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Haunani-Kay Trask, ‘Night is a Sharkskin Drum’ (University of Hawaii Press, 2002)
Haunani-Kay Trask‘s Night is a Sharkskin Drum (University of Hawaii Press) is a book I picked up along with Lee A. Tonouchi’s Da Word (Bamboo Ridge Press) and the first edition of his Living Pidgin (Tinfish Press) in a Borders Bookstore, of all places, in Lihue, Kauai.
Having found these books, I was trippin’ for two reasons. First, these Hawaii based publishers are some of my favorites for their specializing in Pacific literatures, especially those with a political edge. Second, I never shop at Borders Bookstores because the ones around here (the closest being in Emeryville) just aren’t gangsta enough to carry any interesting indie published titles.
Here’s a bit of Haunani-Kay Trask’s bio (from her website):
Haunani-Kay Trask is one of Hawai‘i’s best known Native leaders and scholars. Her four books include the critically acclaimed, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai‘i, as well as two books of poetry, Light in the Crevice Never Seen, and Night is a Sharkskin Drum. She was co-producer and scriptwriter of the award-wining film, Act of War: The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation (1993).
Professor Trask descends from a long line of Native orators. Her grandfather, a Hawai’i Territorial Senator, and her father, a lawyer and advocate for Hawaiians, were among the political figures known for their speechmaking and political contributions toward securing Native land rights in Hawai‘i.
Today, Professor Trask is widely considered an authority on Hawaiian political issues, as well as an internationally known indigenous human rights advocate.
So from the get go, we know that she is an activist, a scholar, and a poet. Trask begins Night is a Sharkskin Drum with the section, “Born in Fire,” containing chants honoring the goddess Pele, in these two, three beat lines that sprawl across the pages. This form, her lines, really affect the canoe rowing in the open ocean regularity of the drum, and the breath of incantation:
Kino lau on the wind, in the yellowing ti, sounds of Akua awaking in the dawn: Nā-maka-o-ka-ha'i, eyes flecked with fire, summoning her family from across the seas. Sharks in the shallows, upheaval in the heavens.
This vessel upon open ocean movement reminds me of another Pacific Islander authored poetry collection, Craig Santos Perez’s From Unincorporated Territory.
In Trask’s second section, “A Fragrance of Devouring,” she bites hard, and with very sharp and precise teeth. The poems in this section appear more “ordered,” in terms of regular stanza units, with still these clipped lines wandering away from the margins and filling up the pages’ centers. She indicts the tourism industry and the American Empire, for the displacing of Native Hawaiians, rendering them into slum dwelling, exotic curio objects in their own land:
Between coastal heiau castrated nui, shorn of fruit and flower, fawning. From the ancestral shore, tlack-tlack of lava stones, massaged by tidal seas: eternal kanikau for long- forgotten ali'i, entombed beneath grandiose hotels mocked by crass amusements Japanese machines and the common greed of vulgar Americans.
The book’s third section, “Chants of Dawn,” she sets in a place or a time away from the ugly machine of tourism and empire, almost like an imagined, alternate/alternative place and time, in which she may honor her ancestors and her land, in which she may once again incant and pray:
To hear mornings among hāpu'u: a purity of cardinals, cunning bees in shell-covered sleeves of honeysuckle, ...the aqua undertones of cooing doves.
Filled with such hard contrasts between fragrance and spirit, and the bloodiness and dehumanizing of empire and war, Night is a Sharkskin Drum is such a lovely, lovely book with a bile-filled center.