Saturday, March 30, 2013

Building libraries

I arrived back in New Zealand yesterday for the Easter break, which keeps the 'Atenisi Institute closed for a full week, charged with a series of tasks, including the recruitment of a maths teacher for our second semester (anyone interested?), the preparation of a course on the history, sociology and etiquette of the noble sport of rugby (my Dad, who is still playing the game in his seventies, is giving me tips) and the creation of an electronic database of academic articles about the Pacific, so that students and staff currently stymied by the glacial speed of Tonga's internet connection can enjoy the goodies of publications like the Journal of the Polynesian Society and the Journal of Pacific History.

I wanted to use my sudden and wondrous high-speed  net access to post a photo which shows that the eight hundred or so books donated to 'Atenisi by Kiwis have actually arrived in the Friendly Isles. For most of February the crate we'd filled with books, along with 'Opeti Taliai's cool white Toyota and boxes of nappies, sat miserably on the Nuku'alofa waterfront, waiting for the rain to stop falling and puddles to shrink. We were finally able to move the crate to a vacant allotment across the road from 'Opeti's house, and with a help of a few 'Atenisi students the books were unloaded. This photo shows Miko, Ulu, and Salisi hard at work in the midday sun (they got a meal of corned beef drenched in coconut milk and wrapped in taro leaves as recompense for their toil).

The books will be part of a new, relocated 'Atenisi library, but in the meantime they're being put to good use. For instance, I've got one of my Modern Pacific History students reading Ian Cross' The God Boy, as a way of learning about the emotional austerity of postwar Pakeha society.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed to the 'Atenisi book drive. I'm now trying to complement our physical library with the beginnings of what I hope will become a formidable elctronic archive.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dreaming of Epeli Hau'ofa

I'm getting over a flu-like malady which I blame on the air conditioning system in our house. Confused by the sudden transitions between our lounge room, which has the aggressively cool air found on the balcony of an alpine sanatorium, and the street outside, which is hot and humid even when its potholes are brimming with kava-coloured stormwater, my body has been treating me to a strange mixture of flushes and chills.

I wandered down to the 'Atenisi Institute yesterday to apologise to the Dean for my recent lack of productivity. "I was sleeping all weekend", I told 'Opeti Taliai, "trying to get rid of this flu". 'Opeti was bemused by my confession. "I was sleeping most of the weekend too", he said, "but there's nothing wrong with me".

In New Zealand and in most other Western countries sleep is a state citizens are taught to resent and resist. We work overtime at the office, without expecting to sleep in the next morning; we stay late at a bar or party, yet rise early for a coffee date or a shopping trip. We limit the reach of sleep with alarm clocks, and regard the hours we lose to it as a wasted resource, like an overgrown section or unused air points. Kiwi families scatter into separate rooms before they go to bed, as though they are ashamed of what they are about to do. Many palangi associate unconsciousness with a particular pillow and lampshade, and are afraid of nodding off in public, for fear or being thought lazy, or drunk, or both.

In Tonga, though, sleep is considered a purposeful and honourable activity, rather than a state of frivolous non-being. Tongan families typically sleep together, on floor-mats or on mattresses pulled together.  Tongans are also happy to loaf in the open air. Anyone who walks through the suburbs of Nuku'alofa on a warm day will notice people of all ages dozing on the verandahs and front porches of their homes, so that the wind which blows up from the city's harbour can cool their foreheads. Some of the daytime dozers are men who have stayed up late at the kava circles which convene almost every night all over Nuku'alofa. Like other narcotics kava can, when taken in sufficient quantities, induce a craving for sleep. Even suited and respectable Tongans can be found napping in the public gardens beside the Royal Palace, or on benches in the central business district. Tongans are so fond of public napping that every time I step into one of Nuku'alofa's banks I expect to see citizens taking a quick kip on the floor as they queue for service.

Tongan Sundays are dedicated to sleep as well as worship. The law forbids shopping, drinking, gardening, games, and travel on the Sabbath, so that there is little to do except attend church in the morning, eat a large and soporific meal of taro and corned beef for lunch, and sleep the rest of the day.

Despite or because of the efforts of Sigmund Freud and his successors, dreaming has become, for many Westerners, a disreputable activity. Dreams are considered either embarrassingly trivial or embarrassingly revealing, and anyone who relates the details of a dream at a dinner party or office lunch is likely to prompt groans or sniggers, rather than the earnest interpretation Freud championed. A politician who admitted taking guidance from her dreams would be voted out of office; a sociologist who footnoted a dream rather than a more ordinary text would be sacked for shoddy research practices.

In Tonga, though, dreams are the subject of continual serious discussion. Dreams are the places where the voices of distant ancestors and the recently deceased can whisper and scream, and where flickering trailers for the future run. In dreams and in waking trances, like the trances which the shamans of ancient Tonga induced by ingesting green kava and fungi, contact may be made with Pulotu, the land across the seas where the spirits of the departed dwell.

I discovered the seriousness with which Tongans regard the unconscious part of the mind a few weeks ago, when I ran a 'mental exercise' I learned from Jack Ross in my Creative Writing class at 'Atenisi. I asked my students to close their eyes, relax their postures and minds, and imagine themselves wandering beyond the ramshackle outer suburbs of Nuku'alofa into that region of dense plantations, relict rain forest, and isolated villages known on Tongatapu as 'uta, or the bush. I sent the students on a path across an unweeded field, through a grove of old banyans, and up a hill (by putting this detail into their waking dream I broke the rules of literal geography: Tongatapu's only hill sits close to the centre of Nuku'alofa. Despite the fact that it only rises sixty metres above sea level, this ancient fort is often called Mount Zion).

Eventually I asked the dreamers to imagine a clearing with a building in its centre, look through a window in the building, and open their eyes and write about what they had seen. I had worried that the whole exercise might seem contrived and ridiculous, but the class entered into it with an intensity I hadn't observed in New Zealand. Eyes opened slowly and unwillingly, and whole pages were hurriedly covered with writing.

During another Creative Writing class I read students one of the most famous passages from Epeli Hau'ofa's satirical novel Kisses in the Nederends. Hau'ofa's protagonist wakes one morning with a bad pain in his anus, and consults, over the weeks and months which follow, a series of faith healers, gurus, physicians, and psychiatrists in search of a cure for his problem. In the passage I read aloud, the long-suffering hero is told about a dream which supposedly points to the nature of his pain. According to this dream, the human body is filled with tuktuks, tiny greedy creatures divided into two antagonistic tribes, whose occasional wars cause discomfort to their hosts. The upper tuktuks, or uppertuks for short, live in the brain, and both despise and colonise the lowertuks, who dwell in the body's bowels and erogenous zones:

It was the brain tribes who invented the ranking system, claiming that since they were the only ones who could see, smell and hear things outside their body-world because of their commanding proximity to its major apertures, and since that they lived in the loftiest territories, far above the muck in the abdomen and the filth in the anal region, they were the best and cleanest tuktuks of all. Uppertuks said that the worst, nastiest, dirtiest, smelliest, vilest and generally the most beastly tuktuks were those who occupied the largely swampy territories of the arse. The most degenerate, horny, porno-brained, disgustingly obscene, perverted and generally most licentiously abandoned and loathsome were tuktuks who lived in the genital region...

Kisses in the Nederends is a determinedly symbolic work, and it is not too hard to interpret the conflict between the tuktuks of the north and south in historical and political terms.

When I told her that my reading from Nederends had gotten only a muted response from the students, my wife explained that Hau'ofa wasn't really as funny as I thought, and suggested that the students probably saw me, in spite of my bald head and pedagogical pretensions, as a sniggering, dirty-minded schoolboy. That night Epeli Hau'ofa appeared in one of my dreams. When I woke up I wrote a poem to record what I imagined he had to say. Now I can't remember the dream except through the poem.

I Dreamed I Saw Epeli Hau'ofa Last Night

Don't tell me that literature isn't popular,
when every arsehole composes
on toilet paper. Keep a diary,
that's my advice. A diary is a tunnel
forwards through time, a slowly exploding star
whose light will wash over windshields
in six decades' time, when it is too late
to escape. I write what I like

about what I hate: potholed roads,
ministers in limousines, the cork-lined minds
of diplomats, the lead-lined minds
of economists, Rabuka playing golf
in his best khaki and boots.
Satire is slow unreliable revenge.

Nothing changes in Oceania.
The Americans land their fleet of mosquitoes
on one scummed pond after another.
In Tonga the nobles still point with their fists
at whatever they want. It becomes theirs. 
On nights when the surf is loud
beyond my mosquito net, here on the eastern shore of Pulotu,
I dream of the Ashika, its deck passengers thrashing
in a slick of moonlight, its hull swelling and splitting
like a rotten paw paw.
This is still the time for revenge.

Hau'ofa died in 2009, but my dream suggests that he has kept abreast of news from his beloved Oceania. He referred contemptuously to the way that America, under the supposedly progressive presidency of Barack Obama, has reopened many old military bases in the Pacific, as it prepares for a possible confrontation with its new rival China.

In Tonga China is now widely considered the world's number one superpower, and it is Chinese money which is underwriting the latest folly of the local ruling class. After being promised a twenty-five million pa'anga loan from China, the Tongan government recently announced that it was creating a new national domestic airline called Real Tonga.

The fledgling company decided to promote itself by staging a curious show on the streets of Nuku'alofa. Like hundreds of other bemused residents of the city, I watched from the front of my house as a group of young women dressed in red danced to loud pop music on a trailer pulled slowly past by a golf cart. Lumps of what looked like paper mache stuck to the doors of the cart; after a few moments I realised that they were supposed to be wings. Another, more rounded lump had been attached to the front of the golfcart; apparently it represented the front of an airplane. Like a casual litterbug, the pilot of the plane tossed leaflets promoting Real Tonga out of his open-air cockpit.

The strange contraption that laboured through Nuku'alofa's backstreets a few weeks ago is so far the only airplane that Real Tonga has launched. After hearing rumours of the advent of a state-controlled rival, the Kiwi-owned Air Chathams quit operations in Tonga, complaining that the country could only support a single domestic air service. When the Chinese-made planes it had talked of importing failed to show up, Real Tonga was forced to lease the vehicles of Air Chathams and hire the old airline's pilots.

This latest business venture from the elite that controls the Tongan state has brought back memories of the Princess Ashika disaster of 2009. After noticing that a businessman linked to Tonga's pro-democracy movement had established a successful inter-island ferry service, Tonga's ruling class bought a rusty old boat and put it to work. The Ashika wound up on the bottom of the ocean, along with most of its passengers. Although the ferry was replaced by a new and robust ship donated by Japan, many Tongans remain nervous about travelling by sea. Now the shambles that is Real Tonga is making them worry about taking to the air.

I hope Epeli visits me again, and brings happier news.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, March 18, 2013

'Opeti Taliai and the art of unwrapping

I've whinged about some of the discomforts that Tonga can present to a palangi accustomed to a middle class lifestyle in a temperate nation like New Zealand - discomforts like heat, humidity, roads that turn to scummed lakes after a night's rain, the shortage of books, a super-slow internet 'connection', and huge tough cockroaches that are so relentlessly energetic that after I swat them I'm tempted to roll them over and check whether they run on batteries. I haven't talked enough, though, about the charms of this place - about the super-friendly people, the endless supplies of paw paw and watermelon, the art films and new releases one can buy on DVD for a couple of dollars, the thousand kava circles that convene almost every night, and, most importantly, the gentle tempo of life.

The languid quality of Tongan time allows for a feast of talk. In Auckland conversation is something that happens over a coffee or beer, in fragments of time found between work commitments; in Tonga work takes place in the gaps between conversation. In Auckland I tend to see friends only once every few weeks or months, for an hour or so, and fire questions I have been saving up at them; in Tonga I am able to talk for hours every day and night with my colleagues at the 'Atenisi Institute and other interesting people, over a bowl of kava or a meal of barbequed meat. I'm learning as much here by talking as I learned from reading in Auckland.

This is the first of a series of interviews I plan to do with people associated with the 'Atenisi Institute. 'Opeti Taliai is the Institute's Dean.

'Opeti: I grew up in Folaha, an ancient village on the shore of Tongatapu's Fanga'uta lagoon. Folaha is divided between Wesleyans and Catholics; I grew up in the Catholic side of the village, where houses look east towards Lapaha, the ancient capital of Tonga and the spiritual centre of our Catholic minority. When I paddled my canoe on the lagoon I could look down and see massive blocks of dressed stone, which had fallen centuries ago off barges heading for Lapaha, where elaborate stone monuments were raised on the tombs of kings. Most of the young people of Folaha do not receive an extensive education, but I was sent to Futa Helu's 'Atenisi Institute, where I lived mostly on foraged coconuts and slept in a dormitory. I remember staying up late at night with the other boys, debating the ideas we had been taught during the day by Futa and his colleagues. I taught at 'Atenisi in the late 1970s, before emigrating to New Zealand, where I raised a family, got a PhD, and taught at a couple of universities. Now I'm back, as we rebuild 'Atenisi in the wake of the tragic death of Futa Helu.

Scott: Your scholarly work involves the close examination of ancient words and phrases -

'Opeti: When you study human beings you encounter them through language. I study language to understand people. I don't see a difference between linguistics and certain other academic disciplines, like anthropology and history. Language and culture are so close that they can't be separated. I was introduced to the structural, ahistorical study of language in the University of Auckland's linguistics department, but I was never interested in that sort of restricted examination - never interested in the analysis of the structure of sentences removed from their cultural and historical contexts. When linguistics was established as an independent discipline by De Saussure it parted company with the older field of philology, which was and is preoccupied with the history of words, and has a method that is very influenced by philosophy. I regret the separation of linguistics from philology, and in some ways consider myself a philologist. I had a very difficult time in that linguistics department, but then I met the social anthropologist Max Rimoldi. He was very comfortable with my approach to language, and mentored me. My PhD, which was finished in the anthropology department of Massey University, looks at the history of Tonga and its neighbours using a method I call the unwrapping of language. I unwrap words and stories and look at what has been hidden inside. To do this unwrapping you must understand something of the culture of Tonga, and also the histories and cultures of nations like Fiji and Samoa. In the first appendix of my PhD I provided translations of some of the ancient myths of Tonga, which are often expressed in verse. I unwrap those myths in the main body of the thesis.

Scott: How does your work relate to that of other scholars of the Tongan past?

'Opeti: I am in some ways criticising the approach of Queen Salote to Tongan history. She talked to the scholar Elizabeth Bott about Tonga's traditional stories, and Bott wrote up those conversations in the book Tongan Society. But Salote focused her attention on the Tu'i Kanokupolu, which is only one of Tonga's three dynasties - and is of course the dynasty which has been in power for more than a century and a half. Salote rejected some of Tonga's oldest myths, on the grounds that they were really Samoan. But my argument is that it is impossible to make a wall between early Tongan, Samoan, and Fijian history. Salote's privileging of Tu'i Kanokupolu and her nationalist approach to history were both motivated by her desire to legitimate her family's rule. She misrepresented the past for political purposes.

Scott: I'm very interested in your criticism of nationalism in Tongan historiography, because it seems to me to resonate with a trend in New Zealand. I've been reading Tony Ballantyne's book Webs of Empire, and I notice that it argues against treating the nineteenth century history of my country as a conflict between two isolated peoples, Maori and Pakeha. In recent decades many influential people have begun to talk about New Zealand as a bicultural nation, founded by an agreement of Maori with Pakeha, but Ballantyne warns about turning this fashion into an assumption about past beliefs. He notes that, in the nineteenth century, most Pakeha thought of themselves as citizens of a global empire, and drew parallels between their experiences and those of white settlers in places like India. Ballantyne wants to break out of what he sees as an insular approach to New Zealand history and place the country's past in a global context. I think a number of other scholars are trying to do the same thing. A young historian named Felicity Barnes, for example, recently published a book which considered nineteenth and twentieth century London as a New Zealand city...

'Opeti: I am trying to put aside Salote's nationalism and unwrap some of the oldest Tongan stories.

Scott: Can you me an example of this unwrapping?

'Opeti: Let me use the story of Ahoeitu, the first king of the Tu'i Tonga dynasty. Ahoeitu grew up without a father, until he asked his mother about his ancestry. She told him that his father was the god Tangaloa, and showed him a causarina tree he could climb to reach Tangaloa's realm in the sky. He climbed the tree and met his father, who was delighted to see him, and his half-brothers, who became angry after he beat them in a game of sika, or darts. Ahoeitu's brothers were so angry that they killed him, cut off his head and dumped it in some bushes, and ate the rest of his body. When he found out about this murder Tangaloa was outraged. He made his sons vomit up Ahoeitu's body and retrieve his head, then reconstructed the boy and sent him back down to earth to rule as the first Tu'i Tonga. Ahoeitu's half-brothers were made to serve him. I believe that the Ahoeitu myth represents the beginning of the notions of guilt and duty in Tongan society. Fatonia is our word for duty, and whenever we have a funeral or wedding, or another important social event, people do their duty - they provide food and other goods as gifts to relatives and to people of superior rank, and so on. Ahoeitu's brothers pioneered fatonia.

Scott: There seem to be parallels between the story of Ahoeitu, and its legacy of guilt, and the Christian notion of original sin -

'Opeti: There are parallels. I have argued that duty has a dual purpose - it forces submission, but also binds society and allows for a certain amount of material progress. Tonga is the most contradictory society in the world. Everything here has a double aspect. That's why the literary device of heliaki - the saying of one thing and meaning of another - is so important.

Scott: Niel Gunson has argued that the traditional Tongan sense of time is cyclical and shamanic, rather than linear. I notice a strong emphasis on the cyclical nature of history in your work. Do you get this idea from the Tongan past, or from Western thinkers with a cyclical view of the world?

'Opeti: When I read Vico I immediately saw parallels with Tonga. And it may be that this is a sign of the universality of Vico's ideas. They are true in Tonga and in Italy...I use Western thinkers to help me understand Tonga. I like Heraclitus' sense of flux, his notion of the world as continually changing, and I see Hegel's dialectic as similar, in practice, to heliaki. I admire Zizek and his use of Hegel. The 'Atenisi aproach is about blending ideas from different traditions. I like the Greeks - but I don't think that they can do it on their own. Nor can the Tongans. Let us synthesise what is best.

Scott: It's interesting that some scholars committed to developing an anti-elitist, 'bottom-up' view of the past have nevertheless rejected oral history. EP Thompson distrusted stories transmitted by tongue because of their endlessly mutable nature. He was troubled by the way that a story purporting to tell us about a century-old event could have been revised five minutes before a scholar recorded it. He preferred to use old texts. And Henry Reynolds has relied on texts rather than Aboriginal oral tradition while researching his histories of the conquest of Australia. Does the mutability of oral tradition trouble you?

'Opeti: I see history and myth as the same thing. History becomes myth. What was history in the days of Heraclitus is today myth. Our world will become myth.

Scott: What is the relationship between the sort of work you're doing and archaeology? Patrick Vinton Kirch argues, on the basis of the excavations he and his colleagues have done across the Pacific, that the old distinction between prehistory and history - between the past recorded by non-written means, like campfire stories and songs, and the past recorded in text - is no longer tenable. Kirch claims that he can read a ruin in the jungle or a buried fishing village as precisely as he would an old document. Do contemporary archaeological findings potentially make oral history redundant, by providing more reliable and copious information about the past?

'Opeti: I don't find Kirch demoralising! In my PhD don't reject all his work but do challenge him on some points involving old words.

Scott: Could you explain what you mean by the name Samoa'a-toa, which makes regular appearances in your PhD?

'Opeti: I see Samoa-a-toa as an ancient society that existed in Tonga, Samoa and several other parts of the Pacific. It was egalitarian, and was eventually usurped by something hierarchical - the ancestor of today's very stratified Tongan society. The myth of Ahoeitu may record a moment in this usurpation. In Samoa-a-toa the fish was the iconic animal, and the coast was the focus of habitation. Later, in Tonga, the pig usurped the fish, and people moved inland.

Scott: I detect a sort of melancholy in your discussions of the demise of Samoa-a-toa, and the rise of a hierarchical, martial society - it's almost as though you are lamenting the fall of man from an ideal to a corrupt state -

'Opeti: Not really. I'm doing history. I believe in the importance of objectivity.

Scott: As you know, this is a point where we disagree. I don't like the word 'objectivity', because I think that all research, even the most rigorous research, must have a partly subjective quality. I agree with Gadamer that we cannot avoid bringing our own preoccupations and presuppositions to the study of any subject: that we need these things, in fact, to give the subject a background against which is it comprehensible.

'Opeti: It is always hard to limit the interpretations of your findings. 'Atenisi traditionally encourages its students to answer the question 'What is the case?' rather than the question 'What is to be done?' The instrumentalisation of thought is rejected. But I would add that a scholar can assist progressive forces in his or her society by seeking objectivity. By providing a true picture of reality, he or she can allow for the formulation of correct strategies and tactics. Futa Helu was able to assist in the founding of Tonga's pro-democracy movement because he had an accurate understanding of Tongan society. Let me give another example. We are entering an era of globalisation. We may seek to protect vulnerable nations like Tonga from the negative aspects of globalisation, but to do that we must avoid nationalist myth-making, and the illusion of invulnerability it can give, and have an accurate picture of the world.

Scott: What pieces of scholarship are you working on this year?

'Opeti: I want to revise my PhD for publication, and I want to write an essay for the literary journal brief about 'Pieta', a poem by Queen Salote. Pieta is the Tongan word for piety, and Salote's poem explores the rivalry between Tonga's Catholic majority, which is associated with the ancient Tu'i Tonga dynastic line and the ancient capital at Lapaha, and its Wesleyan majority, which includes the present ruling class...

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, March 09, 2013

A message from Venus

When I was a kid one of my favourite books was an illustrated novel called Kings of Space, in which WE Johns, the incorrigibly jingoistic but occasionally visionary creator of that arch-imperialist schoolboy Biggles, sends a team of doughty Britons to Venus and Mars in a flying saucer cobbled together by an eccentric inventor.

Johns depicts Mars as a desert world of empty cities and red winds, but his Venus is a realm of steaming swamps, endless rain, and very muddy dinosaurs. When the Brits emerge from their saucer onto this febrile world, they are almost knocked down by the size and force of the raindrops that strike every inch of their bodies. The rain is so heavy and so relentless that Johns' characters fear they will drown if they spend too long on the green planet.

I've been thinking about WE Johns' Venus for the last couple of weeks, as rain has fallen, morning, noon and night, on Nuku'alofa, and on the rest of the soggy island of Tongatapu. At first the rain, which is amplified very effectively by Nuku'alofa's corrugated architecture, was an exotic novelty, a reminder that we had left the dry summer of temperate New Zealand behind and arrived on an accredited tropical island. After three or four days, though, the rain had become oppressive, like a melancholy but talkative friend who insisted on hanging about.

After five or six days, the rain had become a normal, predictable feature of life in this city, like the utes that speed up from the docks in the early evening full of fresh fish and salesmen blowing whistles, or the evening prayers on public television. After fourteen days, I am disinclined to believe in the finitude of the storm falling on us. The notion that the rain will stop falling and the sky lighten to blue seems theoretical, at best.

If this storm were falling on a New Zealand city, then a state of emergency would long ago have been declared. The puddles the size of Olympic swimming pools that cover roads and yards would have been drained like wounds; the houses where dirty water waits at the door, like a sinister and persistent salesman, would be defended by sandbags. In Nuku'alofa, though, people adapt to the weather, rather than resist it. I'm sitting at my dining table, while 'Opeti Taliai delivers a lecture on Karl Marx's theory of history to a group of 'Atenisi students who have sloshed down deluged streets to get to our lounge. This morning I offered lectures on Creative Writing and Modern Pacific History in the same cosy space. The campus of the 'Atenisi Institute is underwater, and closed until further notice. Sisi'uno and Atolomake Helu, who live between lily-covered ponds on the outskirts of the campus, have decamped with their five lovely kids to the upstairs section of our house. Other refugees are settling into a church hall down the road. 'Aikilisi Pohiva, the long-time leader of Tonga's pro-democracy movement, has been spotted driving his modest car through the drainless flooded streets of Nuku'alofa's low-lying suburbs, and newspapers have begun to criticise the government for allowing so much of its capital to turn into a lake.

Humans may be suffering from the storm, but hogs are prospering. Tonga's hogs have always been arrogant and intractable. In the Vava'u Code of 1839, the country's first written set of laws, Taufa'ahau, who was soon to be the first king of the modern unified state of Tonga, insisted that hogs be kept in pens, and thus prevented from blocking thoroughfares and rampaging through plantations. Fines were prescribed for Tongans who failed to restrain their pigs. One hundred and seventy-four years later, hogs still roam unhindered through Tonga's towns, villages and countryside. The current storm has emboldened the beasts, so that they slosh impudently into the path of vehicles, rub their tusks against church fences, and grunt lasciviously at passing humans. I fear open insurrection.

Here's a sort of rain-journal I've been keeping:

Notes in a Rainy Season

you're trying to teach me Tongan, Lose,
but all I've heard, for a fortnight,
is the iron
of rain
on Kolomotu'an rooves


"all this bad weather see
it comes from
Samoa, along with a
a fleet


when the rain changes gear
the taxis change gear


rain filling potholes
the government wouldn't mend


potholes like
licked clean
by Kolomotu'a's


at three o'clock
onto the wrong side
of the mosquito net,
hearing the wind land its waves
on our bedroom wall
I wonder:

what happens
to the floodwater
in old newspaper photos,
to the mint-green oceans
on a wall-chart
in a derilect school:

do they ever drain?


days! on
like that drunken
Wesleyan deacon
Deuteronomy -


Folaha's church fights back,
fires pigeons
from its cannon-spire
into an enemy cloud


lying on our porch
looking out at the rain
the 'Atenisi boys play AC/DC
Van Halen
in the lamplit distance
coconut trees shake their heads
like metallers in a mosh pit


half-asleep, kept
by mosquitoes,
I dream
that the creatures
are not malevolent,
not even neutral,
but allies,
buzzing from one wound
to the next,
as well as looting,
mixing the blood of men
and women
of brown
affirming the oneness
of humanity:


later, fully asleep,
I dream
I am awake,
swinging a stone
axe, esiki,
at the insects,
who swarm
and disperse
in my study,
briefly shaping
the characters
of an unknown language


this church is like a sick man
trying endlessly to clear his throat:
water goes noisily through its gutters,
then falls six feet
onto consecrated ground -


into a mudpool
where hogs rear
like rampant lions

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, March 01, 2013

The Jumping Boy

Our son Aneirin (Aneirin Henry Wagstaff Hamilton, if you must know) is one year old today, but he has already proved himself something of a party animal.

Back in January Skyler and I travelled to an old-fashioned, slightly decrepit beach resort on an obscure part of the Northland coast, along with a dozen other young couples we met on our antenatal course and have since befriended. We all had babies all nearing one, so we decided to throw a collective birthday bash for them at the little seaside colony. It was the loudest party I'd been to since I was an eighteen year-old living in Papakura, where Ozzy Osborne and Led Zep are regarded as cultural monuments.

We held another shindig for Aneirin in the Auckland Domain, that bucolic legacy of imperialist war, a few days before leaving for Tonga. Family members and friends keen to give the little lad a kiss and give us a few parting words - to warn us about the food that is sold in Nuku'alofa's main market, or ask us curiously whether the 'Tongese' still included any 'uncontacted tribes' protected by 'impenetrable jungle', or to enquire about whether an archaeologist/psychologist/poet/linguist would be welcome to drop by 'Atenisi campus and give a lecture or two (our answer, of course, was always 'yes', and we're looking forward to distinguished writer-scholars Murray Edmond and Richard Von Sturmer dropping anchor at 'Atenisi later this semester).

Now we've decided to mark Aneirin's official birthday by hiring a car and heading for one of the shelves of sand on Tongatapu's coast. Thanks to everybody who gave him presents at the Domain, or sent gifts through the post to Nuku'alofa.

I remember asking Brett Cross, whose daughter is eight months or so older than Aneirin, whether the first year of parenthood went fast or slow. "It passes very quickly - and, sometimes, very, very, slowly" Brett replied. I know what he meant. Anybody who doubts the claims of philosophers like Bergson and Heidegger that time is a partly subjective thing, and can flow hot or cold depending on the exhaustion or exhilaration of the individual human consciousness, simply hasn't experienced parenthood.

Here's Geoffrey Hill, my favourite living English-language poet, saluting childhood from the distance of old age:

The Jumping Boy


Here is the jumping boy, the boy
who jumps as I speak.

He is at home on the king's highway,
in call of the tall house, its blind
gable end, the trees - I know this place...


He leaps because he has serious
joy in leaping. The girl's

eyes no way allowed for, or else
she is close in convert and we
are to know that, not knowing how.

I'll bet she worships his plebeian
bullet head, Hermes' winged
plimsolls, the cracked toy tin hat

held on by elastic. His is winning
a momentous and just war
with gravity.


This may be levitation. I
could do that. Give my remembrance
to his new body. These episodes occur.


Jump away, jumping boy; the boy I was
shouts go.