“Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English”Edited by Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri & Robert Sullivan

Review by M.J. Knecht

“Whetu Moana” is the first anthology of contemporary indigenous Polynesian poetry written in English and edited by Polynesians. Potent and far-reaching, the collection surveys the vibrant and eclectic work of more than 60 poets from seven countries including Hawai’i, Aotearoa-New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Niue, Rotuma, Samoa and Tonga. An anthology of this scope could be daunting, but “Whetu Moana” is exquisitely designed in a reader-friendly format. A glossary of Polynesian words, biographical notes, and an index of poets by country were particularly helpful for this “palangi” (a Samoan word for a white and Western person) reader. I also appreciated having an atlas close at hand, considering that Polynesia is one of the largest cultural regions in geographic extent.

In their enlightening introduction, the editors present an array of cultural assumptions and literary clichés that have misrepresented Polynesian cultural identity:

“The romantic ideas and images held by outsiders about the Pacific have plagued our people since first contact; and breaking away from the rest-and-recreation stereotypes have been a major issue for Polynesian writers, artists, scholars, and politicians ever since.”

By turns furious, elegiac and tender, the poems in “Whetu Moana” debunk these long-held stereotypes and offer a much more complex and compelling reflection of contemporary Polynesia. With an eye to established, mid-career and emerging poets, the editors have compiled a collection remarkable as much for its diversity of poetic forms as for its wealth of voices.

Perhaps the most well-known poet is Hone Tuwhare, whose collection “No Ordinary Sun” (Blackwood & Janet Paul, 1964) was the first book of poems by a Maori to be published. At age 82, Tuwhare continues to break new poetic ground as exemplified in the generous selection of recent poems in “Whetu Moana.” Whether reflecting political struggle, erotic love or spiritual survival, Tuwhare’s engagement with language is unrestrained and infectious:

“Gissa smile sun, giss yr best / good mawnin’ one, fresh ‘n cool like / yore still comin’— still / half in an’half outa the lan’scape?” (from “Sun o (2)”).

Readers of Keri Hulme’s novel, “The Bone People” will appreciate the inclusion of her poetry, which previously had received limited distribution in the United States. Of Maori, English and Scots descent, Keri Hulme’s exuberance for music and dialect comes out in her “Winesong” poems:

“There is a name I use in the daytime / and a name I use at night / names for walking on the left side / names for trampling down the right. / Pass the bottle, lady.”

Other internationally-known Maori poetry in this collection includes poems by Witi Ihimaera, one of New Zealand’s most prolific and beloved authors who is also known for his mentoring of younger writers. Author of “Tangi,” the first novel published by a Maori writer (Heineman, 1973), Ihimaera may be best known to American audiences for his novel “The Whale Rider” (first published in 1987, most recently reissued in 2002 by Reed) which was recently adapted into a film. Ihimaera is also widely considered the leading Maori anthologist, having edited “Into the World of Light” and “Te Ao Marama” (Reed, 1992-94 and 1982, respectively), the later being the seminal anthology of Maori literature. While most of the poems in “Whetu Moana” draw their inspiration from places closer to home, Ihimaera evokes the sentiment of the expatriate in “Un Semplice Storia”:

“If I should die in a foreign land / do not leave me there / place me upon the bright strand of sky and sea / set my eyes southward / and, just as the sun goes down/ call Hine Te Ariki / to come for me.”

The anthology features a strong selection of women poets. Perhaps the first Maori woman poet to be published in English, J.C. Sturm is an unflinching voice in a complex and rapidly changing global culture. Roma Potika, a Maori poet, playwright and visual artist, is clearly one of the more strikingly original younger poets. Her haunting song, “chant of 19 women murdered” conveys through repetition a plea for women to flee violent spouses “cause there’s already been 19 women murdered / by husbands who said they loved them.”

A promising emerging voice is the Tongan poet Loa Niumeitolu, who states in her biographic note: “Creativity is so formalized in Tonga, which is wrong because to sincerely create is to survive and celebrate living and everyone is entitled to that.” Her poem, “When we tell” asserts feisty personal and political identity:

“I know English was brought / by White people to our country. But when WE speak it, / when we slur that language like sinews of vine floss extracting our teeth, / grind it with coral and ironwood in our mouth. When WE tell of the gritty taste, we’ve got to have a Tongan way / of doing it.”

In selecting the title “Whetu Moana” (“Ocean of Stars”), the editors imply the variety of poets and poetry rooted in the cultural regions of the Pacific. Despite an unevenness of the quality of verse featured, “Whetu Moana” is a groundbreaking anthology that represents a landmark in expanding the awareness of contemporary Polynesian poetry.
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