Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Aotearoa Runaway by Leilani Tamu

they searched for my body
in local parks and schools

they cut away
the long grass
daring to hope
for a sign

an angelic proclamation
or at least a shoe or a sock

while on the other side of town
I was high in the sky
hanging out with some random guy

and my mate Johnny
in the backseat
last name: Walker
he was one real treat

then they found me
messed up and bruised
their sweet island girl
gone bush feral

forget sympathy (they said)
screw pity    yes to sheer relief
fuck yes to bloody angry

over and over they asked
and asked: what do we do
with this harlot, this slut?
what happened to our baby?

yesterday she was thirteen
years      innocent
now she’s literally fucked

so they hacked off    my hair

hoping cultural violence: shame
might stop me from running again
but once more         I jumped
out that window        I hurtled

Nāfanua hussy hair     flying free

far far away from Sāmoa
Aotearoa runaway
a foolish kid

for true love
and freedom
from fear

Leilani Tamu’s The Art of Excavation (Anahera Press 2014) seeks to reframe the Pacific from the colonial, exotifying gaze of the West: ‘they entered her and scoured her/ for gold and silver’ in the poem Paradise Pasifika. Her poems take up the act of excavating colonial history to reveal it’s far-reaching shadow. The collection is filled with vibrant images, ‘black gold/ fish eyes peeping/ through carnivorous skies’.

The poem, ‘Aotearoa Runaway’ uses language that is more simple and direct than the rest of the collection. It recalls the thread of sober realism that runs through the work of Pacific women poets like Sia Fiegel and Selina Tusitala Marsh. I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s claim in Sister Outsider about transformative role of language in voicing experiences of marginalisation: ‘Your silence will not protect you’.

The opening lines ‘they searched for my body/ in local parks and schools’ echoes news speak about missing children but is made uncomfortable through the pronoun, ‘my’. There is Tamu’s characteristic wit; those searching for the missing teenager look for a sign, ‘an angelic proclamation’, a reference to the religiosity of Pacific communities. The shifts in form work to change pace and force us to linger at the painful and profound, as with the sentence  ‘so they hacked off    my hair’. The cutting of the teenage girl’s hair is an act of naming as well of shaming. She is denigrated, ‘what do we do/ with this harlot, this slut?’

There is something playful – a little Dr. Seuss- sounding – about the lines ‘but once more    I jumped/ out that window    I hurtled’.

My favourite line is the triumphant, ‘Nāfanua hussy hair    flying free’. Nāfanua is a powerful female ancestor god from the island Savai’i, revered for being a great warrior. The reference to Nāfanua works a powerful reversal in the poem: the teenaged narrator does not accept the shaming designation extended through her family’s act of cutting her hair, but aligns herself with Nāfanua.

I also loved the restraint in the economic last stanza, ‘for true love/ and freedom/ from fear’. True love and freedom – those great Americana themes you expect to be in bold, cursive script – are words poets are generally afraid of because they can invoke grandiosity. Here, Tamu deliberately evokes and undercuts their grandiosity; the narrator is ‘a foolish kid/ searching’. But the last line ‘from fear’ adds an uneasy, haunting quality, it hints that home is less a safe haven then we might imagine.

This is a difficult and brave poem within a thought-provoking and rewarding collection.

Leilani Tamu
Leilani Tamu is of  Samoan, Tongan and Pakeha descent. Her poetry is published in Blackmail Press, Snorkel, Landfall, and JAAM. Her poetry collection The Art of Excavation is published by Anahera Press, www.anerahera.co.nz.

This week's guest editor, Tulia Thompson, is of Fijian, Tongan and Pakeha descent. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. She is published in Niu Voices: Contemporary Pacific Fiction 1, Blackmail Press and Overland (forthcoming). Her young adult novel Josefa and the Vu was published by Huia in 2007. She blogs about social justice at www.tuliathompson.wordpress.com.

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Helen Lowe said...

An interesting slant into the behind-story of the way the poem starts: with the news item that 's where the story begins and ends for most of us:

"they searched for my body
in local parks and schools

they cut away
the long grass
daring to hope
for a sign...

...or at least a shoe or a sock"

The rest less well explored, at least publicly.

Helen McKinlay said...

I love the strength and honesty in this poem. The way the subject refuses to be a victim. Thank you for introducing us to Leilani's poetry Tulia.