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On Brandy Nālani McDougall’s The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani P’akai

By Barbara Jane Reyes

I first arrived at Brandy Nālani McDougall’s poems in Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing, Pacific Rim 2009 (Salt Publishing), edited by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. Not a conventional “anthology,” this aesthetically diverse volume consists of four chapbook-length selections of poems by four poets — dg nanouk okpik, Cathy Tagnak Rexford, Māhealani Perez-Wendt, and McDougall — and I think that was a smart curatorial decision. Altogether, what Hedge got me thinking was this: what is indigenous poetics? What do indigenous voices sound like, and how are these indigenous poets’ concerns articulated in these bodies of poems?

McDougall’s “Return to the Kula House,” from Effigies, are contained within her full-length collection, The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani P’akai, published by the Hawai’i-based Kuleana ‘Ōiwi Press’s Wayne Kaumualii Westlake Monograph Series. The mission of this independent press, which was founded in 1998, is to provide a venue for Kanaka Maoli literary, scholarly, and artistic expression.

McDougall pulls us into these lush, verdant pictures and stories of the islands. In her articulation and rearticulation of the islands’ creation, and in her concern with myth and mythic time, she asserts the people’s rightful belonging to the place; they have been there longer than memory. But from the start and throughout these beautiful poems, we are made aware of an undeniable invading presence. From her opening poem, “Pō:”

Before the land was tamed by history,
the oceanside resorts and pineapple plantations,
before the cane knife’s rust, the dark time of sickness,
the coming of cannons, the bitter waters drunk,
before the metallic salt of blood, the rain emptied
into rivers, the winds carved valleys and mountains,
before the earth spurted fire, birthed islands …

The land has been of the people for longer than anyone can remember. There’s evidence of this in “The Petroglyphs at Olowalu,” as the ocean has carved tunnels and caves, so the people have also carved images of themselves into rock. By contrast, the “highway to Lāhaina, newly paved / and lined in paint,” is another kind of man-made carving into the land. Still, here, she returns, affirming her memory, seeking guidance. “Tracing the lines those before me began — / their words I ask for,” she will presumably continue what those before her have begun. We can read the poems in this collection as such.

The land, the deities, and the body exist in reciprocity:

Out of her head,
Out of her breast,
Out of her mouth,
Out of her eyes,
Out of her skin,
Out of her breath,

Came the gods who lived
off the length of her body,
offering their piko in return

But if this reciprocity is so, then the violation of the land is a violation of the body. Her speaker finds kinship with Tehura, a naked Tahitian woman of Gauguin’s paintings. In “Tehura,” McDougall inserts her own voice into Gauguin’s journal writings, in which he describes an “immobile, naked” native woman, “so tremendously beautiful,” “completely naked, waiting for love.” This is the native, framed within the European’s gaze, rewritten to suit his desires. “[I]n your face I see my own,” McDougall writes to Tehura,” rebuking Gauguin, “I know / this is not who we are, not Why or How….” The direct address contrasts Gauguin’s visual and written depictions of Tehura; it is a plea for Tehura’s, and her own, humanity.

What the 19th century Gauguin depicted as that prone, objectified island native, McDougall also aggressively addresses in contemporary times, in “Natives Wanted,” which she has written in callous, loaded, rapid fire, infomercial language. Presenting a litany of stereotypes:

Have you contracted foreign diseases
and are now facing cultural extinction?
Do you consistently reject the teachings
of missionaries and settlers?

And

Do you still wear traditional attire
(i.e. loincloths, feathers, animal skins
or fur, bark cloth, leaves, etc.)
and/or pierce and/or tattoo and/or scar
any part of your body?

And

Do you now or have you ever
practiced human sacrifice and/or eaten
your enemies (or your friends/family)?

She concludes:

If you can answer “yes” to 3 or more of the above
questions, then you are an ideal subject of study
for anthropologists, archaeologists, pharmaceutical
companies, natural historians, museum curators,
colonial writers, missionaries and tourists.

All are indicted, even those who claim benevolence and good intention. This is satisfying. The poem’s post-script disclaimer, stating side effects (diabetes, alcoholism, severe depression, et al), not guaranteeing compensation, is also satisfying, because it’s absolutely unadorned and historically factual. McDougall’s stripped down language, and matter-of-fact tone, presents us with a family suffering from these side effects in present-day stark living circumstances, in the clipped lines of “What a Young, Single Makuahine Feeds You:”

spam casserole,
spam and corn,
spam and green beans,
spam sandwiches,
vienna sausages,
portuguese sausages,
pork and beans,
onions and rice,
cold corned beef,
raw onions and poi,

By the end of this poem, not only do we have a full understanding of the cheap, processed food this broken family must eat to survive (barely), we come to find out from where these come:

from Uncle —
no matter
which Uncle —
you eat whatever
Uncle brings.

“Uncle,” of course, is a euphemism, what the children must call any man who comes into this single mother’s life. (Note also that the prevalence of these canned goods is a legacy of the US military presence on the islands, and has radically shortened the life expectancy of the native people.)

Let me not end this write-up with unresolvable hopelessness. Against erasure, despite laws outlawing use of the native Hawaiian language, there are individual acts of persistence which are so meaningful and restoring. In the sonnet series, “Ka ‘Ōlelo,” because “English could never replace / the land’s unfolding song, nor the ocean’s / ancient oli,” the speaker and her grandfather together relearn their native language. I’m not surprised to learn that English-only laws lasted in the state until 1986 (certainly, this theme of mean-spirited English-only legislation is very relevant in this country today). Even lamenting what words have been lost, and therefore what knowledge has been lost, the two slowly reacclimate themselves to speaking “each old word learned.” And with “each old word learned,” birth and rebirth,

as the ‘ape shoot, whose delicate shoots
shoot forth their young sprouts, and spread, and bring forth
in their birth, many branches find their roots
in the dark, wet, ‘ōlelo the earth bore.

Ironically, they are learning from a language CD, and I really appreciate that she’s inverted the stereotype of the native grandparent being the sage disseminator of cultural knowledge. There’s something to be learned here about survival, something practical, in the further irony — the poet’s act of reclaiming what English had outlawed, via the English sonnet form.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, April 5th, 2011 by Barbara Jane Reyes.