Black Stone Poetry: Vanuatu’s Grace Mera Molisa

By | 1 February 2014

‘Vanuatu’ asserts a pre-eminent existence prior to colonisation and bears witness to political and social turbulence as Vanuatu deals with attempts to realise nationhood. By bearing witness to the effects of the Anglo-French Joint Condominium in the context of a much larger, all encompassing, eternal indigenous world view, Molisa also delimits, constrains and metaphorically contains foreign incursion.

The Black Stone collections are about Vanuatu in transition – prior to, during, and after Independence. For Molisa, ‘Vanuatu’ (the nation) and ‘Vanuatu’ (the word) are conceptualised in volcanic terms. Both ‘Black Stone’ and ‘Vanuatu’ are poems that evoke the same tone of primordialism, an essence of being which is eternal and infinite; of timelessness in transition, and of struggle to form and maintain equilibrium. Both poems are not only intimately connected, but are relational concepts. Molisa makes this connection explicit elsewhere in ‘Blackstone Milestone’: ‘Blackstone means Vanuatu….Blackstone is Vanuatu’ (Molisa Local, 11-13).

‘Vanuatu’ may be read as an invocation to the nation in line with Molisa’s personal mandate to have the newly formed nation (positioned as ‘Vatu offspring’) recognise what binds the culturally and linguistically diverse peoples of Vanuatu together: everlasting land. ‘Black Stone’ illustrates the complexities behind the transition to Independence, and conveys what it means to give birth to a new political identity while maintaining cultural and spiritual integrity.

Throughout ‘Black Stone’, Molisa explores three kinds of complexities, often placed in seeming opposition. Black stone (read ‘Vanuatu’) embodies forces that oscillate between balance and imbalance, producing various degrees of tension. Black stone is described as: simultaneously static yet moving; stone yet lava, solid yet fluid; molten and malleable yet jagged and stark. It is free moving, as seen in the image of the flying bird, and the hissing consonance sounds of ‘s’, ‘c’, ‘x’, ‘phys’ in stanzas seven and eight, evoking the sounds and movement of volcanic gases. Yet, it also coagulates and is still ‘immovable’, ‘immobile’). Black stone evokes both creation and death; it is knowable yet mysterious; it is both tactile and physical while also metaphysical; it is alive yet sleeps; it is permanent and constant yet in continual transition. Black stone embodies the volatile nature of the volcano. When seemingly dormant, it may become active and explode when oppositional forces lose equilibrium.

It is primarily this state of equilibrium, defined as the ‘state of rest produced by the counteraction (defined as ‘action in opposition’) of forces’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary), that Molisa invokes in her exhortation to the nation to ‘Stay steadfast / Vanuaaku Vanuatu’ (‘Vanuatu’). Black stone – and Vanuatu – is only possible with a balance of oppositional forces, a maintenance of equilibrium. In Molisa’s political terms, these equate to the conciliatory negotiation of differences and the effective implementation of an imposed, foreign concept – national democracy.

As mentioned in the second stanza of ‘Black Stone’, lava needs to coagulate, that is, ‘to change from fluid to a fixed state’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary) to become black stone. The realisation of nationhood in a post-colonial context is fraught with challenge. The transition from multiple and independent clan and regional allegiances to one centralised power base has been far from smooth (Jupp and Sawer). ‘Vanuatu’, the nationalist poem, uses words as ‘battle’, ‘frontier’, ‘birthpains’, ‘duress’, and ‘vexing’ (connoting irritation, torment, and distress) to describe this transition. Seismic activities of a live volcano are like birth pains, coming in waves of energy that grow progressively stronger until an eruption occurs. New land is created; old land is consumed.

In ‘Black Stone’ the conflict is played out in the opposing forces and the often uneasy alliance of natural elements. But both poems posit that steadfastness and equilibrium is needed in order to effectively realise national aspirations and face the world as ‘Vanuaaku Vanuatu’ (7), as Ni-Vanuatu. Towards this end, the volcano is able to carry the weight of Molisa’s political subtext.

In addition to permeating Molisa’s political ideology, a volcano aesthetic not only infuses her writing, but is central to Molisa’s poetics. Molisa’s poem ‘Black Stone’ contains parallels between the natural environment and the creative writing process. Both are:

jagged forms
awe inspiring (Black Stone 8).

The land inspires, which in turn, is echoed in both the content and visual mechanics of Molisa’s poetry. Writing on paper solidifies thought while Molisa’s characteristic piling of one or two words (black inscriptions on white paper) suggest black shard-like obsidian pillars, or ancient columnar basalt formations that can rise after volcanic eruptions. Her poetry is direct, oftentimes sparse and reduced to core nouns and adjectives, hence ‘starkly / awe inspiring’.

Further, the structural composition of the poems mirror Ni-Vanuatu ideological constructions surrounding independence. Although we read down the poem, as each poem is wholly visualised, it appears to rise up from the page – a physical manifestation of the meaning of ‘Vanuatu’, which translates as ‘land standing up’ (Jolly 1996, 7). The word ‘Vanua’, which refers to land, finds resonance throughout the Pacific (‘fanua’ in Samoa; ‘whenua’ in Aotearoa / New Zealand; ‘enua’ in Cook Islanders Maori). The same is observable with the word ‘Tu’, which commonly refers to the act of standing. Vanuatu was the word chosen to represent the first indigenous political party, the Vanuaaku Pati, and subsequently, the new nation of Vanuatu. The act of standing up (stanup) connotes Independence and self-determination.

A thousand coloured dreams

After visiting the Molisa family home in 2008, I composed a found-poem from the titles of books on Molisa’s bookcase, kept as she last left them in 2002:

Grace’s Bookcase

She got The Five Pillars of Tom  and The Power of One
she got Usage and Abusage  and How to Skyrocket Your Sales
she got Birds of Vanuatu and Kali’s Yug
she got Politics in Melanesia and Hidden Treasures

she got My House Has Two Doors  and The Canterbury Tales
she got Doctor Zhivago and Thief in the Night
she got Carve her Name with Pride and Celebration of Awareness
she got Voltaire and Dr. Suess   

she got The Peacemakers and The Politics of Land in Vanuatu  
she got Everyone Can Win and Daughters of the Pacific
she got Agriculture in Vanuatu and The Melbourne Women’s Handbook
she got Vanuatu: Economic Performance and One on One

she got Change and Adaptation in Western Samoa and Warrior
she got Isles of Illusion and Culture, Kastom, Tradition
she got Winds of Change and The Written Word
she got Transport And Communication and A Life of Adventure

she got Poisoned Reign and One Hundred Years of Mission in Vanuatu
she got Malice in Blunderland and Small is Beautiful
she got Famili Loa and Stud Beef Cattle Breeding
she got The Russian from Belfort and Vanuatu

she got Vanuatu Victory and With Heart and Nerve and Sinew
she got Across Canada by Train and The Contemporary Pacific
she got Beyond Pandemonium and The New First Aid in English
she got Roget’s Thesaurus and Oiwi: A Native Hawaiian Journal

she got A Thousand Coloured Dreams. (Marsh, 2011, 158-9)
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