new zealand electronic poetry centre



Ocean-going Craft: The Writing of Contemporary Polynesia

Philip Armstrong
Originally published in Landfall 206 (November 2003), pp. 21-38.

And years later,
we ask our ancestors to wake, …
our ancestors of a culture that has held
its breath through the age of Dominion
            (Robert Sullivan, "Waka 100", p. 202).

For many in the Pacific, "the age of Dominion" is far from over. As the editors of Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English put it, despite half a century of decolonisation, some nations in the region, "such as Aotearoa, Hawai’i and the Society Islands, remain colonised" ("Introduction", p. 2). Many of the poems they include express anger at the continuing legacies of imperialism, along with anxiety about the neocolonial potential of globalisation.

At the same time, simply by contributing, all these poets agree that the time for Polynesian cultures to hold their breath has passed. And although their voices vary in accent, and emerge from diverse historical, cultural and geographical positions, the effect is not one of confused babble. Rather, the reader gains a clear sense of a complex conversation, a structure of shared experiences and concerns, perfectly evoked by the title: Whetu Moana, ocean of stars. This anthology charts a constellation: the constituent points are widely scattered – varied in colour and intensity, and in the quantity of light and heat they generate – but drawn into a single shape by the perspective of the editors.

Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan have worked hard to recognise diversity without loss of coherence. "Polynesia", they proclaim with their first words: "the very word is polymorphic". Such heteroglossia provides a source of delight – "we respect the differences between our cultures and take great pleasure in drawing attention to them" – but also a challenge (p. 1). How to represent, in a few hundred pages, the distinctions as well as the commonalities between cultures whose locations and histories are so multiple and widespread? How can these voices speak to one another and make sense? Although the editors have included only poems written originally in English, the contributors are multilingual, code-switching liberally between the "many Englishes in Polynesia" and a range of pidgins, patois and indigenous tongues (p. 3). A glossary of non-English words and phrases is provided – a concession that many writers refused during the 1980s and 90s, fearing the reduction of indigenous meanings into the terms of a colonising culture. But the glossary in Whetu Moana is not intended primarily to deliver local material in an easily consumable package to Palagi and Pakeha readers, but rather to facilitate understanding between different Pacific traditions – to foster a poetic conversation not just by Polynesian peoples but among them. Moreover, although by writing in English these poets make a claim on the language, Whetu Moana remains very alive to the risk of using a colonial or globalising medium to express indigenous content. In fact the volume identifies this issue as a critical one for contemporary Polynesian cultures. Keeping such concerns in mind, this essay treats the emergence of Whetu Moana as an occasion to make some observations about current alignments in the Polynesian literary firmament, while recognising that my viewpoint will be shaped by my own Pakeha and Palagi cultural lens.


Pacific Writers are extraordinarily mobile. The ancestries, lives and influences of those represented in Whetu Moana mark the Polynesian triangle with a dense cross-hatching of vectors. One example must stand for many: Samuel Cruikshank describes himself as "a Maori-Scots kid who was conceived in Christchurch, gestated in Tonga and eventually surfaced in Labasa, Fiji" (p. 46). And these poets are just as vigorously mobile in their inhabitation of idioms: they navigate boundaries between knowledge systems and styles, which prove as fluid and traversable to them as the ocean. A few more examples: John Pule is not just a groundbreaking poet but also a novelist and painter; Sia Figiel paints, makes CDs, and writes novels and poetry; Audrey Brown is a poet, film-maker and diplomat; Robert Sullivan a poet, librarian, scholar, mythographer, librettist, co-author of a graphic novel …. These Pacific Renaissance women and men deploy a profusion of styles, from the most exacting of European poetic forms (such as Ku’ualoha Ho’omanawanui’s "Laundry Day Sestina", pp. 73-3) to bone-bare protests grounded in political activism (Imaikalani Kalahele, pp. 85-94). But more often than not, the legacy of colonial dislocation infuses the poetry with scepticism about literary taste regimes, exemplified by Priscilla Rasmussen’s pastiche and abandonment of a succession pretentious idioms ("Polynesian Poetry … (For the Anthology)", pp. 167-71).

Whetu Moana, then, celebrates a literature of voyaging, a sensibility that refuses confinement within boundaries – genetic, generic or geographical. Similarly, the volume knowingly deploys a shaky ethnographic category – that of "Polynesian" – to break down a more constrictive taxonomic distinction between Maori and Pacific Island writers, who gather together here as an expansive whanau and aiga. Even more significantly, the writers explicitly address the inter-relationship between cultures at once so close and so distant. "The Pacific", as Robert Sullivan notes, "was a far-flung society" (p. 200), an idea he expanded upon in his 1999 sequence Star Waka:

In ancient days navigators sent waka between.
Now, our speakers send us on waka….
Savai’i, Avaiki, Havaiki, Hawaiiki, from where we peopled
Kiwa’s Great Sea. We left home by a thousand
Different stars, but just one waka takes us back.
Let us regroup.

Sometimes the regrouping of long-sundered kin takes place at a very personal level. For Apirana Taylor, a night spent talking with a friend produces a reflection on Samoan and Maori ways of inhabiting place, a comparison between fale and whare:

In the fale
I can breathe and communicate
because it’s a house
without walls
and I sit here
drinking Vailima
learning about Samoa
and listening
to my mate Iosefa. (p. 213)

Similarly, Albert Wendt contemplates an intimate relationship between Samoan and Maori partners, paralleled by the meeting of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean at Reinga. As the departure point for Maori of the recently-dead on their long journey back to Hawaiki, this place becomes superimposed on its equivalent location in Samoa:

I imagined the spirits leaping from it
into the prophetic current that will carry them
to Hawaiki where the ancestral explorer Kupe came
from to name and detail Maui’s Ika
We photographed each other against the immense sky
Ahead the Tasman and the Pacific embraced
in turbulent whirlpools

In Samoa my Dead gather at the Fafa at Falealupo
where the La sets and the Po begins
On the beach the men bath in one rock pool
the women in the other then they walk
the lava path into the sea and dive for Pulotu
("Te-One-Roa-a-Tohe", pp. 249-50).

Such moments recognise that these re-grouping Polynesian cultures possess related, but distinct, experiences of home and of its loss, of birth and death, of the negotiation between origins and destination. In short, they share a cultural metaphysics of voyaging. This metaphysics in turn shapes a concept of history.

The most prevalent notion of time, personal or collective, in Palagi and Pakeha thought is still that of the linear sequence, leading in one forward direction, from origin to destination, which are understood as opposites. Such a structure suited very well the ideology of progress that governed imperialism in the Pacific during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, claiming to bring material and spiritual enlightenment to the peoples of the region. It also fits the capitalist model of globalisation, which calculates advancement by comparing "developing" with "developed" countries – the former term applied to many Pacific states – according to the criteria of industrialisation, urbanisation, technologisation, attainment of a western-style economy and political structure. This linear trajectory helps explain the amnesia that afflicts white settler cultures in the Pacific, insofar as their identities depend upon deliberately forsaken origins and the willed impossibility of return. When white Australians and New Zealanders say "we’re all immigrants" they define arrival as a one-way ticket, and apply their model of history to all.

When Whetu Moana’s poets contemplate their distance from origins, they see things very differently:

I dream of
the ways of the past – …

I cannot go back –

I never left.
                 (Joe Balaz, "Moe’uhane" p. 6)

Here, the stated inability to go back has nothing to do with a commitment to forward motion, or a linear view of history. Rather, it arises from an ironic awareness that points of departure and arrival are not opposites: the Pacific constitutes both origin and destination, home left behind and home waiting ahead. Hawaiiki – or Savai’i, Avaiki, Havaiki – is not just where you come from, it’s also where you are going. In Polynesia, identity requires a return ticket.

This is not just rhetoric. In material terms, as these poets’ lives demonstrate, Polynesians are very invested in the round trip. As Epeli Hau’ofa has argued, the pre-Palagi Pacific "was a large sea full of places to explore, to make … homes in": Polynesian inhabitation of this world relied upon kinship and exchange networks established and maintained by ceaseless voyaging among islands. During the nineteenth century, though, a model of the nation predicated on strictly-drawn borders – and derived from the geopolitics of large continental landmasses, especially those of Europe and America – was imposed upon the Pacific, "transforming the once boundless world into the Pacific Island states and territories that we know today. People were confined to their tiny spaces, isolated from one another". More recently, the effects of globalisation have reversed this trend:

The rapid expansion of the world economy in the years since World War Two may have intensified Third World dependency … but it also had a liberating effect on the lives of ordinary people in Oceania …, enabling the people to shake off their confinement. They have since moved, by the tens of thousands, doing what their ancestors did in earlier times: enlarging their world as before… Everywhere they go, to Australia, New Zealand, Hawai’i, the mainland United States, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere, they strike roots in new resource areas, securing employment and overseas family property, expanding kinship networks through which they circulate themselves, their relatives, their material goods, and their stories all across their ocean; and the ocean is theirs because it has always been their home …
One can see this any day at seaports and airports throughout the central Pacific, where consignments of goods from home abroad are unloaded as those the homelands are loaded.

Engaging with traditional modes of cultural habitation, this voyager economy provides an alternative to global capitalism because it is powered not by the profit motive, but by a principle of reciprocity, "an informal movement along ancient routes drawn in bloodlines invisible to the enforcers of the laws of confinement and regulated mobility". Whetu Moana participates in this alternative history and economy: its narratives, images and meanings describe the same circuits of exchange, and repeat the same voyages, out and back again.

John Pule’s work exemplifies this structure of the return journey: his paintings, novels and poems weave relationships between two points of origin, Liku and South Auckland, the place of his birth on Niue Island and the New Zealand suburbs in which he grew to adulthood. Pule contrasts his version of identity, constructed between homes that are also destinations, with a Palagi cartography that measures progress according to distance from a point of origin, or proximity to a destination:

so I scrawled a poem onto the wall
how I reached these shores on the Maui Pomare
some white girl, impressed with what I wrote
tore the wallpaper off and ran, I watched
as she ran with maps and charts to my destination
I called out, only half of me belongs here …
("14", p. 163)

The poets in Whetu Moana embody a kind of ‘voyager citizenship’ – a notion that differs from the various types of global rootlessness privileged by postcolonial and postmodern academic theory. Unlike the concepts of ‘exile’, ‘nomadism’ and ‘diaspora’, Polynesian voyaging can’t be construed as a universal state of being: it comprises a unique relation to place, specific to Oceania. Moreover, rather than drifting rootlessly, these voyagers retain close links with a multitude of island ‘homes’, while at the same time, the Pacific in its entirety provides a different kind of homely matrix.

As well as describing actual voyages, the poems in Whetu Moana function as verbal vehicles, "kin ships", whakapapa, that allow their speakers to make conceptual return journeys, to renew links with whanau, aiga, tupuna, origins and home. That gives the poetry a different emphasis from any Palagi or Pakeha collection of comparable scope. This explains why, for all its variety, Whetu Moana patently lacks one thing. There are no poems about what I’d call the ‘literary self’. There are plenty of poems about identity: angry resistance to definition by outsiders, celebrations of ancestries, laments about sundered kinships and repressed histories. But there are no rhapsodies to the deep self, no soul-searching expeditions into the dark heart of the psyche. I cannot find a single poem on these pages that I would call psychoanalytic.

To a reader steeped in the Eng. Lit. canon, this is striking – and, for me at least, extremely refreshing – because it sidelines an ideology that has, until recently, played a fundamental role in defining the shape and project of literature in English. The literary fascination with an endlessly ramifying self-consciousness (or unconsciousness) reached its apotheosis in twentieth-century high modernism – which enjoyed a drawn-out, if slightly skewed, afterlife in the settler colonies – but its ancestry includes the solitary Romantic sensibility, and the likes of Montaigne and Shakespeare, in whom the lineaments of an emerging individualist selfhood can be discerned. So the ‘literary self’ is precisely the same age as modernity – indeed, a major function of literature over the last four centuries has been to reflect back to bourgeois individuals the gratifying image of a profound, ceaselessly explorable space of self-disclosure. Even challenges to this sensibility in the second half of the twentieth century didn’t always escape it: the tireless confessionalism of the 1960s and ‘70s, and the postmodern scepticism of the 1980s and ‘90s, whether lamenting or celebrating the loss of this deep self, often ironically continued to invest in it.

Judging from Whetu Moana, this self hasn’t flourished in Pacific cultures. These poets seem to be influenced by none of the forms that literary psychoanalytic navel-gazing has taken over the centuries. Even the apparent exceptions prove the rule. Hone Tuwhare might look like a solitary romantic, but he populates his surroundings with a profusion of vivid personifications that insist upon kinship and refuse to respect an isolationist theory of the self. He flirts with a potplant in "With All Things and All Beings We are Relative" (p. 233) –

I will sing to it – chat it up

– gets fresh with the sun –

Giss a smile Sun, giss yr best
good mawnin’ one, fresh ‘n cool like

yore still comin’ – still
half in an’ half outa the lan’scape?
                                           ("Sun", p. 235)

– observes a sexually harassing encounter between a tree and the wind –

Godday! says the Wind, familiarly. You wanna
blow job, then?
And God’s Day to you, too. I want a
blow wave, says the tree distantly
muttering, rough bastard.
                      ("God’s Day to You Too, Tree", p. 237)

– attempts a more courteous approach to spring in the form of a hongi –

hey! somebody – please introduce
me to this first tiny multi-coloured
blaze in my bare patch of earth
                       ("A Hongi for You Too, Spring, p. 238)

– and endures backchat from his granddaughter –

Now, be a good child and piss off, will ya?

Pith off, y’thelf, Gwun-dud.
                       ("Grand-daughter Polly Peaches", p. 234)

At the same time, although Tuwhare’s poems get familiar with various of their speakers’ more intimate functions, this remains at the level of good-humoured self-mockery, and never signifies inward angst about deep-seated fears, regrets or desires. A literal navel-gazing parodies the more sombre psychoanalytic kind:

At this angle of tilt, the mirror is reflectively
focused instead on my hairiness – just below
my pito – and notable only for the evidence of
tell-tale streaks of greyness in among my bush …
&#                                                     Well, who the
hell else is going to give a damn? …
                      ("My Pork & Puha Anthem", p. 242)

So much for intense self-reflection. Tuwhare’s voice eschews inward-looking, individual self-definition. Instead – as occurs throughout Whetu Moana – identity is defined "consocially": "the person is ‘a locus of shared biographies: personal histories of people’s relationships with other people and with things". The "pito" or navel exemplifies this difference: it does not represent a self centred in isolation from others, but instead marks an unbroken spiritual connection with kin, tupuna, and whenua.

The genre that best defines the self as an intersection of many other biographies is of course the whakapapa, the genealogical recitation. Many poems in Whetu Moana constitute notes towards, or expansions upon, parts of their speakers’ genealogies:

                                   … so I stand
in the ocean, recite my whakapapa, first to the north
where I tasted timala and dirt
to the west, the east and the south.

I mix my tears with the salt and the waves, drink a cup
so the veins are fattened with life …
                       (Pule, "Ocean Song to Myself", p. 166).

The salt of the poet’s blood is related to that of the Pacific, and not just metaphorically. The ocean features in the whakapapa, as well as providing an audience for its recitation. Similarly, Apirana Taylor celebrates the openness of Samoan architecture because it allows him to renew his relationship with the larger environment:

The fale I think
is a beautiful house
because it’s cool
you can sit there
and talk
and let the wind
wash over you
and cool you
you can see the stars
and night sky

I like that
because in my world
the wind talks
the river talks
the tribes of rocks and stones talk
because they are people
and the stars sing karakia
                        ("The Fale", p. 213).

Just as the elements of the natural environment are ancestors, the dead become part of that larger world, in a material as well as a spiritual sense:

Ancestors are buried all around us –
Bones liquefied in limestone caves at Ngaputoru
Sun-bleached on sandy shores of ‘Avaiki-raro,
Crumbled into dust blown by the marangai ….
                  (Jean Tekura Mason, "Ancestral Burial Grounds", p. 136)

Believe me when I tell you
With no introduction,
In spite of its beauty
The planet is an urupa.

Don’t be dismayed.
Out of its concrete graves
Children grow like grass
Perpetuating us.
                  (J.C.Sturm, "History lesson", p. 189)

No wonder the sense of self permeating Whetu Moana bears little resemblance to that of Palagi and Pakeha humanist modernity: it comprises a kin system that also embraces both people and the non-human world, environmental and spiritual. As the editors put it,

The people of Polynesia carefully and meticulously recorded their whakapapa, or lineage, thus establishing and strengthening their links with the earth, the sky, the gods and each other. Polynesians also believe that when we die we become the stars that help to guide the living across that huge body of water Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. (p. 1)

Occupying a crucial place among the "shared biographies" evoked by these poets, then, are those of their tupuna. The titles of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s poems indicate their recollection of vivid moments in the lives and deaths of various forebears in the Maori Battalion, during the two world wars: "Jock Campbell My Father", "Stretcher-Bearer", "Sergeant Jack Tainui", "Captain H.W. Leaf", "Death of a Friend", "To Stuart" (pp. 32-8). In spite of the separation in time and space, these kinships hold firm, and can be re-articulated by evoking the voyage away from and back to a distant home:

                               … I heard
your spirit wailing as it flew
           over my head, seeking faraway Reinga.
                       You had just turned twenty-two.
                                         ("Death of a Friend", p. 37)

The historical moment itself, in another sense, becomes a kind of ancestor, because it provides a point of origin for contemporary identities.

The legend that we share
was born when our joint forces fought
and died together in Anzac Cove …
("Jock Campbell my Father", p. 32).


Like ambiguous human forbears, historical ancestries can entail terrible mistakes: "I see them still, cursing the generals / who put them in this spot" ("Stretcher Bearer", p. 32). Similarly, in Campbell’s version of the demigod’s capturing of Te Ika a Maui, the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, the moment of origin is a botched job, something gone awry: "when he landed it, / the structure was askew" ("Maui’s Whare", p. 26).

For other poets too, this is precisely the nature of the kinship between past and present: historical wrongdoings require reparation, and thereby provide the motivating trait of historical lineage; traumatic historical origins constitute contemporary realities. Jacq Carter contemplates the legacy of the Bastion Point occupation, with its conflicts and tragic deaths ("At the End of Our Road", p. 39). Cherie Barford describes the meeting of post-war dislocation and colonial racism in her poem about the influenza epidemic that killed one quarter of the population of Western Samoa after The First World War ("Pleat to the Spanish Lady", pp. 16-17). Luafata Simanu-Klutz contributes a satiric fable about the colonial scramble for Samoa in the nineteenth century ("Three Dogs and a Bone", pp. 177-8). And J.C. Sturm recalls the disgrace of government atrocities at Parihaka ("He waiata tenei mo Parihaka", pp. 193-4). As Barford comments wryly in "Eclipse Friday 23 November 1984" (p. 18):

See – History happens all the time
The moment is gone yet memories remain

Again, it’s vital not to miss (and thereby to misunderstand) the difference between this embodiment of memory in whakapapa, and the understanding of history that dominates Palagi or Pakeha culture. Perceiving history as linear, Western cultures tend to experience memory as unreal and ephemeral, and often unreliable – as the illusory trace of something left behind. This is why Pakeha letters-to-the-editor, along with media and political pronouncements, keep urging Maori to put the past behind them, to live in the present. In sharp contrast, for the poets in Whetu Moana, past and the present are constitutively interrelated. For them, the contemporary sense of self exists fundamentally in relation to kinships with the past, and memories – of people and events – are not evanescent phantoms but real presences, tupuna, to be addressed and conversed with, to be embraced and dealt with: "Inside Us the Dead", as Albert Wendt once succinctly put it.

Along with kin, tupuna, historical events and the natural world of the Pacific, a significant strain of writing in Whetu Moana deals with the poets’ relationships to others who are not indigenous to the Pacific:

Polynesia was written into existence by outsiders … There are many western myths surrounding our region, ranging from Mead’s fascination with the sexual, to the cardboard, plastic culture of the tourist trade and the myths surrounding Captain Cook. (p. 2)

For these historical reasons, Pacific writers not only address their own whakapapa, but also appropriate, correct or refuse the legacy of Palagi and Pakeha versions of Polynesia.

They use many strategies to do so. Michael Fanene-Bentley ridicules anthropological attempts to define other cultures:

A Palagi, for an interview, to my village came.
Looking for sound.
Thinking: no I did not catch his name
Do you hear the pounding of the surf upon your reef?
No I say,
Thinking: this sound must cause him much grief.
Do you hear the insects and birds in your bush?
No I say,
Thinking: maybe now I should give him the push.
Do you hear the roosters crowing by your fale in the morning?
No I say,
Thinking: now this is getting really boring.
Do you hear the wind blowing through your coconut trees?
No I say,
Thinking: nice shorts, glad I don’t have those knobbly knees.
                                       ("My Sounds I Do Not Hear", p. 58)

Samoans, of course, have every reason for wariness about such exchanges: the difference between the interpretations of interviewers and the intentions of their so-called informants has warped an entire academic discipline, and monumentalised the durable Romantic mythology about the Pacific, since Margaret Mead missed the joke back in the 1920s, when teenage Samoans invented wild sex lives to cover their embarrassment at her intrusive questions.
Something similar occurs when contemporary poets utilise the lush, romanticised myths of the Palagi Pacific in order to pursue their decolonising agendas:

upon your bronzed beautiful skin
like on the shore of a magnificent sea
I’ll watch the pohutukawa red
in the brilliant distant of your eyes.
                         (John Pule, "6", p. 164)

The next poem on this page begins, "I am a great liar" ("9", p. 164). For Pule, this tactic works effectively because of his constant awareness, as a Niuean-born but South Auckland-raised writer in the coloniser’s language, that he must negotiate a double-sided history and inheritance:

I have since studied my hands
one side is white as the moon
a soft illusion curled at the lips
the other side is dark as your eyes.
            ("The Hurricane Love Songs", p. 165)

Negotiating such double-sided legacies can be uncomfortable. Pule is a full-blooded Niuean, but he writes elsewhere of feeling like a Palagi upon returning to an island birthplace left behind at the age of two. For others in Whetu Moana, a mixed genetic heritage makes them subject to Palagi knowledge systems in a different way. Naomi Losch, for example, writes angrily against a 1920 United States statute which imposes its own definition of indigenous identity, stipulating a 50% measure of "Hawaiian blood" to determine eligibility for certain benefits and affirmative action programmes ("Blood Quantum", p. 120).

The Romantic, anthropological and bureaucratic regulation of Polynesian identities by Palagi discourse was always accompanied by attempts to codify gender and sexuality. Although it cannot be determined here to what extent these influences introduced new inequities into Pacific cultures, or reinforced existing ones, the poets in Whetu Moana certainly identify a masculinism at work both within and beyond their own cultures. They address the hard facts of contemporary gender politics, exposing rape and domestic violence (Nina Kirifi-Alai, "Virginity", p. 107; Roma Potiki, "A Chant for 19 Women Murdered", p. 159). At the same time, whakapapa are provided that evoke the strength of the female line: powerful women tupuna who make clear "what we mean / when we speak of mana wahine", and who exemplify the powerful female lineage of Pacific voyager citizenship, such as Jacq Carter’s

… great ancestress Wairaka
[who] can summon the strength of any man
and drag that waka
from the sea to land
("Me aro koe ki te ha a Hineahuone!", p. 41)

The legacy of Palagi gender codes must also be addressed. Throughout her novel-writing and poetry, Sia Figiel writes back, in many different ways, to the entrenched Western erotic tradition of the nubile "dusky maiden":

Around the fat brown woman there is
always a man or two
Big or small
Smiling smiling
At the way her hip sway
At the sound her thigh make
Around the fat brown woman there is
always a fly
or two
          ("Songs of the Fat Brown Woman", p. 61).

The figure of the fat brown woman tramples all over Palagi limitations on erotic appeal based on body shape, size or colour. Nor does she fit the fetishised products designed to support and produce a certain kind of female body:

No shoe fits the foot of the fat brown woman
No high heel …
Can contain
Confine the foot of the fat brown woman
                     (Ibid., p. 63).

Here, decolonising the body entails re-thinking those dimensions of social life which Pierre Bourdieu referred to as "habitus", a term signifying the many different ways in which bodies inhabit social space: the shoes, clothes and other bodily ornaments we wear; the habits governing the way we walk, talk and eat; the system of tastes involved in preferring one kind of music or art or entertainment to another. For Bourdieu, successful negotiation of this system of distinctions can impart "cultural capital": the prestige, status or authority that comes from being taken seriously in a particular milieu. Figiel’s fat brown woman cheerfully rejects a certain kind of Palagi feminine habitus. She doesn’t wear the shoes, walk the high-heeled walk, join the Miss Universe swimsuit parade or talk the delusory dream career talk:

What do you say is
going through the mind of the fat brown woman
watching miss universe the most beautiful woman in the world?
a aerobic instructa
wants to be a air hostess
a brain surgeon
is her dream?
The fat brown woman add more coconut cream to the saka
and adjust her lavalava
call out to her big sista
e! we need to fix dat damn scale!
          (Ibid., p. 62)

Instead, the fat brown woman is secure in her own habitus, in which men surround her like flies, and she can consume all the coconut cream she wants, adjust her lavalava until it is comfortable, and keep her feet

… grounded nicely to the bellies of
Her Mamas
The fat blue Pacific
The fat brown Earth
           (Ibid., p. 63).

What happens, though, when a Polynesian habitus is forced to encounter conditions radically different from those for which it was designed? Vinepa Aiono’s "Adapting" describes the dislocation experienced by Polynesian voyagers arriving in a hostile, or at least indifferent, cultural and economic zone:

Uncle! Wear a jersey the wind will ice your back
and strip your grey hair from your balding head
Uncle! Where’s your socks
your jandals will slip your feet wet ….
Uncle! Try these trackpants
your lavalava will blow you down ….
Uncle! Here’s your money
don’t give it to the church ….
Uncle! Where’s your passport
NOW you’ve overstayed.

Just as he wears clothing suited to the wrong climate, Aiono’s Uncle has not learnt to access a New Zealand Palagi form of cultural capital signified by possession of a passport and individual possession of property; instead he tries to maintain the alternative form of cultural capital associated with that economy of voyaging and reciprocal generosity described by Hau’ofa.

For Bourdieu, as a Marxian sociologist, cultural capital – as expressed in the consumption of food, clothing, arts, entertainment and other commodities – embodies class differences above all. Many of the poems in Whetu Moana, however, suggest that for Pacific peoples, codes of taste clash and become confused with other meanings associated with clothing, food or other cultural ‘products’. These meanings resist Marxian theories, just as they escape capitalist economics, because they have more to do with the various Polynesian signifying systems at work throughout Whetu Moana: spiritual dimensions, relationships to tradition, to the environment, to a Pacific metaphysics of home and of the voyage, to kinship structures and so on.

Joe Balaz, like so many of the poets in the anthology, contrasts local and tourist forms of consumption, identifying the different kinds of value assigned to nature by indigenous use and by commodity capitalism:

In Kona
a Midwest businessman
       caught a marlin,
and hung it upside down
                       on a wharf –

              At Hale’iwa
              I caught a kumu

              and I ate it.
                                ("Spear Fisher", p. 7)

Moreover a close affinity is established between the extractive economics of market capitalism and a geo-politics that treats Oceania as a dumping ground or test site. The crudest evidence of simultaneous natural and spiritual desecration is provided by Hawai’i as Kapulani Landgraf attests –

Overthrown are the lo’i of Luluku
by the iron boar.
The iron fish have stripped the land,
exposing the entrails of Papa.
                    ("… Devastation upon Devastation…", pp. 112-13)

– and by Kwajalein atoll, to which Bikini islanders were relocated during the 1940s in order to make way for U.S. weapons testing, which continues in the Marshall Islands to this day:

Can you smell the ozone hole in your sands?
The UV beams stir a tuna melt in your deceptively clear waters …

The garbage-illumined beaches of Ebeye –
silent and deadly.

Your ancestors’ skulls dance
in the listless lolling of irradiated waves.
                    (Luafata Simanu-Klutz, "Kwajalein", p. 176)

Here again the poets agree with Hau’ofa, who argues that the future of Oceania – the very survival of the cultural and natural habitats of the Pacific – depends upon the mobilisation of indigenous knowledges of local environments and resources: upon the development of economies that are also ecologies.

Whetu Moana offers various responses to the collision of cultural forms, meanings and products that results from global commodity capitalism. Along with anger at the exploitation of natural environments, there is dismay at the hollowing out or neocolonialism involved in tourist misappropriation of indigenous cultural worlds:

I led you to the ocean
and taught you about the tides
now I go down to the shore
and all the fish have died ….

I carved a piece of greenstone
and hung it round your neck
then you made a thousand more
only yours were made of plastic
                   (Jacq Carter, "Aroha", p. 44)

On the other hand, some poets celebrate – albeit cautiously – the possibilities that globalisation can provide for the embodiment, renewal or preservation of Polynesian cultural knowledges. Most often, the poems move back and forth, easily or uneasily, between these two attitudes, as in Samuel Cruikshank’s "Urban Iwi: Tihei Mauri Ora!" (pp. 46-7):

we email each other
fingers playing the putorino on keyboards
of corporate hardware –
                       – there is not an adze in sight.
only, the taiaha of new technologies
used skilfully in brown hands….

may our voices be heard in this whenua,
                                                that is Our home.
may we pull the mana of our tupuna from
within our globalised selves, and breathe again.

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between celebration and anxiety, as in the case of David Eggleton’s collages, composed of fragments from many local and global cultures:

mango skin jewels Tahitian sunset rose and lime
earth-oven steam, punga moon, hibiscus sky
a summer frock that floats as she moves
a truckload of drumhead cabbages brakes to a halt
yams, boxes of wriggly pink toes
fat green banana fingers hula their way through slats
in a boarding house Monday stews away in a burnt saucepan
the gullies one long black mid-afternoon yawn
cherry stains the purple lamingtons de luxe
through windows and cellophane
an instamatic cheeseburger snaps its garter …
                        ("Karangahape Road Celebrates", p. 52)

These lines begin in a Romantic style inherited from Palagi representations of the Pacific as a golden age, rhapsodising about the mixture of flavours in Karangahape Road. Like much of Eggleton’s work, the poem produces a postmodern flattening of affect, a refusal to value any of its constituent images over the others. However, reminders begin to emerge of the politics of material disadvantage which structure the real-world relation between the people and the elements comprising this perceptual collage – such as the anti-romantic evocation of "boarding house … stews … in a burnt saucepan". The concluding lines move from the lamington, an emblem of kitsch and artificial Kiwiness, to the "instamatic cheeseburger", a mouthful of globalised consumption at its least nourishing and most pervasive.

So while Eggleton’s poems derive most of their energy from a postmodern mixing of the exotic and the mundane, of cheesy artifice and tasty authenticity, of local detritus and global flotsam and jetsam, they do include disconcerting traces of social factors that might limit the agency of those caught in this image-saturated Sargasso Sea. Similarly, in "Werewolf of Grafton Gully", appropriating Ginsberg’s famous protest rant Howl – "I have seen the best minds of my generation …" – Eggleton produces another postmodern pastiche, hollowing out this epitome of a generation’s counter-cultural anger, removing its specific historical and political provenance, and reducing it to a commodity, to be sampled at will and mixed with other riffs: classic hits, rock, student radio, dance music, Pacific funk (pp. 49-50). But Grafton Gully has local connotations: a refuge for the homeless, a favoured spot for suicides, and most recently, the site of a new motorway extension that whisks Auckland’s mobile citizens straight through. And any reader who obeys literally the poem’s final injunction to "get down in the graveyard and dig it, dig it dig it!" will be reminded that every image has a history: Grafton cemetery contains the grave of Lieutenant-Governor Hobson, architect of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Whetu Moana, then, won’t let the reader forget material disadvantage or the histories that produce it. For Pacific peoples, like all those on the wrong end of imperialism, questions of cultural disenfranchisement cannot be separated from the brute force of a social structure in which economic underprivilege is too often a legacy of colonial dispossession. Eggleton hints at this, but other poets in Whetu Moana address it head on: examples include Kathy Banggo’s poem about crack use, theft, teenage delinquency, violence, murder, psychiatric illness, substandard housing ("Dey Wen Sen Me Girls’ Home", pp. 14-15), and Michael O’Leary’s "For My Father in Prison, 1965"(pp. 150-1):

Doing time
                   my father would have needed time to do this
To build a table
                   made from matchsticks, our only family heirloom ….
And when he emerged
                   he had a matchstick table and was very quiet

This prison-made "family heirloom" offers a different kind of inheritance, and cultural product, from those discussed so far. A matchstick table is neither a commodity nor a taonga; it has neither use nor exchange value; it has no wairua. Its worth can be measured only negatively, in lost years, lost voice, lost possibilities for a more productive expenditure of time, for a more nourishing social and family legacy.

At such moments, Whetu Moana exposes the pressures that bear upon the choices Pacific people can make about participating in Palagi- or Pakeha-designed cultural, social and material economies. In "Death at the Christmas Fair: Elegy for a Fallen Shopper" (pp. 183-4), Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard describes Christmas shopping interrupted when she witnesses a vain attempt by a policeman to resuscitate a dying man, evoking memories of her uncle, who couldn’t have afforded anything on sale at the market,

… this expensively crafted trash:
decorator throw pillows in slick island motifs
the colors of vomit.

Out of respect for his memory she leaves empty-handed, refusing to buy into the economy of "consumptive / amerika grasping / hawaiian land desecrated w / plastic / commodities".

The poets in this anthology see very clearly the challenge posed by globalised late capitalism, which seems to require a newly sensitive negotiation between opposing threats: that of petrifaction, a refusal to engage with contemporary worldwide currents, which might remove the culture and its people even further from the prosperity of the market economy; and that of commodification, which might allow consumer capitalism to appropriate indigenous Pacific ‘artefacts’ as part of its global supermarket, items on its ‘authentic exotic’ aisle, one shelf along from the Indonesian batiks and the Yoruba masks. The image of the museum recurs in Whetu Moana because it represents both threats equally. Thus, Witi Ihimaera and Roma Potiki describe taonga Maori being taken for display in overseas locations:

    So here we are
climbing upward     the Museum opening unwilling
to the dawn, the kai karanga calling, the warriors
pulling us in & Maramena asks, "How can our
culture so small survive in this treasure house
of many cultures?"
                   (Ihimaera, "Oh Numi Tutelar", p. 82)

We have flown halfway round the world
to stand among lions.

They face us
stone and chiselled granite
the grins of an empire
holding the keys to a house of treasures.

We have been lovingly fitted into
a small room ….
the room fills with the movement of the sea,
forests and tupuna sighing and whirling slowly
above us.
                     (Potiki, "Flight", p. 162)

Here, the survival of taonga Maori depends upon their capacity to retain meaning beyond the circuit of commodity capitalism. They must resist reduction to both exchange value and use value, continuing instead to embody liveliness, a material persistence of the past within the present that won’t be held captive or rendered passive by cultural museum-making. Unlike Palagi or Pakeha commodities, taonga have to remain subjects as well as objects, retaining their own motility and agency.

And all the old taonga
Moved restlessly
In their glass-caged sleep
Dreaming of their prime
Of release and being
Taken home –
                 (J. C. Sturm, "At the Museum on Puke-ahu", p. 196)

Going further, in "Waka 99" (p. 201) Robert Sullivan imagines that

If waka could be resurrected
they wouldn’t just come out
from museum doors smashing
glass cases revolving and sliding
doors on their exit ….

the resurrection would happen
in the blood of the men and women
the boys and girls

who are blood relations
of the crews whose veins
touch the veins who touched the veins …
of the men and women from the time
of Kupe and before.

These poets agree that, as Pacific cultures encounter globalisation, their peoples must fight for agency within the global economies to which they are exposed. But they refuse to attend to cultural agency by neglecting social realities: commodification of cultural objects and the further alienation of already disadvantaged people must be resisted simultaneously – a realisation that has characterised the so-called renaissance of Pacific cultures at least since the 1970s.

But how can such agency be asserted? To what extent, and by what means, can Pacific peoples exercise choice and power over the transmission and preservation – the mobility, but also the stability – of their cultural resources, objects, stories, characters, designs, images, practices and knowledges of all kinds? Sullivan responds to these questions with the concise and suggestive phrase "star waka" – which returns us, appropriately, to Whetu Moana’s most consistent narrative and image pattern.

This fleet navigated centuries. The names

of captains were known to their colleagues
as ancestors. The Pacific was a far-flung society

– waka, cocooned in Aotearoa,
stopped returning to Hawaiki, dropped their sails,

clambered overland into rivers, burrowed
into mountains, reefs, flew into words

sung at tangi, polished speeches,
seen by 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.
                   ("Waka 62. A Narrator’s Note", p. 200)

For Sullivan, a ‘waka’ is any vehicle that carries both people and cultural knowledge across time and space. In the first place, actual waka transported voyagers to Aotearoa, and before that, other Pacific cultures to their lands. Upon landfall, and as the culture evolves into a new environment, waka transform into a range of other vessels for the storage and transmission of culturally important forms and meanings: chants, ceremonies, carved figures, traditions, whakapapa, te reo Maori itself. And of course, anything that serves the survival of the people themselves: the word ‘waka’ also denotes the widest genealogical category for a grouping of hapu and whanau: hence, Sullivan’s poems celebrate the whakapapa held in the minds and bodies of living Maori as the most precious "star waka" of all.

While valuing the power of tradition to preserve and transmit cultural knowledge, the imaginative flourish in the final lines above indicates a refusal to draw limits around what Maori culture may decide to utilise as waka in the future. In other poems, Sullivan contemplates the discovery of new vehicles to carry cultural content into a new, globalised millennium: a TV show (suggestively entitled Waka Huia, "treasure chest"), CD-ROMs, email, DAT, even a Honda City that has taken the poet to gatherings of his whanau. A waka, then, functions as such when it does two things: keeps its cultural content safe, and takes it somewhere. Waka are both secure and on the move.

Which is just the problem. If the vessels used to carry cultural meaning are so varied, and so open to re-invention, re-appropriation and re-dedication, how is the authenticity of the cultural meaning contained therein to be assured? And how can members of the culture retain their property rights, and avoid further economic disenfranchisement? Sullivan suggests that the validity of a particular act of cultural transmission – the voyage of a particular waka – must be tied into an overarching and stable structure of cultural meaning which is at the same time a wide-ranging kinship system. "Star" is what provides the "waka" with its point of reference, guiding light, orientation, direction, wairua – as in traditional Polynesian navigational practice. That guidance system is embodied in both people and things, and serves both the culture and its members:

                                   The bottom line

Is to know where to go – star points.
Kaituki counts stroke. Tohunga,
Who dwells beyond law, finds star.
System is always there for waka.
Star rises and falls with night.
So guidance system attached.

It seems right to end with this image, which precisely describes the function that Whetu Moana fulfils for a Polynesian literature demanding to be read according to its own lights: that of a pilot vessel to a fleet of star waka, sailing out of the museums, guidance systems attached.

[1]. In Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English, edited by Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan (AUP, 2003). All subsequent citations are from this volume, unless otherwise indicated.

[2]. For example, the most important recent anthology of Maori writing in English opens with an editorial statement that “A glossary of Maori words is not provided”, and a suggestion that readers unfamiliar with the language consult a dictionary: see Witi Ihimaera, ed., Te Ao Marama Volume 1 (Auckland: Reed, 1992), p. 6. For comparable debates, in other decolonising contexts, about the politics of writing in the coloniser’s language, see for example Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind (London: James Currey, 1986); Braj B. Kachru, The Alchemy of English (Oxford: Pergamon Institute, 1986).

[3]. In this respect Whetu Moana bridges the division between Maori and Pacific writing implied by previous path-breaking anthologies such as Wendt’s Lali: A Pacific Anthology (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1980) and Nuanua: Polynesian Writing in English Since 1980 (Auckland: AUP, 1995), and Ihimaera’s Te Ao Marama series (Auckland: Reed, 1992-5).

[4]. Robert Sullivan, Star Waka (Auckland: AUP, 1999), pp. 3-4.

[5]. See Epeli Hau’ofa, “Pasts to Remember”, in Robert Borofsky, ed., Remembrance of Pacific Pasts: An Invitation to Remake History (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000), p. 459; Zigmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), pp. 110-13; David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 240-59.

[6]. Epeli Hau’ofa, “Our Sea of Islands”, in Vilsoni Hereniko and Rob Wilson, eds., Inside Out: Literature, Cultural Politics, and Identity in the New Pacific (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp. 32-3.

[7]. Ibid, p. 34.

[8]. For an introduction to the concepts of “exile”, “nomadism” and “diaspora”, see Bill Ashcroft et al., Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies (London: Routledge, 1998).

[9]. See Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Routledge 1980):, pp. 56-84.

[10]. Michael Lieber, cited in Vilsoni Hereniko, “Representations of Cultural Identities”, in Inside Out, p. 150.

[11]. Albert Wendt, Inside Us the Dead: Poems 1961 to 1974 (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1975).

[122]. Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa (London: Cape, 1929); Derek Freeman, Margaret Mead in Samoa (Canberra: ANU, 1983).

[13]. John Pule, Burn My Head in Heaven (Auckland: Penguin, 1998), p. 277.

[14]. As argued by Malia Perelini, “Liberating the Samoan Female Body in the Novels of Sia Figiel” (unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Canterbury, 2003).

[15]. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (London: Routledge: 1986).

[16]. Hau’ofa, “Pasts to Remember”.

[17]. Eggleton misquotes the poem slightly, which actually begins, “I saw the best …”: Alan Ginsberg, Howl (San Franciso: City Lights, 1956).

[18]. See  Nicholas Thomas, Colonialism’s Culture (Oxford: Polity, 1994), pp. 28-32. As Graham Huggan argues in The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (London: Routledge, 2001), the recent construction of ‘postcolonial literature’ as a taste category by academics and publishers constitutes a similar commodification of the ‘exotic authentic’ – a tendency of which the writers in Whetu Moana are acutely aware.

[19]. Simon During identifies this as the central problem posed by cultural globalisation, in “Postcolonialism and Globalisation: A Dialectical Relation After all?”, Postcolonial Studies 1.1 (1998), p. 33.

[20]. Sullivan, Star Waka, pp. 7, 8, 27, 63.

[21]. Ibid, p. 3.


© Philip Armstrong 2004

Last updated 14 July, 2004