Black Stone Poetry: Vanuatu’s Grace Mera Molisa

By | 1 February 2014

The ironic title and the dedication of Colonised People four years after Independence, clearly announces this shift in emphasis:

who toil and labour daily, unrecognised, unrewarded,
just to cope with life’s chores and burdens
and to THE HOPE that Future Generations of Vanuatu Women
will be able to enjoy a better Life.

The ‘Colonised People’ in this volume are ‘post’ colonial Vanuatu’s women. Molisa explicitly connects sexism and racism in her introduction: ‘Vanuatu is now free of foreign colonial domination but Ni-Vanuatu Women are still colonised.’ In the preface, two kastom Chiefs and a prominent male poet introduce the collection and endorse the need to recognise the ‘rights of women’ and to ‘further develop the potential of and for women and encourage them to participate in politics and government, education, business and all other spheres of national affairs’ (5). There is little doubt that the preface writers were strategically chosen. This symbolic public stamp of approval from male power brokers in Vanuatu society aimed to encourage receptivity of its radical message in the general community.

While each of Molisa’s three volumes of poetry has its own major focus, each thematically interweaves with the other, demonstrating the kind of synchronous consideration encouraged within Molisa’s oeuvre. This is most evident in two poems with the same title from the first and second collections. Both Black Stone and Colonised People contain a poem titled ‘Vanuatu’. The second ‘Vanuatu’ reveals Molisa’s keen sense of gender imbalance alongside her familiarity with and contempt for the empty political rhetoric of gender equity. In contrast to ‘Vanuatu’ and ‘Black Stone’ in Black Stone, which celebrate post-colonial Independence, in Colonised People ‘Vanuatu’ questions the nationally endorsed principles of ‘Democracy’, ‘Christianity’, and ‘Melanesian Values’ promoted during the fervour of Independence. The first ‘Vanuatu’ poem appears at the beginning of the Black Stone and triumphantly opens the collection, reflecting the heyday of a newly attained Independence; the second ‘Vanuatu’ appears towards the end of Colonised People, not at its end, which might signal closure and finality, but towards the end, indicative of the ongoing journey ahead. Another notable difference is in layout: Molisa’s characteristic vertical pinnacle form in the earlier poem, encouraging a rising reading from bottom to top and evoking the notion of ‘stanup’ (stand up) used in Independence slogans, is abandoned in the later poem. The second ‘Vanuatu’ shows a significant departure in line placement and layout, deploying multiple horizontal and vertical perspectives that open up the reading options.

The poem’s visual sense of equilibrium is deeply ironic. It is undermined by the antithesis between the national rhetoric of freedom, independence and self-government on the left hand side of the poem, and the reality of the continuing oppressive situation of women in relation to men on the right hand side. It offers a visual counterpoint of ‘rhetoric’ versus ‘reality’. Capitalised words on the left indicate authorised, official political-speak; the predominant use of lower case letters on the right signal unofficial versions of truth. Thus, while Vanuatu is ‘SELF-DETERMINED’, it is counter posed by ‘Men determine / Women go along’.

Furthermore, the symmetrical layout structurally highlights the nature of the nationalist/postcolonial/gender dilemma. ‘Vanuatu’ in Colonised People emphasizes the opposition between the official government policy of equality and Independence for all, and the reality for women who at the same time remain exploited and oppressed by men. For indigenous women, political freedom and Independence occur simultaneously with gender-based oppression. The structural form of the poem is deliberately composed to mirror the reality that women remain oppressed in and through this rhetoric of political emancipation. Molisa takes the root word from the left hand side and uses it to germinate sentences on the right. While there may be some truth in what is being officially espoused (given authoritative capitalisation), it is not the reality for the majority of Ni-Vanuatu women: Independence means ‘Vanuatu is: / FREE / Men are Free, / Women are chattels’. The different context of the word used on the right gives its meaning an ironic twist. Not only are words germinated within the poem, but are taken from the first ‘Vanuatu’ poem in Black Stone. The image of the ‘bitter – sweet / fruit / of sovereignty struggle’ mentioned in ‘Vanuatu’ (Black Stone) again resurfaces in its second version. In contrast to the enjoyment of finally reaping the ‘FRUITS / OF THE STRUGGLE’ in Black Stone, four years later, Molisa soberly indicates that the sweet fruits of Independence have soured because they have proven to be ‘For Men Only’. They rot with the realisation that women remain ‘Colonised People’.

Molisa sought to go beyond political rhetoric and hold Vanuatu’s government and other powerbrokers accountable for ongoing inequities borne by society’s most vulnerable: women and children. Her argument that women are integral to the kinds of national, cultural, social equilibrium Vanuatu is purportedly founded on, needed to be communicated and find reception among the highly heterogeneous, cultural kaleidoscope of Ni-Vanuatu. Molisa required a common language through which to relay her empowering message.

Black Stone: A volcano aesthetic

The metaphor of black stone fired Molisa’s imagination towards poetic and political ends. The hardened volcanic rock carried the weight of Molisa’s multiple roles and symbolises several, interconnected aspects of her life: the geography and geology of Vanuatu; the political forging of the Independent nation; and her personal agenda to recognise and restore balance and equilibrium to Vanuatu, predicated on equality for Ni-Vanuatu women. Within the black stone metaphor lies Molisa’s personal, political, and poetic ethos.

Molisa’s birthplace of Ambae Island, in the Penama Province, is home to Manaro, the most voluminous volcano in Vanuatu, rising some 3900 metres above the ocean floor with a volume of 2500 cubic kilometers. It is active and has erupted at least three times since 1995 (Seach). The shores of Ambae Island are typically lined with black, rough basalt rock (Molisa, Pers. Comm.) Basalt is known for its strength and ideal for use in construction as building blocks. Obsidian, the deep black volcanic glass produced by a rapidly cooled felsic lava flow with high silica content, may also be found throughout Vanuatu’s volcanic areas (Galipaud and Swete-Kelly). Its appearance and colour depends on its cut, ranging from a deep black to a shining grey. Obsidian rocks have razor thin edges and have been traditionally used as projectile points and blades for tools and weapons, as well as for ornamental purposes. According to Jean Toomer (the influential 1920s Black American writer who began the Literary Harlem Renaissance), ‘A symbol is as useful to the soul, as a tool is to the hand.’ Black stone fulfills both these poetic and pragmatic requirements.

Black stone is used by Molisa as a metaphorical framework for two of her three collections, Black Stone (1983) and Black Stone II (1989), and in 1987, became the name of her newly formed publishing company in Port Vila: Black Stone Publications. Through her publishing company, her second and third collections were brought to the public domain, as well as numerous non-fiction and informational publications on Human Rights, Women’s Rights, and the importance of creativity. The centrality of black stone in her work is seen in the title poem of her first volume, ‘Black Stone’ which follows in full:

Black Stone
Molten lava

jagged forms
awe inspiring.
Black Stone
flowing free
from depths
a viscous form

Jet black
sleeping fortress
weather rock
come wind or shine.

Black Stone
and obstinate

Black Stone
bird of wealth
solid bedrock
dwelling of death.

Eternal essence
of immortal soul’s
steadfast fixture
founding Man’s 
physical cosmos.

of the spirits
to the stable
of constancy
and permanence.

Black Stone
Black Stone (8)
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