Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Robert Sullivan’s poem “Maui's Mission” appears in the February 2018 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.

The poem I wrote in the current issue of Poetry derives most of its energy from the Polynesian ancestor and superhero, Māui. This demigod features in the animated Disney flick Moana, where he appears as a rather jovial trickster sidekick. In our legends, Māui gained the secret of fire and slowed the sun as he traveled across the sky. Another feat was fishing up the North Island of our country using his grandmother’s jawbone. She had gifted it to him after he’d tricked her. The jawbone probably wasn’t literal. It’s a symbol of the power of speech, of knowledge. The North Island’s Māori name, Te Ika a Māui, means Māui’s Fish. Māui was also a shapeshifter who traveled to the underworld in search of his parents and his identity.

The South Island is known to many in Māori as Te Waka a Māui, or Māui’s Vessel, while Te Punga o Te Waka a Māui, The Anchor Stone of Māui’s Waka, is the third largest island to the far south, now called Stewart Island. Our islands are named for Māui’s exploits, yet most of us use the English names. Naming is remembering, and so in rendering our names into English, we remove the Māori identity of the part of the world that blessed us as a people. This fact of the colonization of our names and our languages is part of the indigenous condition. You will find similar stories elsewhere. Yet Māori persist as a tribal people, using the English language as powerfully as we use our voices in speaking Māori.

Speaking of elsewhere, I was lucky enough to visit Northwestern University last year where I learned about nations of the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, Oneida, Menominee, and Ho-Chunk from my hosts. Their stories resonated with me, especially as presented in the installation at the Field Museum created by the artist Chris Pappan, Drawing on Tradition, where he used images to spiritually protect the native artifacts in the collections there. I remember one where a semicircle of elders was painted onto the glass case that held an illustrated and sacred buffalo skin. The skin, which according to custom should have been kept out of sight, had been nailed in. The painted elders faced it and kept company with the revered treasure, protecting it from viewers. It was very moving.

Many indigenous treasures of the Pacific have attracted song-poems. For instance, returning to Māui, there is the great creation chant of the Hawaiians, the Kumulipo, which pairs the creatures of the ocean with the creatures of the land, including the gods and people, in more than two thousand lines. Its inspiration came from the mouths of countless expert chanters until it reached the pen of the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani, who, during her unjust imprisonment, wrote down and translated the text so that her people would remember who they are. We find the genealogy of Māui in the sixteenth section of the Kumulipo chant.

We find him in graphic novels, in a song by Braddah Iz, and in Māori haka.

The most popular poem in New Zealand is the haka “Ka Mate,” which means “I die.” Its popularity comes from its performance by the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, who are three-time world champions. Its opening lines sum up some of the greatest subjects of poetry: “Ka mate, ka mate! Ka ora, ka ora!” (“I die, I die! I live, I live!”). This haka can be read as describing Māui’s ascent to the heavens to cause the sun to shine. Many people believe hakas are war dances, yet each haka is really an assertive expression of the composer. It is written with the intention that people chant and gesture in unison, as well as freestyle. It is an oral composition meant to accompany bodies in action. Composers followed rules such as eight vowels, or twelve vowels, per half line. Inevitably, each composition had great feeling. Its terrain was both ancestral and present, spiritual and physical, and it contributed to the story of the tribe.

As a Māori poet writing in English, my challenge is to retain the purpose of a traditional poet from my culture, to contribute to our stories so that we can find a place to stand, and to keep looking, to keep navigating as one of many navigators in the great sea. At times I throw out flotation devices, such as words in our language, or the names of ancestors, for us to hold onto.

Originally Published: February 26th, 2018

Māori poet Robert Sullivan was born in Auckland, New Zealand. He earned an MA from the University of Auckland. Sullivan is the author of more than 12 books of poetry, including Jazz Waiata (1990); Star Waka (1999), short-listed for the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards; Weaving Earth and Sky...