chants which praised the aristocracy. The rogorogo were also educators: from their teachings the song composers took themes for their poems. The Society Islands were famous for the Ariori, a complex and powerful organization which trained large troupes of dancers and singers and staged elaborate theatrical performances and pageants. Some troupes performed at parties and celebrations and others in the temple. At their height, the Ariori traveled in great fleets of canoes among the islands and put on elaborate and glittering programs--a living archive of music, chants, poetry and drama.
Sinclair has drawn on a large variety of sources for the poems she has gathered: translations by "missionaries, travelers, anthropologists, ethnologists, informed amateurs, and a few persons with literary interest." The translations vary considerably in character, though throughout the poems feel alive with the breath and texture of the people who made them and the places where they were used by the people.

Here are a few passages from various poems in the collection.

At the time when the earth became hot
At the time when the heavens turned about
At the time when the sun was darkened
To cause the moon to shine
The time of the rise of the Pleiades
The slime, this was the source of the earth
The source of the darkness that made darkness
The source of the night that made night
The intense darkness, the deep darkness
Darkness of the sun, darkness of the night
Nothing but night.

The night gave birth
Born was Kumulipo in the night, a male
Born was Po'ele in the night, a female
Born was the coral polyp, born was the coral, came forth
Born was the grub that digs and heaps of the earth, came forth
Born was his child an earthworm, came forth
Born was the starfish, his child the small starfish came forth...
(From The Kumulipo, a Hawaiian creation and genealogy poem chant of more than two thousand lines; excerpts are included in the anthology, from a translation by Martha Warren Beckwith. In a note Margaret Sinclair says, "Queen Liliuokalani dates the poem from 1700 and writes that Keaulumoku composed it." Margaret Warren Beckwith's complete translation of the Kumulipo is available from University of Hawaii Press, here.)

Sina, let us part in love.
When I am killed,
Ask for my head as your portion.
Take and plant it in a stone wall.
You will drink its fruit
And use it as water carriers, single and double.
With its leaves you will plait mats and roofing,
And make a fan to fan yourself
When meditating on your love for me.
You will see my face in the coconuts
And kiss it each time you drink.
(Poem titled "Lovers' Farewell," by unknown author, from Samoa. Translation by O.P. Nelson in the early 20th century. Poem titles may have been supplied by the translators or the editor.)

Look over the sea of Te-fatu-moana!
Let the farsighted who dwell on land
Arise, and behold Atea above!
Let the farsighted who dwell on land
Arise and see!
Look below in the presence of Te-tumu
At the jungles and rushing streams,
At the fountains of the surface,
At the waves of the east,
At the waves of the west,
At the stable corners, and the burning corners,
At the great development over the eight directions.
(From "The song of Ru's sister," author unknown, from the Society Islands. Translation by Teuira Henry in the early 20th century.)

Listen, O bird
that flies up above,
Have you seen
my beloved son dead
Who stayed among
the myriads of Tahiti?
Feathers on your wings,
Your beak bends low.
O my son! [...]

[...] You are a moon
That will not rise again.
O son, o son of mine,
O son!
The chill dawn breaks without you,
O son, O son of mine,
O son!
(From "The message of the Frigate bird," author unknown, from Mangareva. In a noted editor Sinclair says that in the poem a mother is speaking. Translation by Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter H. Buck) in the 1930's or earlier.)

Ha! It leaps into life,
It is the first light,
It is bright morning,
Out of dawn comes the disciple.
The people of Hawaiki
Drawn in,
Like the clenching of a hand
On Hawaiki.
Crouched within,
Knees drawn up,
Tiki, the spring-- [...]
[...] Red rain falls from the skies,
Open the great womb of the earth,
Come forth! It is the daughter!
The stranger, Hine-mana-hiri!
(From "The creation of woman," author unknown, from New Zealand. Translation by Barry M. Mitcalfe. In her introduction Margaret Sinclair says that Hawaiki -- mentioned in the above excerpt -- is a legendary original homeland, stories of which endure among many Pacific Island cultures, and for which Hawaii is named.)

* * * * *

I also want to say that I'm currently reading Pity the Drowned Horses, poems by Sheryl Luna (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), which I'm liking much. I'll say more about it here once I've finished it. Sheryl Luna's blog is Chicana Poetics.

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