Sunday, November 06, 2016

Homage to Tongan poets

Here's a poem I have in the forthcoming issue of Landfall, New Zealand's remarkably long-lived literary journal. I wrote the poem in Tonga last April, after a very sad encounter with Siua Ongosia, aka Swingman, the talented and funny rapper-poet. Back in 2013 I had spent some time with Siua, and had watched while Paul Janman and two 'Atenisi students filmed him talking reciting excerpts from an epic poem he had composed about the Amazon. When I tried to get a look at the manuscript of this poem in April Siua explained that he had lost it. He also seemed to have lost many of his memories.

I suppose I didn't stop to wonder about the propriety of writing about Siua because the man is a public figure in Tonga and in the Tongan diaspora. Everyone knows his story; most people know his music.


But some of Siua's friends in the Seleka Club, the bastion of Nuku'alofa's nonconformists and creatives, recently gave me the wonderful news that the rapper had given up drugs, reignited his marriage, and begun to make music again. This sort of extraordinary transformations is not uncommon in Tonga, where notions of self are less cumbersome than in the West, and personae can be worn and cast off easily. Womanisers and boozers can become, overnight, puritanical men of God; implacable critics of the monarchy and the state church can suddenly kneel before the king and at the altar.


I apologise to Siua if this poem perpetuates an outdated image. I hope to meet him again soon in Nuku'alofa, and write about his renewed musical career.


The second part of the poem in Landfall reflects my divided feelings about ancient Tonga. I am fascinated by the beautiful artefacts of the Tongan empire - the layers of cut stone that decorate the graves of kings and their court poets, the sacred birds and knife-like moons incised on deadly and elegant war clubs - but repulsed by the class divisions of that society, and the way thousands of commoners dug gardens and dragged stones for the benefit of a few royals and chiefs. I feel the same way about the glorious but barbaric empires of ancient Egypt and Rome.



Homage to Tongan Poets
1.
On this sunny morning
rain falls in Malamahu maketi:
last week's storm is still a pool on the roof,
draining through the rusted iron
a few drops at a time. 
I step past the earliest hawkers,
past their undersized avocadoes and bootleg DVDs,
and see a bleb of dirty water break
on the forehead of Siua Ongosia,
punake, lover of Carroll and Lear,
first Tongan to rap in glottal stops,
star on youtube and at the Billfish bar,
and now the first beggar to arrive at Malamahu
every morning, to mount the bench that is his last stage.

Yesterday Siua told me about Tennyson 
and the Amazon; today he greets me like any other stranger,
asking for taha, 'ua pa'anga, for a smoke, for a light.
His hands are scarred and dented, like the tin
the avocado farmer uses to catch last week's storm.

It is taha noa, and Siua 
watches the utes arrive from Kala'au and Te'ekiu,
as young men in torn tupenu unload their fathers' harvests,
offering 'inasi to tourists
and the Nuku'alofan bourgeoisie.
Their yams look like missiles; their dirty talo are landmines
harvested from the ancient battlefields of Hihifo. 

The farmers' boys do not talk with Siua, though they've all watched him
on youtube, seen him swinging from a mango tree while rhyming
uaea with tractor, heard the love poem he wrote for his wife
after she left their home, dragging their only suitcase 
around pools of kava and beer. 
2.
Twenty maile away, at Lapaha, the punake and their kings are silent.
With toki made of stone, the tu'a cut stone
from the beaches of Fafa and Pangaimotu, Niutoua
and 'Uvea. They shook coconut heads from the heavens, 
split and sipped from them, lashed coconut hair
round the stones, dragged the stones to Lapaha,
laid one stone on top of another. 
Today tour buses stop at the royal tombs. 

Do not talk about reverence, about fatonia.
The tu'a were not offering tribute.
They raised stones to keep the dead
from rising, to keep the 'eiki and their whips
in Pulotu, to keep the mouths of the royal poets
stuffed with earth.

5 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Good poem Scott. Good news about Swingman. I subscribe to Landfall, I must check I am up to date. Be good to see the poem in there.

10:25 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Lot of interesting Swingman clips on youtube, Richard, eg
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDn938jha7M

4:07 pm  
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