head and shoulders photograph of a 17 year-old Tongan woman, owning it
Caitlin Jenkins (Photo: Justin Latif)

A poem for South Auckland

Papatoetoe High School student Caitlin Jenkins just won the IIML National Schools Poetry Award with her poem, ‘South’.

Before we get to the poem, the judge’s notes:

“Placing in this competition was my highest aspiration as a teenager circa 2013,” said judge Tayi Tibble, calling ‘South’ “the standout and winning poem from this year’s entries.”

Wrote Tibble: “It opens with a line that I kept repeating to myself for days after I read it: ‘our streets grow tread marks in the pattern of tapa cloth.’ The opening sentence alone contains everything that, as a poet with my particular positionality, I connect with, and it sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is filled with references that honour a diverse but distinctive set of cultural histories: ‘police siren jams but not the jawsh 385 type’ and ‘wake them up at dawn with our cheehoos.’ It’s both ancient and modern. It’s cultural and urban. It is very localised and rich in specific details — ‘who knew that your last meal would be a $2.50 Big Ben pie’ — but it also leaves room for the fantastical — ‘a $2.50 Big Ben pie and a bottle of stars?’

“Caitlin cleverly explores the relationship between people and place, tangata and whenua, by personifying South Auckland, while also challenging the reader to understand that to many outsiders, the inhabitants of South Auckland are ‘but a direction of Auckland’s map.’ The poem reminded me of a chant, or a prayer. It hit a perfect chord of being both staunch and critical but also forgiving and hopeful. Out of many incredible and powerful entries, it was the poem that felt most in conversation with itself, and in that sense complete. Congratulations and much admiration to Caitlin.”

South

our streets grow tread marks in the pattern of tapa cloth,

the men in blue roam them recreating

da Vinci –

bronze skin mona lisa.

who knew your last supper would be a $2.50 Big Ben pie and a bottle of stars –

will we ever breathe the same freedom

as our brothers north and west?

cause oceania’s waves feel a little too familiar in the backseat

gps broken cause somehow it only circles round these streets –

south,

you are but a direction on auckland’s map,

folded tightly into the plastic corners of

red and blue led lights,

police siren jams but not the jawsh 685 type

… forever branded as the bottom

the south of new zealand …

but it’s okay,

we’ll tau’olunga on their disrespect

wake them up at dawn with our cheehoos

breathe a brown colour palette back into their colourless minds

love us enough to not need it from anyone else

grow with each other

be strong with each other

block out their white noise with white noise

fill the cracks of Aotearoa’s pavements with more reasons to love south …

and put us back on the map …

unfold us out of the plastic corners of red and blue led lights

help reverse the damage of our roots with the healing of our new generations

cause leaves still bloom even more beautiful after the fall

for when our streets grow tread marks

we’ll repaint them with coconut oil and fala paongo,

when the world wants our faces to kiss the concrete

we’ll still be safe in the arms of papatūānuku

cause when things go south –

we’ll deal with them like south –

with the love our roots nourish us in …

bronze skin mona lisa,

who knew your last supper would be a feast of the colonised minds …

undo the bleaching of your brown colour palette

refill them with all shades of you

cause no direction will define where we’re really from,

south

 

Read more of the finalists’ poems here




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