Poetry picks, day 6

Curriculum Centre staff – including the original creator of this blog – have long and deep links, both familial and professional, with the South Pacific.  Today’s poem is by William Alfred Nu’utupu Giles, a Samoan-American poet from Hawai’i.

There is a large Islander diaspora living in Hawai’i, in mainland America, in Australia and in Aotearoa/New Zealand.  Just as one example: while about 100,000 Tongans live in Tonga, there are about 60,000 Tongans living in Aotearoa/New Zealand.  Islanders value their oral tradition hugely, yet it can be lost in the course of one generation, as is so keenly regretted in Prescribed Fire.

This poem is perhaps a little more challenging to read than earlier choices, but the central image is straightforward and powerful.

 

Prescribed Fire

as some of the tallest trees in the world

redwoods can grow to over 350 feet above the earth

yet their roots, on average only travel 10 feet into it

in isolation, it should be physically impossible for them to stand

 

however, these enormous trees do not grow in isolation

their roots, each only a single inch thick

wraps around the roots of its neighbors

a stubborn foundation of brown fingers

clasps an underground stand

and grows

 

my family is a group of redwoods

that sought god instead of ground

when my mother immigrated to the united states from Samoa

she taught none of her children how to speak our native tongue

 

now 26 years later

I cannot feel the hands

of the land I come from

how do you stand when your roots have been burned away

 

today I am a tree toppling over

a man cut off at the knees

stuck between a loved language lost

and a sky still out of reach

 

and that is the true legacy of world war II in the Pacific

a generation of Islander and Asian immigrants who learned

that their foreign accents and different skin

could mean your family in internment camps

learned their place in this society

could only be bought with blood in uniform

they learned their citizenship papers

would only be traded for their severed tongues

it is true

 

that the branches of a tree may spread no wider than its roots

but when parent countries

are just another word for poverty

when you are made to choose

between putting your children in culture or clothing

which blood would you want?

 

this is how redwoods fall

they forget the only reason

they are able to stand and defy common logic

is how well they hold one another

 

in Hawai’i

an immigrant mecca

where so many of us try to stand with a lost past

we have old weeping banyan trees who also came from across the sea

 

these banyans start from seeds that are blown to other canopies

and without pity or regard for past

they create their own way to the ground

sprouting aerial roots that crawl to the earth

and make a home wherever they find it

 

in Polynesia,

we have always learned from the earth around us

so now I do not lament my lack of roots

instead, I grow them myself

 

so every day I am a windblown seed

I am ‘foreign’ accents and different skin

every day I fall towards the earth and am reborn in dirt

I am blood in uniform and severed tongue

 

every day, I am the blood I want

every day, I look around

hold on tight to those I love

and I grow

into an extended

family

tree

 

William Alfred Nu’utupu Giles

 

Valuing his oral culture so highly, Will Nu’utupu Giles works as the workshop co-ordinator for Pacific Tongues, a non-profit organisation for writers, spoken word performers, educators and students, on Oahu, Hawai’i, and he is a poetry slam champion.  Watch him in action  performing his poem Deodorant.

Contemporary Pacific Islanders are engaged in a range of written poetry, performance poetry, fiction and non-fiction.  This literature has circulated within and beyond the Pacific, yet is hard to seek out, and remains marginalised in studies of global literature.  The Poetry Foundation (US equivalent of our Poetry Society) has a well-presented online starting point, especially for poets coming from the American sphere of influence in the Pacific (Hawai’i, American Samoa, Guam etc) – see this page for a good overview.

 

 

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