I thought I'd post a poem I published in the literary journal brief back in September 2008, shortly after I'd finished working at Auckland museum. Like the piece I published earlier this year in Landfall, 'Te Kakano Information Centre' has been mistaken, on account of its first person narrative and use of prose, for a piece of autobiography, or for an autobiographical short story. I'd argue that it is a poem narrated by a character who is considerably odder even than me. As I understand him, the protagonist-narrator of 'Te Kakano Information Centre' has grown so attached to the taonga of the Maori Court, and so alienated from the rest of humanity, that he has come to feel closer to the carved Gods and archetypes he spends his working hours with than he does to his contemporaries. He sometimes actually resents visitors to the museum, because they interfere with his communion with the taonga of the court.
Although he - why do I say he, and not she? - probably believes he has a very profound understanding of the taonga, and of Maori culture in general, the narrator of the poem arguably has an attitude which owes more to European fantasies than to the lives and worldviews of the people who produced the artefacts he helps protect. Perhaps he is a fan of writers like Paul Bowles and Bruce Chatwin, who have a tendency to contrast idealised indigenous cultures with the supposedly decadent modern world, or of a painter like Gauguin, who pioneered the same attitude when he fled Europe for Polynesia in the nineteenth century?
With his alienated, individualistic view of the world, the protagonist of the poem is a little like a highbrow version of the tourists I observed making exclusive use of little pieces of the Tongan coast earlier this year. Each of the tourists had paid to acquire, for a week or so, their own little fale, their own hundred square metres or so of sand, and their own fragment of sea. Both locals and other tourists were forbidden to intrude upon these private kingdoms. When I talked to a couple of the beach-hirers on the boat taking them to their island, they enthused about how much they enjoyed the 'Tongan way of life'. That phrase struck me as bizarre, because the real Tongan way of life seemed to me to be relentlessly social. Tongans seemed to go about in noisy crowds; I seldom saw one standing alone, let alone lazing about alone on a piece of beach cordoned off from the rest of the world.
For all his self-delusions, the narrator of the poem does seem to have established a genuine, and powerful, relationship with the taonga around him. He reveres the taonga, after a fashion, and watches over them. Should we chastise him for his misunderstandings, or admire his fervour? Or am I wrong completely, and is the narrator's alienation from his fellow humans an understandable reaction to the society he lives in? Is he right in seeking solace from his society in the artefacts of an age untarnished by modernity?
Te Kakano Information Centre
It’s a good idea to check the Frequently Asked Questions file, before your day’s work begins.
I like to get there early, to knock on the small red door in the museum’s east wall and to wait for the sound of the custodian’s keys climbing the stairs. The feather cloak puffs its chest as I detour around the listing waka to the smoked glass wall of the Centre. I flip the switches, watch the screens fade from black to blue, slide Hirini Melbourne into the player, listen to a flute’s notes picking their way through deep bush, like fantails leaping from stump to branch, making for the clearing and the raw morning light. Here come the first intruders. The small boy skipping ahead, a scout, his sisters either side of Mum, unfolding identical maps, then Dad, whistling silently, looking hopelessly around, turning the wallet over in one hand. They are the dead. We are alive. Now the older girl reaches toward a pou dragged from the drained swamp at Paterangi, strokes the head of Tane, his gouged eye and split jaw, the smooth wood where an ear was, the three webbed fingers that cover his mouth. She stops, turns on her heels. ‘Don’t think we’re supposed to touch the carvings, Mum.’
Can I take a photo of my kids in the waka?
Sample answer: Kao. If visitors get into the waka they will diminish its life force.
They look old, they look tired, like the faces that lean out of doors and windows on the main drag through Selwyn Retirement Village, whenever the ambulance or the hearse backs quietly out of the hospital gates. They look older, they look more tired now, in the middle of pneumonia season, even though the small window seventy-three feet away has been permanently sealed, and the temperature is never more or less than twenty point five degrees. Did they look younger when they posed for Goldie, squeezing into those old cloaks, sucking those stinking pipes?
The kids would ignore them, if it were not for the thick rope barrier, and the sign in big red letters, and the man in a cheap blue suit reading Best Bets. And the alarm. Usually the man in the powder-blue suit looks up in time, and they scatter, but sometimes he is slumped back in the chair, snoring silently, and
one of the bolder boys is able to sidle past, dangle a foot under the rope, and run away squealing as the alarm sounds. Now the Americans stumble out of the meeting house, out of Hotunui, acquired by the museum in 1929, gifted by Ngati Awa to Ngati Maru, on the occasion of a wedding linking the two tribes, with big pink hands over their ears, and skip across the Court, and stop, and stand beside the waka in their socks.
‘Is there a fire?’
‘Is that a bomb, gaddam it? Royce, we gotta get outa here.’
‘I know. I’m going back for my shoes.’
‘Shoes! Get your shoes later. Let’s go. To the cafe, at least. Find out
what’s happening here.’
Where are the shrunken heads?
Sample answer: Te Moko Mokai are not accessible to the public.
‘Heard you answer a question, about carving. Ka pai. But it’s a mistake, to talk about making an image. The image is already there. The shape is slumbering in the wood. Like a child, inside the belly.’
He pulled up his shirt, rubbed the gut, grinned.
‘We believe that the wood is waiting.’
Waiting for the axe, waiting for the carver’s drill? Waiting for the paint - red ochre, a little black ochre, mixed with the spleen of the shark a storm beached at Orere Point? Waiting for the archaeologists with their sterilised shovels and dirty toothbrushes, for the tarpaulin teepee at the edge of the dig? Waiting for the dirty glass case in the ethnology storage room, for Spotless Enterprises casuals who drop to their knees twice a week, wiping the cases in the Maori Court automatically, efficiently, the way they clean the porcelain bowls at the bottom of the stairs beside the entrance?
‘We believe that the wood always knows its fate.’
Can you really make bacon out of Kiwis?
Sample answer: Kao. You have been misinformed.
I was checking my e-mail when the wailing began. I thought it was a part of one of the shows they run twice daily, in the theatre beside the meeting house. What is that haunting melody? Sample answer: that is ‘Pania’s Lament’, a traditional Maori song, performed as it was hundreds of years ago. The wailing came closer; I closed my inbox.
‘I lost my little boy. I lost him. Please! I’ve been looking everywhere. I lost him.’
We hurried past cases of taiaha and godsticks.
‘His father brought him brought him here last Christmas, he loved it, he’s been nagging me to bring him back. I’ve looked everywhere.’
He was standing in a patch of shadow, between the feather cloak and Tane. When he saw us coming he bared his teeth, then poked his tongue out ferociously. She blew her nose then picked him up.
‘Don’t touch! You can’t touch me Mummy! Says on the sign. Says. Says ON DIS-PLAY. ON DIS-PLAY! Says DO NOT TOUCH! DO NOT TOUCH!’
He kept on screaming as his mother carried him out of the Maori Court.
Are all of the exhibits real?
Sample answer: Ae. All of the objects are real.