Image: Toby Morris
Image: Toby Morris

BooksFebruary 27, 2023

How to read a poem

Image: Toby Morris
Image: Toby Morris

Books editor Claire Mabey has some advice for those who have trouble reading poems (which has been happening a bit lately). 

Poetry is a form of literature that creates imagery, expresses ideas, and conveys emotion. US poet laureate Joy Harjo says: “Poetry is so human … poetry is a soul language … it carries the spirit of the people … Some poems can be storytelling poems, and other poems can riff off of a moment and open it up.”

It’s hard to write a good poem. Luckily there are thousands of excellent poems written here in Aotearoa so we have chosen this example from Tusiata Avia at random. Tusiata Avia is one of the very best. Her latest book The Savage Coloniser is a book about colonisation: past, present and future. It’s a book that expresses pain, and anger, and it shows us the impact of history on the present: sometimes by flipping situations around, and making us think – what would happen if? 

Some people have recently struggled to read Avia’s poem 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand. We have printed the poem below and annotated it to help guide your way around the themes, meanings and what it can make us think and feel, and why.

250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand

Hey James,
yeah, you
in the white wig
in that big Endeavour
sailing the blue, blue water
like a big arsehole

How to read notes: This is a poem using simple and direct language. It’s intended to make you engage personally, in the moment. It’s arresting because it calls on “you” to pay attention. There’s also some humour: there’s something comedic in this imagined scenario because the idea of saying to an historic figure – in his white wig, in that “big Endeavour” – the words “big arsehole” and “fuck you, bitch” is funny to think about. It’s funny because it’s bringing together the language of our world today to a point of collision with history: we, the reader, know that this language isn’t what Cook would be used to hearing. What would his wiggy face look like in response? You can imagine a TV director making a great comedy skit of this precise encounter: “When Cook came back”, or something like that. Immediately in this poem, we have two worlds rubbing up against each other. There’s humour, but there’s tension too. This is where you bring into the reading what you know about what happened after James Cook. And if you can’t think of what that is, then in a nutshell it’s that colonisation caused death and destruction on a mass scale. Let’s read on.

I heard someone
shoved a knife
right up
into the gap between
your white ribs
at Kealakekua Bay.
I’m gonna go there
make a big Makahiki luau
cook a white pig
feed it to the dogs

How to read notes: Kapow! We’ve gone right there, to the death of this guy. This is the voice of the poet not wasting time: this is a poem of intention, economy and force. We know there is something big to say here because of this straight up tone. The description is intended to bring us very close to the death of James Cook: “gap between / your white ribs”. It’s also showing us that this happened in a particular place: Kealakekua Bay which is in Hawai’i. James Cook, the spearhead of colonisation, was killed there. The voice of the poem is happy about that: “I’m gonna go there / make a big Makahiki luau” (a big celebratory party). The last two lines are even stronger: “cook a white pig / feed it to the dogs”. This is slightly ambiguous (or vague), but I think the voice of the poem means that white pig is James Cook. This is wish fulfilment, an imagined participation in a historic incident, but the purpose is bigger than that: this poem builds to show us that history is a continuum. The events of the past are felt in the future. The voice of this poem is enacting wishes, revenge, through these words. 

Hey James,
it’s us.
These days
we’re driving round
in SUVs
looking for ya
or white men like you
who might be thieves
or rapists
or kidnappers
or murderers
yeah, or any of your descendants
or any of your incarnations
cos, you know
ay, bitch?
We’re gonna F… YOU UP.

How to read notes: In this chunk of the poem (called a stanza) the “we” is referring to the voice of the poet and her friends/family/the bigger “we” of the community around the voice. When it says “these days / we’re driving around / in SUV’s” the poem is reminding us that the past and present are connected. That line implies the idea that “back then we were X, and now we are Y”. Or in other words: we are still here. The poet uses a list to outline the ways in which James Cook and those who carry the colonising mentality, are arseholes: “thieves / or rapists / or kidnappers / or murderers”. Again, bring what you know to this poem: we know that colonisers did all of those things. We know it still happens. Let’s keep reading.

Tonight, James,
it’s me
Lani, Danielle
and a car full of brown girls
we find you
on the corner
of the Justice Precinct.

How to read notes: now the voice of the poem is giving us more intimate detail. We know the names of the people in the SUV and we know they are “brown girls”. This makes us think of feminism: of the power of women coming together to fight for freedom, for justice. It makes us think of grass roots movements, of family, of sisterhood. This intimacy heightens the tension and the emotion. Then we get the reference to “Justice Precinct” which is a nod to an area in Christchurch. This isn’t essential information but it helps ground this poem in a place: in a colonial city. 

You’ve got another woman
in a headlock
and I’ve got my father’s
pig-hunting knife
in my fist
and we’re coming to get you
sailing round
in your Resolution
your Friendship
your Discovery
and your f…ing Freelove.

The Death of Captain James Cook, F. R. S. at Owhyhee in MDCCLXXIX (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

How to read this poem notes: this passage extends the idea that this is a poem seeking justice for women, not exclusively, but “you’ve got another woman / in a headlock” is an image of violence against women. At this point you could say that Cook in the poem is a metonym for colonisation. That means that the figure Cook as addressed in this poem represents Colonisation at large: inclusive of the violence against people then and the ongoing impact on lives today. We can say this because of the last few lines which are all references to the names of ships that delivered colonisers to Aotearoa. Those names represent the multiplicity that happened: the waves upon waves of people who came to settle in Aotearoa after, and because of, Cook. It’s a real jolt to read “Freelove” knowing this information. It is a clever use of a found, factual word: it jars against the violence just before it, and it makes you think “really, they called a ship Freelove?!” Or if you didn’t know it was the name of a ship (honestly just google stuff you don’t know – that’s a rule that goes for all literature – you’ll always find more layers of understanding) you still snag on that word. It seems weird right? That’s the voice of the poem making sure you’re listening and thinking as you go.

Watch your ribs, James
cos, I’m coming with
who is a god
and Nua‘a
who is king with a knife.

How to read notes: the names listed here are all references to Hawaiian Kings and Queens who were present at Cook’s death. Fun fact: Cook tried to kidnap Kalaniōpu‘u and that is why the affray began, Cook was being incredibly disrespectful, criminal. Nua‘a is the person who stabbed Cook on the beach. This is where time in the poem comes to a deadly serious head. The poet is calling forth historic figures from the past who were among the first to feel the blows of the arrival of the Europeans. The poet is then joining forces with them in her imagination. The poem creates a new time: a spot in words where history and present intersect. The voice of the poem is conjuring herself into a specific moment and once again showing us that the past, present and future are all one.

And then
we’re gonna

How to read notes: This ending brings us back to the refrain: we’re gunna fuck you up for good, bitch. It slaps with that humour, busts with force, with intention to keep on fighting. The poem reinforces to the reader that the fight that Cook started is still happening now. Maybe there’s a struggle happening in you as you read? What does that struggle tell you? Explore that? Own it! Poetry is political, poetry is a direct line into your deepest fears, hopes, dreams, desires. 

This poem is clever because it’s simple on the surface with layers underneath: stretching a long way back, pinging with the now, and resonating with the future. There’s humour, yes, but there’s the enormous weight of history. The lists – the list of the coloniser’s ships; the list of the Kings and Queens – do a lot of work to lightly call forth the heavy past. The repetition, that refrain “we’re gunna fuck you up, bitch” – is loaded with pain, anger and and intention. It might make you uncomfortable but you have to look through the words, look at the history, look at the humour, look at what it’s really trying to say: colonisation still hurts. 

You can see this poem performed live, alongside more more incredible works by Tusiata Avia, at Auckland Arts Festival at The Savage Coloniser Show, 9 – 12 March. 

Keep going!