On the other side of the lagoon
Paul Janman and the 'Atenisi Foundation for the Performing Arts took Tongan Ark to Wellington last weekend, building on their success at the Auckland International Film Festival. The historian Mark Derby, who spent time in Tonga as a young and hungry journalist in the late 1970s, sent me this report from Wellington:
As you may have heard from Paul J, his film screened to a capacity and rapturous audience here last night. Its final seconds, as gleaming and muscular young men moved down both aisles towards the screen in perfect sync with the soundtrack, were in themselves a dramatic triumph. Paul spoke afterwards in his measured and very effective manner, and those I have spoken to who heard him were deeply impressed with the whole production and wish to support its further distribution.
While my friend Paul has been continuing his conquest of the world, I've been pacing about our house in West Auckland with a thick blanket wrapped around me like an ugly ta'ovala and a head full of dihydrocodeine, complaining about the winter weather which agitates the old injury in my left arm, and fantasising about flying north into the tropics. The other day I decided to write a sequence of poems about the land and seascapes of Tonga - about the lagoons and coconut trees and hot mudflats - in the hope that it would transport me north imaginatively.
In his recently published book On Tongan Poetry Futa Helu, the hero of Tongan Ark, describes a genre of poem called laumatanga, which is dedicated to praising the beauty of particular places. Helu notes the intense focus of the laumatanga:
Tongan nature poetry differs from many other poetical traditions in that it is never generalised Nature, never Nature in the abstract, that the poet speaks of or addresses, but it is always a particular manifestation of Nature, concretised Nature, an actual island, a particular beach, a specific lagoon, and so forth. And well it should be, for the Tongan is noted for his concrete-ness (which in some cases is taken to be a weakness in conceptualisation) and his sense of oneness with his locality - his localness.
In one of the many fascinating asides in On Tongan Poetry, Helu contrasts the particularism of the laumatanga with the 'subjectivism' of English Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Blake, who allegedly lost sight of the outer world because they were so preoccupied with their ideas and feelings. Helu argues that in the nineteenth century Tongan poets developed their own 'classical-romantic' style, which allowed them to express some of the same cosmic sentiments as the English romantics without succumbing to subjectivism. If Wordsworth and co. could only have learned from their Tongan contemporaries, Helu sighs, their careers might have taken a different and healthier course.
The poem reproduced below began as an attempt at a laumatanga-like celebration of Fanga'uta, the great lagoon which eats into Tongatapu, the largest island of the Kingdom of Tonga, but soon went astray. I can't, I confess, keep 'subjectivism' out of anything I write.
Tonga's modern and ancient capitals of Nuku'alofa and Mu'a stand on the west and southeast edges of Fanga'uta, but the swamps, plantations, and small villages of the northeastern side of the lagoon feel remote, and are regarded as part of the 'uta' ('bush') regions of Tongatapu.
Thousands of American troops occupied Tongatapu during World War Two, annexing plantations for their camps and airfields and turning locals into their porters. Most of the Americans were whites from the racist deep south of their country, but a few were black. This oppressed minority was dispatched to the northeastern side of Fanga'uta Lagoon, far from the bars of Nuku'alofa.
In more recent times the far side of Fanga'uta has been a favourite playground for archaeologists investigating the Lapita people, who sailed east from Melanesia three or four thousand years ago, settled along the coasts of Samoa and Tonga, and eventually evolved the culture we call Polynesian. The Lapita people left fragments of their pottery, with its delicate white patterns on violent orange grounds, in the mud of Fanga'uta, and a few years ago the Canadian archaeologist David Burley annoyed a lot of Samoans by arguing that Nukuleka, a modest village on the eastern side of the lagoon, was the 'birthplace of Polynesia'.
Field Work on Tongatapu
Can you imagine the Japs landing today
on the eastern side of Fanga'uta lagoon?
Seventy years ago black Yanks were dug in there,
looking through binoculars for the promised migration,
for flocks of Zeros
and humpback-sized subs.
To the north, beyond the lagoon's yawning jaws,
a fleet of islands - Pangaimotu, Fafa, Fukave,
'Atata - performed manoeuvres in the heat-haze,
as another tide made a tactical
withdrawal. Coconut trees shook their learned heads
Today Canadian archaeologists are camped in the east,
at Nukuleka, 'birthplace
of Polynesia'. They dig even deeper
If a cruise ship arrives from Vava'u
and unloads a battalion of the enemy
armed with deckchairs and slabs of beer
then the archaeologists will defend their trench
to the last toothbrush
and the last stone-shard.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]