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:

             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

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.

Originally Published: August 26th, 2009

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, the Philippines, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned a BA in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from San Francisco State University. She is the author of the poetry collections Gravities of...

  1. August 26, 2009
     Margo Berdeshevsky

    Good to see this work brought forward, Barbara Jane Reyes. I've known Trask's voice since my years living in the Hawaiian islands. Hers is a harsh & poignant chant--one example of the political brought into the poetic, out of necessity, rage, and a more ancient approach. A challenge to modernity and its frequent disrespect for lands of Native daughters.\r


  2. August 26, 2009
     Susan M. Schultz

    Thanks for the props for Tinfish, BJR. Just a note of business. Borders does not carry Tinfish books, even in Hawai`i. Lee got them in the stores by contracting with Booklines (the local distributor) himself. Our books are carried by Na Mea / Beautiful Things at Ward Warehouse and by the UHM bookstore. Lee's book has just been reprinted in a second edition, by the way. This is just to say that distribution is _always_ a vexing issue.

  3. August 26, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Hi Susan, you're welcome!\r

    Oy, and here I was thinking there was something more progressive about Borders in HI. Props to Lee's hustle for making it happen. Glad to hear his work can be more widely available.

  4. August 26, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Thanks for your response, Margo. You said it perfectly.

  5. August 26, 2009
     Adam Strauss

    Wesleyan UP is hardly a small press, but it was nice that I bought my copy of Susan Howe's Singularities at a Borders in Pasadena. Do you like Jay Wright's work? It's true he's equally Four Quartets, but much of his work does work a mythopoetic/ethnopoetic range. I find the term ethnopetic a bit odd: it skips over one of the most pervasive identities around on this continent: whiteness. I hope all's well with all of ya'll.

  6. August 26, 2009
     Don Share

    Good timing on this post, Hawai'i just having passed the 50th anniversary of "statehood."\r

    That's a great question, Adam, about Jay Wright. I'd love to know what Barbara Jane - and Susan - might think of his work...

  7. August 26, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Hi Adam and Don,\r

    I actually haven't read Jay Wright's work so I can't say anything about it now.\r

    Adam, re: ethnopoetics and whiteness, Dennis Tedlock has written this: "Ethnopoetics is a decentered poetics, an attempt to hear and read the poetries of distant others, outside the Western tradition as we know it now." So I think "whiteness," as you say, is skipped over, precisely because it's "one of the most pervasive identities around on this continent." Though I am thinking ethnocpoetics could also include the poetries of North American cultural (not racial) minority groups?

  8. August 26, 2009
     Adam Strauss

    That makes sense; my issue with the term is that it reinforces, arguably, the notion that whiteness is the \r
    norm (ok true in too many instances it amounts to that), that whiteness is as natural as oxygen and needn't be deemed an identity. I'm equating a thing being viewed as natural with the degree to which it is not deemed necessary to mark it: an example being it's normal for homosexuals to identify themselves as such (when they're not, urgh, closeted), but I don't seem to hear too many heterosexuals reocgnizing that heterosexuality is an identity. Tho this may make no sense, I'd be interested to see whiteness de-centered. To some degree identity politics may be seen as justifying existence--no, full citizenship rather--and it's not clear to me that whiteness should be given a free pass. These ideas are not formulated perfectly, and I do not intend them as definitive, but as starts.

  9. August 26, 2009

    great points adam & barbara. this doesnt further the discussion, but when i read white poets, i call it "whiteopoetics"--an attempt to hear and read the poetries of distant whiteness. \r


  10. August 26, 2009
     Robert Sullivan

    Thanks for supporting this wonderful Pacific poet: she's one of my favorites, there's so much body movement in the poetics so that you feel the indigenous language forms. Great comments.

  11. August 26, 2009
     adam strauss

    "Whitopoetics"--I like it; I think it does further the conversation, providing an example of decentralizing. Maybe I'll start using the coinage heteropoetics, tho I don't think that term works as well for various reasons.\r
    I wish G Brooks could post comments here!

  12. August 26, 2009
     Maile Arvin

    Many thanks, Barbara Jane for this post. It is exciting to see Trask's work thoughtfully engaged here.\r

    Re: decentering whiteness: I don't have any familiarity with Jay Wright or with who is using/claiming this word 'ethnopoetics' but I do know Haunani-Kay Trask's work and how centered it is in Kanaka Maoli-ness, so to speak. \r

    Yet I do not think Trask is invested in contemporary identity politics in conventional ways at all. Writing from a place of indigeneity (being native in a starkly settler colonial society) is meant to be quite threatening to the various identities that supposedly fuse together Hawai'i as a multicultural melting pot. She is not trying to gently explain to an audience her difference, her multi-cultural contribution or a reach towards full citizenship. She is writing deeply of and for Native Hawaiians, and she achieves this with a strength that as you point out resonates beautifully.\r

    So I think her work could be a good example of decentering whiteness but that it is more than that too. Trask decenters America. And perhaps this is what the best poets reach towards- not critiquing an abstract identity of whiteness but its particularities and compound realities as they impact the poet and her world.

  13. August 26, 2009
     Don Share

    Just so readers know, Jay Wright is an African-American poet whose writings are absorbed in African and Native American sources. Info here:\r


    Sorry to digress!

  14. August 26, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Hi Maile, great to read your comment here. Thanks! I think you are right about Trask's poetry decentering whiteness and America, as one thing it is doing. I appreciate that her criticisms and indictments are concrete and specific. And I think this is one thing I am very glad to find in the poetries of our so-called other (or othered) communities: writing from an actively claimed position of center (this is what I mean when I say her text fills up the pages' centers). Thanks again.

  15. August 26, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    NO problem Don, I am interested in reading Wright's work. Thanks to Adam, for bringing him up.

  16. August 26, 2009
     adam strauss

    The term is likely most connected to--think he may have "coined" it--Jerome Rothenberg, who has edited an anthology, among others, of indigenous "texts" (that term gets confusing to me for languages which are not rooted in writing) titled Shaking The Pumpkin.

  17. August 26, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Hi Robert, thanks for your comment. I like what you say re: body movement in the poetics. It reminds me of the Filipina Australian poet and novelist Merlinda Bobis, who wrote and performed a rearticulation of the Philippine myth of Mount Makiling, and also Filipina American poet and kali martial artist Michelle Bautista.

  18. August 26, 2009
     Kimberly Alidio

    I think that Maile's comment below re-focuses the question of ethnopoetics, so I won't add anything to that discussion. \r

    I can't help but say though that queer politics and poetics are at the forefront of naming heterosexuality as an identity, an institution and a subject-position.\r

    I do want to add my thanks to Barbara for writing about this volume. The poetic vision of Trask's sovereignty politics never ceases to instill awe in me. When I teach her book of essays, students get appropriately riled up, in some way or another. I'm thinking now it would be necessary to teach her poetry, too.

  19. August 26, 2009
     Latino Poetry Review

    Great to read about, and sample this voice---one unknown to me until now. \r

    We brought Jay Wright to Notre Dame a few years ago. As strange as this may sound, his work--what I've read and heard--reminded me of Victor Hernández Cruz--not in style (at all), but in the concerns and interests the work takes on: what happens when different traditions mingle and co-mingle? In a word: Mestizaje.

  20. August 26, 2009
     Ellen-Rae Cachola

    Thanks Barbara J Reyes for taking the time to reflect on Haunani K. Trask's work and you as a Filipina writer. This is one of my favorite poetry books, as it brings to the forefront responsibilities for critical self-reflections for the Asian settler community here in Hawaii. Ofcourse, there are power dynamics across communities labeled under the term "Asian," as well as between Asian and White. But I think Haunani's work really does well in distinguishing the different cultures and ethnicities that inhabit Hawaii, and that through this difference, we can decolonize our understanding of history in Hawaii, as well as in the Asia-Pacific.

  21. August 26, 2009
     Maile Arvin

    Thanks Kimberley! To second your comment on queer politics and poetry, I also think the politics of being queer- at its best- is used to productively destabilize lesbian and gay identities as well as heterosexual identities. The important connection here to me is that indigeneity at its best also works to mark, destabilize, and show the possibilities beyond both white settler colonialism AND heteropatriarchal native nationalisms. I have come to understand indigeneity this way in large part through Trask's examples, as she also writes about the central importance of native women as leaders, and has long been a leader herself.\r

    Anyway, showing the other (native and/or queer) possibilities beyond the very palpable hegemony of heterosexism, whiteness, etc., does require in my mind a mastery of the poetic. It's something I think Trask and the other poets Barbara Jane has pointed us to have in common.

  22. August 26, 2009
     Tara Betts

    Thank YOU, Barbara Jane for introducing me to another title by Haunani Kay Trask. I read Light in the Crevice Never Seen years ago after seeing Trask read at the first Color of Violence conference at UC-Santa Cruz. \r

    I recommend Jay Wright too. "Transfigurations" and the 1987 "Selected Poems of Jay Wright" would be the two titles I'd recommend. Catching up on some of his other work.\r

    Also, Jerome Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock have worked together to expand on this idea of ethnopoetics, which is not just about decentering a Eurocentric paradigm, but about the voices that prioritize Western values and ideas over all others. So, the idea of ethnopoetics is not supposed to be about "white poetics" which have long been perceived as the benchmark for American poetry. In terms of heterosexist leanings in literature and language,the language has to grow and adapt, but that has a context that must be challenged. \r

    It's also interesting to me that people of color are not coining these terms, being credited with such coinage, publishing books of criticism or thought on writing from such communities, or getting the opportunity to write about writers of color. For this reason, I'm appreciative that Barbara Jane is writing about the poets that she has chosen to discuss thus far. Another reviewer might look at these books from another perspective or write while completely unaware of some of the culturally rooted contexts of the literature, or worse yet, simply look at the content from a skewed perspective without concern for the form or craft utilized.

  23. August 27, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Wow, so many awesome comments here. \r

    Ellen, thanks for mentioning the Asian settler. I wonder what that interaction and dialogue are like between Trask, and say, Lois Ann Yamanaka or R. Zamora Linmark. Is there dialogue?\r

    Tara brings up books of criticism authored by folks of color. Certainly this is much needed, esp. if the alternative is to be studied and read under the term "ethnopoetics," and all that implies about distance from center et al. I'd love to hear more about these volumes of criticism authored by people of color, especially in terms of intended readership.

  24. August 27, 2009
     Don Share

    People might be interested in the jubilat African American Experimental Poetry Forum, Terrance Hayes & Evie Shockley, eds., in their current issue.

  25. August 28, 2009
     Margo Berdeshevsky

    Interesting question you raise, barbara jane, re a potential dialogue or interaction between Trask, and say, Lois Ann Yamanaka. I never attended such an exchange - but in the 'what if' room --I might listen for Yamanaka's support, defense, & wonderful performances in Pidgin, lacing her poetry and earlier books--so, a claiming of how the Native voice evolved into this time and space, and mixed with other local styles, and brought a sharp-edged comedy onto the stage, too. While her later mystical & haunting novel, "Behold the Many" found inflected voices for local and spirit world, but relied much more on her more westernized literary gifts, & so, I suspect, found some different readers as well.\r

    I'm not sure all readers would concur on the above, but that's how I read her. While--in an imagined interaction with Trask- I'd listen for Trask to hold her profound commitments to land and its cry that she has embodied,and to care more for the Ancient Hawaiian language as it moves inside even her quasi western poetics --and to have less interest in the modern usage or mix of cultures that have made Pidgin an important ( and taught) writers' tongue & expression. \r

    (I do know there have been forums at U of H about such differences...) \r

    I make no claim to expertise in such ideas--but years in the islands gave me a care and respect for both those writers, and what they bring to both local and global literature. \r


  26. August 29, 2009
     Susan M. Schultz

    I will not speak for Zack, but there is no dialogue between Trask and Yamanaka, real or imagined. If we are to make alliances here in opposition to the military or to the ravages of development, links between such writers and many others would be significant. But the barriers between them are still strong, I'm sorry to say.