Scoop Review of Books

Hijacked Histories

The Art of Excavation by Leilani Tamu
(Anahera Press, $25; or $A3.99 as an e-book)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

Art_of_Excavation_cover-726x1024Anyone expecting ‘traditional’ Western styled poetry re: rhyme, strict versification, figures of speech is going to be disappointed in this collection, for it is written against, written back to the veritable empire of such stylized poetic tropes.

Indeed, it is the poet’s express wish to counter Western qua Caucasian methodology and indeed subject-matter in this, her first rather comprehensive collection – “I experimented with poetic form as a part of an ongoing postcolonial dialogue that values and tells Pacific stories in our own way based on our own cultural frameworks and reference points”, as she writes in her Notes in the tail end of this book. She immediately reminds me of the words of Powhiri Rika-Heke from many years before, as regards reworking English language and stylizations – as interposed with te reo Māori – so as to counter English language hegemony and to make the colonialists’ tongue work against them, via a whole new postcolonial episteme.

This she most certainly succeeds in doing, probably losing much of her potential Pākehā audience along the way, for the collection is particularly densely referenced for Polynesians of all ilk: yet one rather annoying thing for me is having to consistently and continually refer to the glossary so as to nail a poem to the wall; the terminology would better have been footnoted per poem.

This minor gripe aside, Tamu’s collection is strong, rather angry, intensely archaeological – the latter point particularly apt given the title.

The collection is especially deeply-rooted historically and geographically across the entire gamut of Polynesia – from Hawaii to Tamaki Makaurau, as in the poem The Beach – and is divided into the four zones which Tamu also articulates in her academic Notes – in vivifying the entire Past as Ever-Present, she identifies four “interdependent, interrelated realms: history, colonisation, cosmology and genealogy.” In so doing, much of the time the poet’s own self-referencing is subsumed beneath a rather vituperative – yet justifiable – series of vibrant images displaying just how Polynesia has been raped by not only Western, but also current Eastern neo-colonialists (e.g. Taiwan, PR China.) Take for example the poem “Paradise Pasifika”:

our Pacific

they entered her and scoured her

for gold and silver

they named us and translated us

into their own way

Aotearoa-New Zealand administration is also complicit in the pillage of Polynesia, as witness the prose-poems a Third Person Note (regarding Mr P.P. Pumpkin Eater and Post Script to a Third Person Note):

Note No. 002/2012

under the banner of a flag

couched in language

few can understand

Third Person Notes

are stamped every day

transacting the business

of the diplomatic trade

hidden from the gaze

of the poor and underpaid…

Tamu then, has dug deep into and through the web of cover-up complicity that has masked what happened in and to Pacific Island communities, most particularly but not only in Tonga and Samoa: she is having to reconstitute Pacific history and methodologies of approach to it (see also Linda Tuhiwai Smith) via poetic forms that are pertinently Polynesian, which code-switch deliberately and which exhume all manner of personages and personalities in a re-evaluatory way.

So, although her own whakapapa and whanaungatanga are important, most especially in section four titled “Ancestor Eyes”, it is her role as a member of a team of Polynesian re-writers of the Western (historical and poetic) textbook that seems more vital to her – “The Art of Excavation” is but a small contribution to a long genealogy of texts that have contributed to this vision.’ Ka nui te pai tēnei mahi (This task is excellent).

And yet for this reviewer, it is Tamu’s own violence-riven, disrupted Auckland past that is as interesting, and which is so powerfully conveyed and displayed with brutal honesty in her fine poem Aotearoa Runaway. Tamu the teenager was no saint, eh.

…their sweet island girl

gone bush feral…

Indeed the recent New Zealand Herald interview, as regards her past, was very revelatory and will – I hope – lead to some more pulsating Pacific poetry from her. After all, as she says there – “My greatest strength is my unfailing commitment to rectifying injustice and being willing to voice my perspective in any forum.”

Kia ora ano mo tēnei pukapuka.


Rika-Heke, Powhiri Wharemarama (1996). Margin or Center? “Let me tell you! In the land of my ancestors I am the Centre” Indigenous writing in Aotearoa. In English Postcoloniality: Literatures from around the World Radhika Mohanram and Gita Rajan (eds.) Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (2nd edition). London: Zed Books.

Tamu, Leilani (2014). Twelve questions: Leilani Tamu.

(Accessed December 18, 2014.)