Tightrope by Selina Tusitala Marsh
Auckland University Press, 2017
I like the way a backyard door opens ‘parting sooty / veils of flies,’ in the first poem of Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Tightrope. Outside are Max V, Lima and Ono (‘knotted fur, nettling bones / fat eyes, fat hunger’), and they have found a dead dog on the road
sniffed out its decayed meat dragged it home and in pecking order began to eat
Uncle puts on his overalls, they are navy blue: ‘Don’t worry I take it. / Good, bury it deep, we think.’ I like these vivid words, the dance of the lines and the way Uncle comes through.
Marsh rhymes often, and keeps things fresh with pararhyme – e.g. the move from ‘said’ to ‘red,’ to ‘road,’ in ‘Apostles’ – and slant rhyme – ‘bed’ chimes with ‘world’ in ‘Tightrope Tantrum,’ ‘north’ with ‘taut.’ But what I particularly enjoy is the intelligence and poise of her cadences:
Gran’s jasmine delicate pink heavy and sweet clings to the bone
These lines open a poem entitled ‘Kwitea Street in the ‘80s.’
Another poem is called ‘The Path,’ which is ala in Samoan. We learn that ‘The ala /is a bridge/ a road’, the ala is ‘a dog walking,’ it
is a tuna flying through the sea’s salt and spit is a tongue
These are exciting and evocative lines. But the poem turns into something of a list from here, and the punning at midpoint (‘is a root / a route / a vein’) adds to the sense that things are getting a bit arbitrary.
A sense of insubstantiality affects many of the poems in Tightrope. At times that is because the topic is too occasional (e.g. ‘Nadadola Road,’ a light-hearted poem centred on the poet’s embarrassed failure to tell off a Fijian taxi driver for texting while driving), or the dance too automatic (e.g. ‘Led by Line,’ which is entirely composed of plays on the word ‘line’). In the case of ‘Dinner with the King,’ it feels like the occasion is standing in for the poem. The language dwells nicely on the ‘Cool sliced cubes of fish’ the poet and her interlocutor (Samoa’s most recent head of state, the royal Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi) share, its ‘flesh speckled with salt.’ But the idea that that fish is
Raw as Nelson’s hunger for independence As bitter lemon sweet as Tamasese’s peaceful Call for freedom At Tuaefu
feels forced, and so too the idea that the ‘Crab soup broth / Coriander, lemon grass’ the two are sipping is ‘Clear as the conversation between us.’ The imagining in these lines is all just a bit flat, and the prosaic rhythms and word choices in the lines that follow reflect that:
I spoke of e-books and twitterature Self-publication, facebook and literature Of Al’s Prime Ministerial Award Of Lani’s storming of Amazon.com Another place where we belong Gathering kindle, setting fire with words Setting fire to worlds.
To this sort of perfunctory style, I would compare the lovely lines to ‘Dr Ngahuia,’ which at one point turn from the doctor to invoke
Te Arikinui Dame Te Ātairangikaahu hawk of the morning sky the longest glid e over Taupiri mountain an unmarked grave framed by Tyrian purple roses
and also the way Marsh circles around the difficult and intriguing task of performing for Queen Elizabeth as Commonwealth Poet in 2016. The poem she delivered in Westminster Cathedral is set here alongside a series of elegies to ‘Queens I have met’ including Dr Nghauia Te Awekotuku, QEII herself, Oprah and Alice Walker. This juxtaposition hits just the right estranging note: after all, the Queen is pop culture. On the other hand, popular (and at times even academic!) culture has a sort of royalty to celebrate as well.
Marsh’s Westminster performance is further described in a poem that bounces from the appropriate nursery rhyme – ’Pussy cat, pussy cat, / Where have you been? / I’ve been to London to visit the Queen’ – into the kind of self-fashioning and strut which hip hop has brought along with pararhyme and half-rhyme to the fore:
My Niu Ziland drawl My siva Samoa hands My blood red lips My Va philosophising My poetic brown hips Then standing before Her Majesty And the Duke of Edinburgh I centred Polynesian navigation Making sure to be poetically thorough In proposing a timeline Inverting West is Best Instead drawing a circle Encompassing all the rest.
For me, the best poem in Tightrope is ‘Essential Oils for the Dying.’ The poem is an elegy for Teresia Teaiwa, poet and former director of Va’aomanū Pasifika, the Pacific Studies unit at the University of Wellington. Marsh dedicates the book to Teaiwa, describing her in that dedication as ‘Teresia Teaiwa / shooting black star / (1968-2017).’
‘Essential Oils’ again has some lovely cadences, and a real tenderness in its opening offerings of cardamom and ginger, its concluding balm that ‘for the rest of us’ there will be
cypress for sorrow chamomile for resentment, tension and bitter-sweet melissa to press against the loss.
In 2010, Teaiwa and Marsh co-edited a special issue of The Contemporary Pacific, an issue dedicated to the critical and creative work of the great Samoan poet, novelist and essayist, Albert Wendt, a contemporary writer who should be far more widely read in this country.
One of Wendt’s most celebrated works is his 1977 novel Pouliuli. The word means ‘utter darkness’ in Samoan. Wendt and the novel play a central role in Tightrope too, via what Marsh describes as her ‘black out poems.’ Marsh has taken Wendt’s story of a Samoan chief’s self-revulsion and descent into (an initially) simulated madness and she has quite literally blacked out all but a few of the novel’s words with thick texta. A full 20 of the 98 pages of Tightrope are given over to full page reproductions of the resultant work. Tom Philips’s A Humument is an obvious generic predecessor. But the effect in Marsh’s case is overwhelmingly of black texta hues, with small patches of grainy white around the few words that remain. Those words leap in strange directions: ‘burning’ ‘hands’ ‘Draw’ ‘no visible marks’ ‘as if’ ‘whole mean-’ ‘ing’ ‘was reflected there’ (page 83 of Pouliuli). Interspersed through Marsh’s book, these blacked out pages provide important (because intriguing, vanishing) subtext to the surrounding poems, giving a sense of curious and undisclosed purpose to Marsh’s book as a whole. I like the effect very much. The following – page 104 of Pouliuli – appears between some lines on Philippe Petit’s tightrope walking (‘Le Coup’), and a fine poem on gafatele, a word left unglossed. All the rest of the page is black:
‘the dark ground’ ‘recited’ ‘whole passages’ ‘bone by bone’ ‘to’ ‘identify’ ‘the brutal’ ‘memory’ ‘root.’