Black Stone Poetry: Vanuatu’s Grace Mera Molisa

By | 1 February 2014

The poem describes the volatile nature of the volcano that both creates and destroys, forming permanent foundations whilst in constant transition. As earth ‘unknown’, it is also injected with personality (‘obstinate’) and hence, is potentially knowable; it is ‘eternal’, not just in its bedrock solidity but in the spiritual history embedded within it by Ni-Vanuatu.

Black stone evokes another shared Ni-Vanuatu principal: manples. The Bislama dictionary defines the noun as ‘a local person; Melanesian (as opposed to European)’ (Crowley 140). A transliteration of two English words, ‘man’ and ‘place’, locals use it to distinguish indigenous people from foreigners. Jolly explains the term as ‘a condensation of people and place’ (1997 6). It reflects the holistic relationship between people and land with which all Ni-Vanuatu, regardless of differences in language, culture, religion or geographical location, may identify. Such meanings are most evident in the seventh stanza of ‘Black Stone’. Here, the ‘Eternal essence’ of the volcano which existed prior to humanity is an ever-present force determining the physical ‘cosmos’ of humanity, the system of order and harmony in the universe (Haddock 80). This holistic relationship with the land is evident in genealogy, myth and legend, pre-colonial religion and worship. Manples is evoked by Molisa throughout her work. In the aftermath of dual British and French colonial control, the assertion of rightful citizenship is made via an autochthonous status. The crucial factor here is the ‘condensation’ of people and place – a compression of two elements to the extent where two are constructed as one. Jolly’s description of manples evokes the nature of volcanic activity where eruptions are formed by condensed pressure from within the earth which pushes land up, cracks the earth’s surface, and creates new land. A consequence of the condensation and subsequent compounding of people and place in the metaphor of black stone, implicitly posits that any separation between Ni-Vanuatu and land can only be superficial and temporary. Ni-Vanuatu are, as the poem ‘Vanuatu’ (Black Stone) asserts, ‘Vatu offspring’ and ‘Pillars of the Nation’. The black stone metaphor functions to celebrate the reclamation of pre-existent, perpetual, indigenous cultural and political identities in the face and the aftermath of British and French colonialism.

Additionally, black stone can be seen as a reclamation of racial identity, affirming an indigenous identity subject to colonial racism. ‘Black Stone’ celebrates that primary Melanesian signifier – blackness. It was the dark skin pigmentation of the North West Pacific Islanders that saw them historically placed at the bottom of the European defined racial hierarchy. Dumont d`Urville introduced the term ‘Melanesia’ in 1832, which defined a region of ‘Black Islands’ or ‘islands of Black people’, and initiated an ideological racism serving to rationalise the colonial agenda (Keesing 3). Molisa claims blackness as a primary identity and looks to the land for validation. Black solidified volcanic magma with its underlying layer of red-hot flowing lava is a pictorial representation and celebration of Melanesian humanity – of black skin and red blood. The association between the colours red and black and Ni-Vanuatu identity is evident in the national flag. Volcanic imagery as used by Molisa, reinforces manples – the conflation and through Independence, unification, of land and people.

Like her father before her,1 Molisa’s poetry aims for unity in diversity in the aftermath of a colonialism that ruled on a ‘divide and conquer’ principle. As a poet, Molisa responded to Vanuatu’s divisive politics with a unifying metaphor. There are only a few indigenous metaphors able to bridge Vanuatu’s cultural and linguistic diversity, a place where the phrase ‘wan wan aelan’ (each separate island) is commonly used to reflect the level of heterogeneity in the 80 or so islands that boast over 110 different languages and dialects spoken by hundreds of autonomous clans (Huffman; Jolly 1997, 15). Finding shared metaphors is comparatively easier in predominantly mono-cultural societies such as Samoa or Tonga where there is one indigenous language and one generally observed form of cultural practice (notwithstanding minor internal and regional variations). Only the most primary metaphors can cross the numerous ‘cultural beaches’ (Dening) within the island ‘nation’ of Vanuatu, a notion which is itself a colonial construct formed out of indigenous necessity (Jolly, 1997). The advent of imperialism and the forced physical and ideological unification under the banner of ‘nationhood’ in postcolonial Vanuatu does not automatically unite people. But Molisa found something elemental in the geography of Vanuatu, a land feature already permeating the consciousness of its inhabitants – the volcano. As a symbol with the potential to speak across cultures and different clan affiliations, the volcano and its manifestation of black stone, provides a shared point of reference for an otherwise distinct archipelago-based peoples.

Indeed, Molisa’s poetry views the relationship between the metaphor black stone and the new nation of Vanuatu as not only representative, but interdependent and reciprocal. The poem before the title poem, ‘Black Stone’, in Black Stone is titled ‘Vanuatu’. Along with ‘Black Stone’ and ‘Ladies of Precedence’ (47) it is the only other poem in the collection laid out using what would become Molisa’s characteristic volcanic pillar format, to which it also self-reflexively refers:

Ageless Vatu
primeval source
of creative forces
ad infinitum

Vanuatu
our land
in perpetuity
our people re-born
for eternity.

The battle of wills
in the course of law
is frontier to
the untrodden path
of our development.

The birthpains
of Nationhood
reverberate 
by year
to temper 
with duress
active democracy.

A melanophone
philosophy’s 
renata thrust
thwarted
by bureaucracy’s
technocracy.

Autonomous
state - craft
a bitter - sweet
fruit
of sovereignty struggle.

Statehood
costs
eternal 
alertness

Pillars of the Nation
Vatu offspring
born of oblivion
in vexing rebellion
stay steadfast
Vanua`aku Vanuatu (7).
  1. One of the first Aomba men to be ordained as a deacon in the Anglican church, Basil Meramalto Merakali, went on to establish and teach in independent district schools (Anglican) on Aomba. He was the first to teach the English language and use it as a medium of instruction. Basil became an undisputed leader and according to Antfalo ‘Many leaders are now struggling to achieve what he was then able to achieve alone – singleness of mind and purpose among Aombans’ (Antfalo 79).
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