BOLD POEMS OF A HAWAIIAN ACTIVIST

BOOK REVIEW

Night Is a Sharkskin Drum By Haunani-Kay Trask Honolulu: Tanaloa: Contemporary Pacific Literature and University of Hawai'i Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8248-2570-5, xi + 70 pages, glossary. Paper, US$13.95.

Review by Robert Sullivan

HONOLULU - I cannot read this book dispassionately simply because it is so passionate. The poetry here draws on the spiraling continuum of the language and histories of ancient and contemporary Hawai'i. Lessons are drawn from the womb of Haumea, the earthmother, herself.

Trask's political life as an activist leader of the Hawaiian nation adds a level to this multilayered book, living on the black-lava polished surfaces of the poems, and the fires beneath: "of lava stones, massaged / by tidal seas: eternal / kanikau for long- / forgotten ali'i, entombed / beneath grandiose hotels" ("Kona Kai'ōpua," 16-17).

The multiple references to Hawaiian mythologies draw us into the revolutionary story of Pelehonuakamea, Pele born from the womb of Haumea (see Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele, Holo Mai Pele, 2001, xi), also known as Pele'aihonua, "the volcano deity, who literally eats the land" (69 ): "From the red rising mist / of Kahiki, the Woman of the Pit: / Pele, Pele'aihonua, / traveling the uplands, / devouring the foreigner" ("Nāmakaokaha'i," 8 ).

As a newcomer to Hawai'i, I cannot claim an extensive knowledge of the mythological cycles of the Hawaiian people. I can appreciate, however, the Polynesian resonances within Trask's work: political, socioeconomic, genealogical. I also appreciate that her referencing of the stories of Pele, Hina, Kāne, and Kanaloa (to name a few deities) focuses attention on the Hawaiian section of her readership and reminds us all of the significance of their knowledge, while giving those Hawaiians privileged with such an understanding an immediate intimacy with aspects of the poems.

As a New Zealand Māori reader, I find the worldview of the poetry compelling. Trask's deep intimacy with ka wā mamua, the time before, is an intimacy with the land itself: "Slow-hipped Kāne'ohe, / wet-scented lover / chanting / us in" ("Returning," 42 ). Trask's poetry is laid out to highlight the disruption to history wrought by colonization, while the feelings are of profound and hurtful grief. Her poems in this book (dedicated to Kenyan writer Ngugž wa Thiong'o), are laid out like slashes across the body of a mourner. She sings of "a poisoned pae'āina / swarming with foreigners / and dying Hawaiians" ("The Broken Gourd, II," 12 ); "in the country, natives / without a nation: / The democracy of colonies. / For the foreigner, romances / of 'Aloha,' / For Hawaiians, / dispossessions of empire" ("Dispossessions of Empire, IV," 36 ).

This poet chooses an indigenous symbol—the sharkskin drum—and an indigenous concept—the Polynesian "po" (night), with all its literally creative resonance within Polynesian cosmogonies—in the title poem to call the volcanic goddess Pele: "Night is a sharkskin drum / sounding our bodies black / and gold. / All is aflame / the uplands a shush / of wind. / From Halema'uma'u / our fiery Akua comes: / E, Pele E, / E, Pele E, / E, Pele E" (5 ).

Trask succeeded in drawing me closer to Pele, and in getting me to seek out the chants that inform and inspire Trask's work. These chants reflect the drama of eruption and the capacity of volcanoes to reshape the landscape (see Kanahele 2001, 18). Look at the use of color, heat, and personified wind in the extract above, how the bodies fold into the drum, how English gives way to Hawaiian. The poet's vision dances in Pele's reshaping fire. Politics and culture in [End Page 437] Night is a Sharkskin Drum are literally overwhelming—they have to be. The beat of the drum is loud and alive here, and not muted as the sharkskin drums I recently saw behind glass in a museum. By drawing on a strength of her culture—the hula as embodied in the drum—Trask strengthens that culture and reminds us of the multiple ties that bind it together, while adding a new tie through her poetry.

Trask's strength reminds me of the Russian poets Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva. The allusions to Pele are in themselves revolutionary—they are an act of defiant memory. The assertive Hawaiian voice of the poems is in contrast to the economic coercion of the tourist culture Trask criticizes: "Every tourist, a camera / to capture us Natives" ("At Punalu'u," 31 ); "Even prostitutes know / their profession, but natives?" ("Dispossessions of Empire, III," 35 ).

The voice also strongly counters the American presence in Hawai'i, from the time of the missionaries to the present: "for our dead, / then stand / with the lāhui / and burn / their American / flag" ("Pūowaina: Flag Day," 28 ).

This is the bold and uncompromising voice of a poet.

Trask speaks to many Polynesians. Albert Wendt, Witi Ihimaera, Epeli Hau'ofa, Reina Whaitiri, and Sia Figiel all have contributed impressive praise for the front page and back cover of the book, and rightly so. On the back cover, Figiel gives us an insight to the inner workings of the poems: "despite the ugliness she has seen, the ugliness that has pierced her, stabbed her, wounded her, scarred her and her people, there is beauty still."

Let me not only celebrate the political and cultural levels of this book. On reading some of these poems I found the same delight in particulars as in reading Pablo Neruda's Maremoto Seaquake (1993 ). In the shallows of Waimānalo, Trask finds "caves / filled with / cooled lava / and little / sparkling fish" ("The Shallows," 52 ). In "Run into the Sea," we're immersed in "foam and plume," and "spume salting the wind" (55 ). She conjures the soul's leaping place for Hawaiians' ancestral Kahiki (Tahiti). It is here, in the poem's setting, that I wish to leave this review, in the homeland of eastern Polynesia, a paradise extolled as Rangiatea (also within the Tahitian group) by Māori, a place where at least our souls are sovereign:

"Blue, now gold / a great honu follows. / Beyond the leaping / point, our souls / depart. / More beautiful still" ("Together," 59 ).

Stroke the words, dance in the light, join the circle of gods and people of this very fine and thought-provoking book.

February 3, 2005

The Contemporary Pacific: http://www.uhpress.hawaii.edu/journals/cp/index.html

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