Thursday, October 21, 2010

Amidst taonga

The ongoing discussion about the rules surrounding the viewing of taonga at Te Papa and other museums has reminded me of the time I spent knocking about the Maori Court at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and of the extraordinary power - aesthetic, political, and (according to some) spiritual - that the Court's huge collection of taonga exerts on many of the people who spend time in its presence.

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.


Anonymous Rainer Maria Rilke said...

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke

11:55 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's the point of posting poetry? Really? In this day and age?

1:51 pm  
Anonymous Jono said...

I have never sterilised a shovel (or a spade). I did use a dirty toothbrush last week but the object of my attentions turned out to be pua'a, not pakeha.

I remember visiting the Field Museum in Chicago, after six months working in New Mexico. I walked up to the big slab of pounamu mounted next to Ruatepupuke and touching it, felt the warmth of home and tears in my eyes as a bitter wind blew in off Lake Michigan. I have never felt so close to home, or so far away as in that moment.

Anyway, thanks for allowing my day to end with this Scott; reading your blog is always a pleasure.

11:08 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Interesting how so many go silent in the face of poetry or language. As before the prospect of death or sex. This is it's fearful power.

12:44 am  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks Jono. I'm going up to the islands again shortly and, if you are in Auckland and felt like being bought a few free beers, I'd love to ask to ask you about your time doing research in American Samoa and similar spots, and particularly about hill forts and monumental stone architecture.

I'm going back to 'Eua, and, even though I am not and have no intention of pretending to be an archaeologist, I thought I'd try and visit the ancient forts locals told me are located in its highlands. As far as I can tell from a search of the literature no one has ever done a study of them: I find this baffling!

I've been twisting Edward Asby's arm urging him to do his PhD on 'Eua, but I don't think I've persuaded him yet. If I can get some juicy photos I might have more of a chance...anyway, if you fancy a beer my e mail is

1:07 am  
Anonymous Jono said...

I get down to Auckland for work every so often and will definitely take you up on your offer.

We just had a week on Tongatapu and would have loved to have visited E'ua but maybe on our next visit when my son will be a bit older. I look forward to reading some more about it through your eyes. Regarding the lack of research on late polynesian prehistory I am afraid that is pretty common - Lapita sites certainly get the lions share of attention...It doesnt hurt that those sites tend to be near nice beaches and involve digging in nice soft sand. Getting up onto the high ground and poking around forts is too much like hard work. That being said, there is a decent amount of literature on the Fijian forts although its getting old, and DOug Kennett has done some interesting work on Rapa in the Australs recently.

You and your readers might be interested in, a Trust established by a lawyer/historian relative of mine. He is a good Pukekohe boy, but not a good 'ol boy, so you may have something in common.

8:45 am  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks for the link Jono: I'll take a look. I read a very interesting essay(I'm sure you know it) by Simon Best
called At the Halls of the Mountain Kings, which compared the forts of Fiji, Samoa, and, to some extent, Tonga (folks that are interested can go to the Journal of the Polynesian Society site at and search for Best's piece in the journal's online archive).

Best did a very good job, in the opinion of this amateur, in showing how all sorts of inferences about the nature of a society can be drawn from an expert analysis of its forts.

Best's piece showed that there had been work done on the forts of Tongatapu and Vava'u, and even of uninhabited 'Ata - Atholl Anderson went there in the '70s - but not on those of 'Eua, despite the fact that the forts of 'Eua would, I am sure, be far better preserved than those of flat, densely populated Tongatapu.

Of course, 'Eua was settled at about the same time as Tongatapu - they've even found Lapita pottery there, I think - and was well-integrated into the Tongan proto-state which emerged in medieval times. Doesn't this mean that we could 'read' some important facts about Tongan society as a whole from the ancient forts of 'Eua?

Given the fact that Tonga was a massively important society in ancient Polynesia, and that (following the analysis of Patrick Kirch) the Tongans arguably pushed Polynesian culture to an extreme of social complexity, I find the neglect of 'Eua saddening. Perhaps, though, as you say, it's a matter of digging in soft sand, and being close to the beach!

Were you doing archaeological work on Tongatapu? Did you visit Lapaha/Mua?

11:20 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where is the launch of the poetry book you are editing? I'd like to go if I'm in town, but when is it and where? Looking forward to reading your selection. John K.

1:19 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi John,

the launch of Private Bestiary, the collection of Kendrick Smithyman's 'lost' poems I've been editing and annotating and generally mucking around with, will be on the 17th of November at Old Government House in the University of Auckland, from six o'clock: I'll be putting ads up here and elsewhere and sending out invitations soon (flick me an e mail with your address and I can send you one). There should be at least some free booze and food at the event, though the way some of these literary types consume the stuff, it may not last long!

Jack Ross'll be launching a new, made-in-Italy edition of Smithyman's translations from Italian poets like the commie partisan Quasimodo at the same event: I'll have some details about that up here soon, too.

1:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay thank you a lot for this information. Which publishing company is bringing out these Italian translations of Kendrick Smithyman? K.S. must have been a wide knowledgeable man. John K.

10:29 am  
Blogger maps said...

Hi John,

I'm not sure which firm is doing the reprint, but you the first edition of Smithyman's Italian translations was published by The Writers Group, which is also responsible for the literary journal brief. You can read a review of the first edition here:

1:35 am  
Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

The reprint of Smithyman's Italian poems (with a new introduction by Marco Sonzogni of Vic Uni's Italian Dept) is being issued by the Italian publisher Edizioni Joker [] in hardcopy and as an e-book (Yes, I know, "Joker" - but the pun probably isn't so apparent in Italian ...)

I have to say that having the book reissued by an Italian publisher does seem like vindication that Smithyman's translation work really is an important part of his oeuvre rather than some strange late aberration. Even if you can't make it to the launch. John, copies will be available from me or Marco or from the Joker website.

8:30 am  

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