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Katūīvei: Contemporary Pasifika poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand (Image: Claire Mabey)
Katūīvei: Contemporary Pasifika poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand (Image: Claire Mabey)

BooksApril 21, 2024

How to read a poem: All day on Ma’uke by Rob Hack

Katūīvei: Contemporary Pasifika poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand (Image: Claire Mabey)
Katūīvei: Contemporary Pasifika poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand (Image: Claire Mabey)

The latest in a semi-regular series that breaks down a poem to analyse what it’s really trying to tell us.

In this edition of How to Read a Poem, Vaughan Rapatahana reads All day on Ma’uke by Rob Hack, published in a new anthology called Katūīvei: Contemporary Pasifika poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand, co-edited by Rapatahana, David Eggleton and Mere Taito.

All day on Ma‘uke

Reading notes: Let’s start with the title: All day on Ma’uke. Where is Ma’uke? For those who do not know, Ma’uke is one of the 15 islands that make up the Cook Islands, and is located quite some way from Rarotonga, the largest and most populated of the group. We can assume that this poem in some way will present a day in the life of this island (Rob Hack is of Cook Islands heritage).

There are several words and phrases repeated through this poem, starting with the “All day” of the title and its iteration in several of the following stanzas, which implies an unchanging everyday landscape and seascape.

All day the reef argues with the sea and no dogs bark.
Palm fronds fall across the road where
goats tied with rope bleat
and pigs scatter through tall grass.

Reading notes: There are five stanzas, but they are not uniform in the number of lines or line length. This delivers a somewhat unstructured ambience to this poem, rather reflecting life on Ma’uke itself, as we shall see. There is also no end of line rhyme, further reflecting an air of asymmetry.

“All day” is repeated, while the verb “fall” is iterated later in this poem, as here captured in one of several instances of alliteration, “fronds fall”. This adds to the ambience of what life feels like on Ma’uke. Along with the slightly negative words sprinkling this stanza, such as “argues” and “no” and “scatter through tall grass”, we start to get a mental picture of a place that is struggling to control its environment. After all, those fronds “fall across the road” and the pigs roam free through uncut grass.

Similarly, the powerful metaphor in the first line stresses the potency of the ocean as it argumentatively and aggressively pounds on the reef surrounding the island. All day, every day.

Low cliffs, sand tracks, empty beaches
where tides wash in over the coral shelf
leaving coke cans, plastic bottles, a red jandal.

Reading notes: The sea continues its daily plunder as it surges over the reef outlying this island. The word “empty” adds to the overall mood of a place somewhat devoid of habitation. After all, “no dogs bark” on Ma’uke, as we learned in the first stanza.

Accordingly, what does “coke cans, plastic bottles, a red jandal” imply? Such human detritus evokes once again the power of the sea washing it up and it being left on the sand untended, and not being disposed of by other people. The detritus is, of course, not produced on Ma’uke but is a symbol of the waste products of an “outside” capitalist world being deposited on and despoiling this island thousands of kilometres away.

All day diesel engines hum beside empty drums
coconuts fall, someone on a scooter waves.

Reading notes: An example of internal rhyme in the first line – where “hum” rhymes with “drums” – adds to the steady “all day” diurnal flow: diesel keeps the generators running to provide electricity for the few residents. While the alliterative “someone on a scooter” shows us that there are at least some people on the island, the repetition of “empty” implies absence, and “coconuts fall” further stresses the unrestricted domination of nature.

All day churches are empty and perfect.
Outside, grey graves sink into the soil
like low lying islands in the sea.

Reading notes: Why are the churches “perfect”? The church is a key factor in the life of many Cook Island people. I know this myself, having edited Te Kinakina: E Ngara i te Ngari about the lives of the large Tokoroa-based Cook Island community. The churches look “perfect” because of the considerable care given to their construction and conservation. Yet on Ma’uke, the churches are also “empty” – again “all day”. Given the small population of this island, these churches remain impeccable because there are not many folks to attend them – or the beaches for that matter.

As exemplified here by his clever incorporation of figurative language, Hack gifts us a strong simile, whereby the subsiding graves are compared to diminishing islands being banished by the forces of the “sea”, another repeated word. The effect? We start to think about the island of Ma’uke itself as following the same erosive fate as these sinking sepulchres. This effect is amplified by the alliteration framing the imagery, namely “grey graves sink into the soil /  like low lying islands”. The alliterative play brings a constant cadence to the poem, that – despite the lack of end rhyme – paints the litany of images with a lyrical gloss. Hack’s poem sings its own distinctive mōteatea, here a lament of abdication, rather than a rhyming song of celebration.

On the roofs of abandoned homes rust spreads.
School kids at keyboards see a future elsewhere.

Reading notes: This stanza emphasises the mood of entropy across Ma’uke, as conveyed by the line “On the roofs of abandoned homes rust spreads”. This line echoes the earlier striking image of the grey graves sinking into the earth just like islands sinking into the sea. Ma’uke survives, but marginally, a fact strongly reinforced by the final alliterative line “School kids at keyboards see a future elsewhere” – where the final word captures this vision of “success” being somehow just over the horizon. Namely, the remote island fights to survive, especially when its young people wish to leave, and do so in large numbers, travelling for example, to Tokoroa to set up homes, careers, whānau. To pursue the Western dream, which sadly does not always work out, and which results in a somewhat depleted and deserted homeland. Two hundred and forty-nine people lived on Ma’uke according to the 2021 census, with 25 per cent aged over 60. The lure of Western capitalism and culture decimating indigenous communities which are traditionally incompatible with such inducement. After all, toitū he kāinga, whatu ngarongaro he tangata. Which translates as, while the land remains, the inhabitants are gone and even the land itself is sinking away.

I admire this poem as it so well captures Ma’uke, and – for me – life on some other Pacific Islands. I lived on Nauru (from 1979 to 1981) which back then was prospering with phosphate royalties, yet at the same time was being decimated by Western consortiums as they plundered the phosphate. When I next went to the Republic of Nauru, in 2010, all had changed. Declination had set in and the entropic effect was obvious. Nauru was now so similar to the Ma’uke of Hack’s poem, namely sparse and spartan, given the geniality and generousness of their residents.

Similarly, when I visited Tinian some years ago, in some ways it too could have been Ma’uke – the Americans had completely ignored it after their construction of the airfield that enabled Enola Gay to strafe Japan in World War Two. This airfield is nowadays a jumble of disintegrating buildings, fissured runways, and encroaching native vegetation. All day on Ma’uke replicates such memories; and that constant hum of the diesel-fuelled generators lives ever on in my mind.

Katūīvei Contemporary: Pasifika poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand edited by David Eggleton, Vaughan Rapatahana and Mere Taito (Massey University Press, $40) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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