new zealand electronic poetry centre


Robert Sullivan


"From waka to whakapapa, Or: Carving your own canoe.
The verse of Robert Sullivan"

Peter H. Marsden
(Aachen University of Technology, Germany)

xxii Te ao marama II


Waka spring from our unconscious,

the deep structure of Polynesia
to reappear in the modern world.


The South Pacific Forum met recently in Rarotonga.

CHOGM meets soon – they've readmitted Fiji.

The powerful and the powerless

across (internationally) and vertically (internally).

Power is on show in Polynesia regularly.



I have chosen these two items from Robert Sullivan's Star Waka (1999) as an opening orientation for this paper. Each of them sums up a significant – and significantly different – strand of this complex volume, namely the meditative-contemplative-philosophical and the social-political-polemical. The first (No. xxii) adopts a psycholinguistic-cognitive approach, using the Chomskyan concept in a new metaphorical way to illuminate the Pacific with Western terminology. The second (No. 43) uses the European device of crossword-style punning to gloss real life within the Pacific Rim – in the not so peaceful Pacific. (The topicality of allusion in this latter item is incidentally so acute as to have made it appear for a brief retrospective moment prophetic in the early summer of the year 2000, only to fade with equal rapidity into the already historical.) What the two extracts have in common is an overarching tendency to marry the Polynesian to the European and to point up just how inextricably these two strands are interwoven in the consciousness of the author and, by extension, the culture he embodies.

     From the start, Robert Sullivan's work has always had at its centre the conjunction of a matter-of-fact appraisal of modern "Western" technology and media with the grass-roots of Maoritanga: "We're hiring / a video camera to film our powhiri...." ("Te Hokinga Mai", Piki Ake!, 1993: 34). Ironically, the wheel has come full circle: state-of-the-art technology can capture the essence and authenticity of the oral tradition, with its all-important inclusion of the paralinguistic dimensions of actual delivery (gesture, facial expression, body language) much better than Gutenberg's earlier technological artefact, the book. As one might expect, Sullivan's later work correspondingly keeps pace with subsequent hi-tech developments, involving references and allusions, for instance, to e-mail and the Internet.

     In an early review of Sulllivan's first slim volume, Jazz Waiata (1990), David Eggleton identified the author as "a precocious talent, springing at 23 more or less fully formed from the page, and a convincing version of what we have been looking for: a poet who can write eloquently about growing up with a bicultural heritage in South Auckland, with that heritage both a handicap and a means of liberation." A handicap, because bilingualism, and biculturalism, may well lead to a sense of rootlessness, schizophrenia and anomie, but liberating in that it can promote immense personal cultural and linguistic enrichment. A man who speaks two languages is two men, as the saying goes. Eggleton, as reviewer, is not surprisingly empathetic on account of certain similarities to his own biography, but even more so, one might suspect, because he recognizes in Sullivan's work some affinity to his own poetic method.

     Official accounts of Sullivan's biographical background typically refer to his being "of Galway Irish and Ngapuhi descent". In bread-winning terms, he is an academic librarian in charge of rare books – a professional guardian of that Pakeha icon, the printed page, even though the books may latterly belong to the Maori Studies section – who nevertheless strives to uphold the (albeit modified) oral tradition in his own "writings". After all, in Maori the same term, namely pukapuka, can be used to mean either 'book' or 'lungs'. The oral poet or reciter takes a breath, the page is printed.

     Sullivan's poetic technique, it seems to me, has undergone a discernible development in the course of the decade. In Jazz Waiata the arresting bilingual compound already sounds a characteristic (key)note for an exhilarating mix of freewheeling, free jazzing riffs with allusions to the Western literary canon against a pulsating cityscape, the whole performed somewhat breathlessly by a street-wise but well-read virtuoso exhibiting what the publisher's blurb aptly characterizes as "a refreshing lack of piety and a good deal of soul." Pike Ake! is a more thoughtful volume with a more leisurely pace, its locales more rural, its themes mirroring the poet's initiation into Maori culture and offering what Bernadette Hall terms "word pictures worth the climb" denoted by the Maori imperative.

     In Star Waka – another striking bilingual compound title – the mode is, thematically speaking, less vertical (more "across," in Sullivan's own terms), the element wet rather than rocky – it's a voyage. The whole project is also altogether more complex, more ambitious, the volume itself distinctly less slim than its predecessors. Whereas in Pike Ake! we were still vouchsafed candid glimpses of an adult persona having to learn his ancestral language as if a child, gently chided by "Nan" for his faulty pronunciation ("Te Hokinga Mai": 34: "City": 35), the prevailing voice in Star Waka is that of a fluent-tongued competent speaker – in the meantime having acquired not only the language but a certificate to prove it. This makes him not quite a native speaker, in the strictest sense – but precisely in that self-conscious learnt recuperation of the ancestral tongue he might be seen as an eminently representative speaker of Maori at the present time. In Star Waka allusions to state-of-the-art Eurocentric – neurocentric, one might say – angst jostle cheek-by-jowl with ancestral tribal lore and indigenous language: "Y2K" – the supposedly post-colonial culmination of 2,000 years of the Christian calendar – is matched by 2,001 lines of poetry, by Sullivan's own personal brand of millennial stocktaking and by numerous variations on the theme of waka.

     As for that theme, William Broughton has attributed to it almost unique status:

Considering that every human being inhabiting these islands is either a traveller or the descendant of those who have travelled to reach this place in the course of not more than about twelve hunded years, the voyage should be an iconic image of some substantiality in our literature. But unlike the Australians, whose European forebears at least share with us a similar past of journeying and migration, our own writers haven’t troubled greatly about the voyage as a mode-of-arrival and consequently a subject for imaginative scrutiny. Even Allen Curnow [...] seldom describes the experience itself in detail, apart from a few memorable images in the earlier parts of "Landfall in Unknown Seas". Sullivan then is plotting a new literary course in this work by exploring the possibilities, both literal and metaphorical, of the central image. If Curnow wrote of voyaging from a Eurocentric position over half a century ago, Sullivan now offers a new perspective suggesting something other than the belief that "always to islanders danger / is what comes over the sea."

Whilst fully endorsing Broughton's positive evaluation of Sullivan's achievement, I do not agree that thematic uniqueness is a part of it. To thus relativize the achievement is not to diminish it; indeed, seeing Sullivan's treatment as one individual approach within an overall framework might even enhance the nature, and broaden the scope, of his contribution to what might more accurately be seen as an ongoing debate.

     More important than the (supposed) uniqueness of the theme is, to my mind, the way Sullivan's treatment of that theme (among others) illustrates how the emphasis of his work has shifted away from gleaning vestiges of the Maori heritage in present-day Europeanized ('secularized') forms towards a deep delving ("internally") into Maori history, whilst nevertheless maintaining the characteristic cross-fertilizing mixture of idioms. Moreover, as the poet himself explictly announces in an introductory "Note," this volume is no mere random collection of jottings or impressionistic aperηus but a meticulously planned and crafted volume with an architecture all its own. The volume consists of 100 poems, all numbered, but with three different interweaving, interlocking systems of numbering. This book is a literary carving, so to speak, or – to switch metaphors – the vehicle (one of the many senses of waka) for a vibrant articulation of cultural identity. As Kai Jensen had already put it even before this major publication appeared: "...he furnishes Maori identity with a new voice, sophisticated yet passionate." This sophisticated and passionate voice is also complex and polyphonic: whilst the contrastive use of different idioms and registers was already well practised in the two previous volumes, in Star Waka the structural principle is in general more apparent, the structure itself more explicit and conscious, even self-conscious. So indeed are the imagery and the symbolism.

     The text itself explicitly dispenses with a glossary. The author's "Note," which I have already mentioned, considerately – or coolly – refers readers wanting or needing to know more about Maori mythology to Margaret Orbell's Encyclopedia of Maori Mythology and goes on to inform us that: "Other references are built into the text." Sullivan introduced a recent reading from this work to a non-New Zealand audience by glossing the central concept waka as "canoe, tribe, vehicle". An important dimension of the term would seem to be that it embraces both the very specific historical sense (as in 'war canoe') and the general modern sense (as in "The maximum number of [motor] vehicles permitted on board this ferry is ....")

     As an absolute outsider, i.e. a native European as opposed to a New Zealand Pakeha, let alone a Maori, I am embarrassingly reliant for such matters on the woefully inadequate mechanical process of looking things up in standard Maori–English dictionaries – which, for instance, may well additionally inform me that the lexeme waka can signify "vehicle, canoe, box for feathers" (Ryan) or "boat, canoe, conveyance, vehicle; spirit, medium" (Biggs). So there is a certain comfort to be derived in finding a Pakeha reviewer of Star Waka (the already cited William Broughton) admitting with respect to the polysemy of the word waka that "any rendering of te reo Maori that I might undertake would be a painful exercise in inadequate comprehension, achieved in my case only with a total reliance on H.W. Williams' Dictionary of the Maori Language, and certainly the few lines – but, one might add, many individual words – of Sullivan's poems that are in Maori properly require this exercise of me." In a very literal sense, this volume of poetry is a living expression of diglossia – two languages dwell within it, but they are not translated by the author. Translation is left up to the reader.

     To return to our hoggets, it would appear that waka can be used to refer to almost any kind of vehicle, whether sea-, land-, air-, or space-based – these all being cases where the English combining form [-]craft might be used. The polysemy of waka is nevertheless more extensive and inclusive than either craft or vehicle, and Sullivan's exploitation of the complex polysemy of his central governing metaphor waka is ingenious. It is a measure of the complexity, intricacy and sophistication of his Star Waka project that he incorporates precisely such linguistic, indeed meta-linguistic reflexions into his poems, in a form of meta-discourse. The prime example is perhaps poem No. xvii, with its programmatic title: Some definitions and a note on orthography, which wades out – in medias res:

in English the waka
is a canoe
but the ancestral waka
were as large as the European barks
of the eighteenth century explorers

size isn't the key factor here
it is the quality of the crews
their similar systems of navigation
the common purpose of settlement

and the labelling which is in English
which I do not need to spell out
except to say that it is still very
difficult to secure word processors

that have a set of macronised vowels
and subeditors who do not pluralise
Maori’s loan words although most have
ceased italicising them
to give them a sense of inclusion
in one context

in the other context
it is for purposes of

This is not mere linguistics, it is linguistic politics. Speaking for myself, the penultimate stanza I have just quoted has the – no doubt intentional – effect of making me extremely self-conscious about my own usage and linguistic habits. Remembering to say "Maori" instead of "Maoris" is not a problem, but a considerably greater degree of mental adjustment would be needed to refrain from italicizing the words – almost a reflex or learned response and a matter of intellectual or philological honesty, a practice which would seem to stem more from respect for, than discrimination against, the 'foreign' word. But clearly there is more than one way of looking at such highlighting – it may, for instance, appear to be exoticizing a word, making a Maori word, for instance, appear to be other than the norm.

     Reverting from the metalinguistic to the purely linguistic, Sullivan in the following poem builds the bridge from the historical and original literal sense of waka to one of its metaphorical extensions, thus typically plotting and exploring the word's development in a way that even monoglot English-speakers can easily relate to:

Waka 62 A narrator's note

...the paua eyes of gods and ancestors

whose real eyes, blinking in the light
of their lives millennia and centuries ago,

saw the vehicles themselves –
spacecraft, oxygen tanks, caravans led by elephants,

vehicles of concept, exploration, sails a vortex
ribbed by people shouting names down into the Great Sea.

As for spacecraft, No. iv, headed 2140 AD, and leading off with the line "Waka reaches for the stars," humorously envisages a sci-fi tricentennial Waitangi Day marked by the first Maori mission to outer space "to consult with the top boss / to ask for sovereignty..." Unfortunately, the interplanetary vehicle runs out of fuel and "They confiscate the rocket ship, the only thing / all the iwi agreed to purchase with the last down payment."

     Perhaps one might put in a minor plea for the resources of the English language at this stage. To quite a considerable extent, the English word vehicle, as I have already suggested, is of course clearly polysemous too, as the following examples show: Motor vehicles prohibited; a vehicle of expression; a Cliff Richard vehicle. A similar case may be made for the word craft. It is only when one looks at an unfamiliar language or at one's own native language in an unfamiliar, detached and analytical way that one becomes fully aware of the existence and extent of such lexical fields. What I am saying is that the phenomenon can be read not so much as an intrinsic characteristic of Maori but rather as a feature of Maori exemplifying language as such. Sullivan's merit is to make us – metalinguistically – aware of the phenomenon and to exploit its imaginative potential in the languages he happens to know by individually, idiolectally, extending a process endemic to the langue itself.

     All this careful lexical patterning can be seen as part of an overall attention to structure and form, which Jensen had already recognized as a Sullivan characteristic even before Star Waka when he identified such features as "disjointed, free-associative verse, typographical experimentation, and wild bursts of verbal exuberance" adding up to a "predominantly urban, postmodern poetic enriched by his acute awareness, as a Maori, of New Zealand racial and social issues." Actually, I think it might it be even more appropriate, and possibly more accurate, to reverse the syllogism and see Sullivan's awareness of Maori issues as being enriched by his postmodern poetic. Notwithstanding this quibble, a postmodern poetic is indeed much in evidence. One feature that strikes me in particular is the visual dimension of many poems in Star Waka – a feature that at face value, so to speak, is distinctly at odds with any oral tradition. The hundred poems of the volume include a large and wide variety of layouts: some in double vertical spacing, some in single; some in double columns (e.g. No. 16 Kua wheturangitia koe); some in a very narrow single column; some simply concrete, or even emblematic poems (e.g. No. 29 waka taua or Nos. 51 and 53 – the latter both untitled; perhaps the visual impact is deemed sufficient to make a title dispensable).

     Just as some poems are metalinguistic, some are, one might say, meta-formal. There is even a brace of poems entitled "Formats". Here is the first of them:

xxiii Formats (1)

doc files
cd rom
cd photo

This is virtual hi-tech on the page, with a lean, laconic poem underlining the brevity and economy of the media's new message-forms. The electronic media indeed seem to constitute something like a leitmotif in this collection.

     That all this play is no mere formalism is amply illustrated by the following, equally succinct item:

39 A wave

On the NativeNet email discussion list
someone listed the atrocities

committed after Columbus.
Five hundred years later

And the Papal Bull that begat them
On vellum still stands.


Here we have an excellent instance of Sulivan's awareness of Maori issues being enriched by his postmodern poetic. Another, less elevated, example would be No. xviii Similitude:

we are told ordinariness
is the standard in justice –
yet the word Maori
means ordinary


is a rearguard action –
up shit creek without a paddle
– who'd want to put a waka in that!

     For all his relish of a partisan position, Sullivan is very even-handed. He himself embodies both cultures – and he gives both cultures (both sides of himself) their full poetic and linguistic due. He recognizes that the two major Pacific communities that constitute the current population of Aotearoa New Zealand do share one central common denominator – the fact that they both arrived there by water, and by dint of navigation means that they have one major shared element, in more than one sense of the word. The English component, embodied by the voice of Shakespeare, is accorded its due part. After all, the bard did have something to say on the subject of navigation. The opening lines of Sonnet 116: "It is the star to every wandering bark, / whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken" are featured as the epigraph to Sullivan's untitled No. 50; indeed they are – in purely visual terms – the first two line of Sullivan's poem, followed later on by the specific application to local circumstances: "Begin the definition of these islands – / let circumnavigation precede acquisition." Sullivan might at a stretch be said to be speaking on behalf of all those who, "in seeking a land of new beginnings, braved incredible voyages by canoe or tall ship to settle [in Aotearoa New Zealand]" – to quote a memorable plaque at the top of the Wellington Cable Car line. Whatever the waka, no matter how varied the vehicle, the common destination can be highlighted as common ground, in the true sense of the word.

     In and through all this, Sullivan is turning more and more into a representative figure constructively and creatively straddling the Maori and Pakeha cultures in both formal and thematic terms and his work can thus in turn be taken as a classic case of the intellectually fashionable notion of syncretism or "hyphenatedness". The straddling is more complex, the oppositions are less binary, than such buzzwords seem to suggest. Personally, I would prefer a more constructive notion such as cultural cross-fertilization for Sullivan's project. At any rate, whilst critically postcolonial at the beginning of Waka 68:

Is it a myth – the idea of Polynesia,
a colonial construct partitioning the Pacific?

the poet immediately goes on in the next couplet to counter this in a very relaxed tone:

What does it matter when there are other myths
that have more influence on our lives?

The reason for Sullivan's apparent refusal to impose an over-rigid polarity may, in part at least, be biographical. It may be due to the Irish connexion, which is manifestly of pivotal importance in his personal whakapapa, and which introduces a third term into the bio-cultural equation:

xv Sullivan Whanau

[...] – we were
one of the first tribes to be affected
by westernisation. Today we are following

the river, tracing the paths of our people,
the great names and the previously unknown,
trying to find the first Sullivan who gave us
his name early last century. What was his
first name? who did he marry? why did he stay here?
was he marooned was it a woman?
what was his waka? These questions remain to date.

– questions further explored in Waka 80:

Peter Robinson created a painting
of many waka – white ones – among
the fleet there is a brown one, depicting
his Maori descent.

If I had an eight waka fleet
five would be Maori.

My Grandmother Sarah's mother,
Of Kai Tahu and Kati Mamoe descent.
Her father was Scottish.
My Grandfather James's parents were Irish,
their forebears probably used coracles.

The fleet of putative, virtual vehicles and craft expands to include, which in turn leads to some speculative mental arithmetic:

If I had a fleet of sixteen,
ten would be Maori.

If I had a fleet of thirty-two,
twenty would be Maori.

If I had a fleet of sixty-four,
forty would be Maori.

Then eighty. A hundred and sixty.
Three hundred and twenty.

To the beginning
of the Maori people.

I have parts of these genealogies written
Linking parts of me with different waka.

Unfortunately, and it's a real regret,
I can go back only a little way
with my Irish and Scottish inheritance.

"Linking parts of me with different waka" – and, one might add, with different types of waka. The coracle connexion suggests certain parallels and overlaps between Maori and Gaelic, indeed Celtic culture, starting with the common oral tradition, and perhaps including a less clearly definable but undeniable strain of spontaneity, as opposed to the 'straight' Pakeha lineage.

     Star Waka is multi-voiced – its author speaks with many voices, most of them in the first person, or rather first persona or even personae. The resultant poems are not stylized dramatic monologues in the European mould; rather they seem to be vehicles – to coin a term – in the oral tradition, with its implication that these texts might by spoken by a different actual individual speaker each time they are performed. Here it seems more appropriate than ever to refer to the "speaker". This may be Sullivan's solution to the aesthetic problem already acknowledged in Jazz Waiata, where he semi-resolves "someday somewhere / I'll dodge the first person" ("Juice, just": 9), i.e. recognizing it as a strength, taking it and running with it. And to the problem of perceiving himself as "parts" of a whole, which can only be reconstructed by giving voice to those constituent parts.

     A large sub-group consisting of a dozen poems close to the end of Star Waka (Nos. 84–90 and 92–6), identifiable by the simple form of their titles ("Waka 84" etc.), are all in the first person. Taken together they seem – in terms of their external position and their internal form – to constitute a coda to the overall structure of the work. In Waka 87, for instance, the poet speaks with the voice of an English immigrant, using the vehicle of the poem as a mouthpiece, so to speak, and thereby showing a willingness to empathize:

I am the anonymous settler
fresh off the boat from Bristol,
arrived from a developed land
where the landscape
is landscaped, seating churches
and palaces, melodious clock towers,
aristocrats and Ascot, a land
                                      where everything
has a place including the people.


[...] The English do not know
their stations any more.
My family will spend the next
century building this country
into a new England, and building
the mythology of England as home.

Waka 84 begins:

I am the waka of memory,
unnamed, the template – 

place me:

in Hawaiiki
in vehicles


Waka 85

I am the star Kopua,
Venus to the colonials

and their explorers.

Waka 86

I am Kupe. I have the credit for finding
This new land, the parts of which

I named with parts of me, including
my son [...].

In a response to the English voice of 87, Waka 88 delves even deeper into the "Western" European roots, which are, of course, paradoxically oral. This voice sounds off:

Do not mind the settler. I observe
The rules of this mythology (see how he did not
place a star or ocean or a waka
in his pageantry). I am Odysseus,

summoned to these pages by extraordinary
claims of the narrator. I run through all narratives.


I. Odysseus. I have put myself here

because this is a text. A very Western text.
The navigators sail with me now.

I sail as a member of the crew,
and can speak for them.

Waka 89, whilst on the surface a very un-Western text, at the same time proceeds in the same vein as 88 in constructively and deftly playing off the conventions of the oral and the written against each other, in particular putting a humorous metafictional, or metapoetic, gloss on the oral tradition. Voices of further personae are clamouring to be included:

Yo I'm Maui. This facet is the Maui of the hauling.
The great fish is mine. I have first rights

and I am expressing anger ANGER ANGER
at being denied a significant portion of the text

of the Star Waka. The copyrights are mine.
Without me the waka would be a vaka for instance.

They wouldn't have a base, a matrix to tie
their culture to.

The sophisticated self-consciousness continues in Waka 90 Te ao marama IV:

This is my third appearance. I am
Kurahaupo Waka. This time

I have taken the task
Of representing the two hundred

waka remembered by the people,
shot to the cold regions here

by accounts turned to legends,
such is the elevated nature of oral literature.

I have been appointed by the narrator.
I am unelected, as is the narrator.


But my mana isn't in my physicality.
It's in the psyche of the culture that bred me.

– arguing for an existentialist rather than essentialist view of cultural origins. In this pantheistic world, it is not only gods, not only art works that can speak, but parts of the natural environment too:

Waka 92

I am an island
in the people's consciousness
I am called Hawaiiki [sic]

Waka 93

My face is broken by the waves,
I am the sea, ocean, giver and taker,
primordial pre-culture pre-life.

Waka 94 gives us the ancient Lord of the Forest, having the confidence to wait his turn,

I am Tane Mahuta – and not offended
To be introduced at this late stage.

[...] I am a long-term
kind of god, not drawn into quick effect.

It is suitable that I am placed near the end
of the Star Waka, to emphasise my length.

Waka 95 is voiced for another (rival) god, antiphonally responding, and again also metapoetically commenting on what the author Sullivan is doing with his written (as opposed to carved wooden) whakapapa:

I am Tangaroa, Lord of this domain
Star Waka travels. [...]
I allow the carvings to talk to one another
About the lives they represent,
occasionally let them change the stories. Tane may boast
about his size, but I
am the only one to rival the size
of our parents.

The sequence of "voice"-poems is crowned by the "eponymous" Waka 96:

I am the star waka

The cumulative, collective impact of this quick, close succession of widely different first-person voices – "I am the waka of memory; I am the star Kopua; I am Kupe; I am the anonymous settler; I am Odysseus; I'm Maui; I am Kurahaupo Waka; I am an island; I am the sea; I am Tane Mahuta; I am Tangaroa; I am the star waka" – is, I find, uncannily reminiscent of what is said to be the oldest surviving Irish poem, known as "The Muse of Amergin":

I am the wind that breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the murmur of the billows,
I am the ox of the seven combats,
I am the vulture upon the rock,
I am a beam of the sun,
I am a wild boar in valour,
I am a salmon in the water,
I am a lake in the plain,
I am a word of science,
I am the point of the lance in battle,
I am the God who creates in the head the fire.

Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?
Who announces the ages of the moon?
Who teaches the place where couches the sun?
If not I?


On the basis of this affinity, Sullivan's work could be viewed as part of a submerged Celtitude, a Gaelicity, which is surfacing almost without his awareness from the mists of the Celtic twilight as part of the Jungian collective unconscious he evokes and invokes more than once – precisely because he is not factually well informed about the Irish side of his ancestors. Significantly, the Muse of Amergin forms part of the Western/European tradition, standing right at its very beginning and rivalling the Greek tradition alluded to in the form of the Odyssey (Waka 88) for pride of place. At the same time its affinities with the Polynesian oral tradition are evident. Thus we can see Star Waka emerging as a sort of pantheistic polyphony – as a vehicle for the author's identification with the culture he has inherited, in all its many-facetedness and multi-strandedness. It is only in the concert of all voices that the culture finds its true expression. This is in keeping with an overall tendency to view cultural provenance in an upbeat fashion, to emphasize tradition as something not just of the past but also – in the etymological sense of tra-dere' – a handing on to the next generation, a vehicle for a forward looking sense of continuity. This, in turn, chimes with T.S. Eliot's notion of tradition: "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists":


xxii Te ao marama II

In 1990 I went to the Waitangi celebrations:
Walking through Paihia to the Treaty Grounds

I passed waka taua, pahi, waka ama;
Fibreglass, wooden, carved and painted – 

These waka were paddled, shipped,
trucked from all over on an oily rag.

Their resurrection propels our iwi
into the new age: vehicles for a revival.
           [His emphasis.]

In her perceptive review of Pike Ake!, Bernadette Hall observes that:

...Sullivan [...] searches for identity in the celebration of his Harawene clan and in the archives of the Onehunga library rare books collection where he works. He can turn on the cliches of cuzzies, cops and dope, etc. and still wield the polysyllabic tools of his trade, incanabula [sic], antiphonals, rubrics and vellum, all the time wondering whether is there an Irish stew hidden somewhere among the new acquisitions.

What we can see emerging from Sullivan's latest volume is a growing self-confidence about his own cultural stance. In Jazz Waiata he was still saying, for instance:

My ancestor has many sounds [...].
My throat numbs, all the songs are in Maori, they welcomed me
as they welcome a guest to the home of my ancestors!
            [His emphasis.]

and rather unconvincingly asserting:

this is also my standing ground
("Tai Tokerau Poems" 14: 51)

Furthermore, he has a growingly distinctive poetic voice, which is inevitably compounded of all the voices that have preceded him, with which he endeavours to produce some ultimate harmony from potential discord:

54 waka rorohiko

I heard it at Awataha Marae
in te reo – waka rorohiko –
'computer waka', about a data base
containing whakapapa. Some tapu
information, not for publication.
A dilemma for the library culture
of access for all, no matter who, how,
why. A big Western principle stressing
egalitarianism. My respects.
However, Maori knowledge brings many
together to share their passed down wisdom
in person to verify their inheritance;
without this unity our collective knowledge
dissipates into cults of personality.

These are real issues, bringing the values of several cultures fruitfully to bear on the question of defining personal identity, roots, tracing a path from the ancestral definition of genealogy (whakapapa) via the canoe (waka) in which one's forebears arrived to the necessarily more complex constructs of today.

xx a whakapapa construction

these lines are a whakapapa
in themselves – [...]
[...] – one knows
the narrator should be quite dead
yet in a whakapapa the last line
should be the speaker's
kia ora

Once again, the poet is operating on different levels, including the self-referential one characteristic of his Pakeha side. His allusion to the death of the author, or at least of the narrator (reports of which, one sometimes feels tempted to remark, have been greatly exaggerated) reminds us how the sophisticated Western writerly tradition has paradoxically written the writer out of writing – a thread Sullivan juxtaposes and interweaves with allusions to the oral praise tradition. The waka has become the vehicle of ancestor transmission, the upturned canoe becomes the roof beam of the meeting-house, the individual narrator subordinates himself to the story whilst at the same time being the one who by definition survives, who has lived to tell the tale, as it were, whose narrative perspective means standing on the shoulders of his ancestors (or perhaps, more properly, in Maori mythology, with them on his) and thereby increasing his (authorial) stature. The vessels – whether canoe or tall ship, or rather: canoe and tall ship, that is the point – that brought the poet's ancestors to where he now is, were at the same time the media by which their culture, value systems, language and art forms were transmitted. Star Waka is itself a complex vehicle. So whether a waka is a traditional Maori war canoe or a beat-up old Honda (No. v Honda Waka) or a state-of-the-art computer, they are for all that polysemy – for all that polyphonic, polytheistic, Polynesian polysemy – all media. And Sullivan's media are the message.



Last updated 11 May 2001