Fale Aitu / Spirit House by Tusiata Avia (Victoria University Press, 2016), 83 pp., $25
Well done, VUW Press, for publishing this collection of poems/prose-poems/found poems. A much bigger ‘well done’ to Tusiata Avia for baring and bearing her soul, spewing her guts out about a dark past, as well as focusing on troubling political and personal issues that polite Kiwi poetry all too often circumvents. This is one of the best books of poetry that I have read for years. Street-smart. Candid. Worldly. Pasifika. Powerful.
Maybe, in fact, the collection could have been entitled Exorcism, for it is full of spirited encounters with spirits or aitu, primarily evil and potentially harmful, which the poet had to write about so as to try to expunge them. Illuminating their shady presence and nefarious deeds is the poet’s way of attaining and retaining sanity via catharsis and she has not been so sufficiently afraid to face her several fears as accumulated over the years – I applaud her for her honesty. She has confronted an unsettled past life – most especially during her childhood – in an endeavour to face her future front-on. Check out poems such as ‘Wairua Road’ and ‘Tableau’. Mean streets, man. ‘Tell me what you remember’, indeed.
Take this line from ‘Post-ute’: ‘There are police … and they are investigating a dead baby in the back of a ute.’ Avia’s is no dream world, given the intense incubi depicted here. Hers is a real-time vortex, replete with wide-ranging topoi – from the 2 x RS (Scott and Stevenson); through to rape (her own: suffer yourself through ‘Demonstration’), and sexual abuse; child-bearing and birth (stutter through ‘Today we are in a hospital ward’, as well as read lines such as: ‘Breast and belly sing the prose of birth …’ [from ‘Elegy III – The things a mother does.’]
There is brutality; violence, iniquitous inequality; depiction of women treated as underclass; loss; possession and dispossession; marginalia and marginalisation – see, for example, poems such as ‘We are the diasporas’, and ‘Manahatta’, with its lines:
There go the dispossessed
holding their cellphones over the trash cans
Pre-eminently throughout there is bodily fixation – (check out the weird ‘I enter my throat’, as well as ‘Fale’s house’ and ‘Apology’) – so there are chests and hearts and lungs wobbling about everywhere.
And then there is DEATH – ‘the incessant chorus of death’ [from, ‘Elegy III:The things a mother does’] – because of:
…the way that death brings people
– especially Samoan people –
they come and we are a sea of people
Suicide also swoops in: ‘… his twelve year old brother swinging in the wardrobe …’ [from ‘Manahatta’] and there are entire grim reaper poems throughout, such as ‘Elegy I: Tui Polotu’ and ‘Elegy III’, with this latter example concentrating on baby demise.
All of the above topoi are viscerally portrayed in vivid descriptions of the Middle East, where Avia homes in on the homeless in ‘I cannot write a poem about Gaza’ – where she disproves this statement and flays us with: ‘If two thousand one hundred and sixty eight dead Palestinians divided by sixty-nine dead Israelis equals. Find the true value of one Palestinian.’
Thus she brings strongly home to this reviewer his own schizophrenic days living in the Middle East, talking to Palestinians every day and also travelling to Israel to see his whānau there: the chasms on both sides. Africa, New York, Samoa, Aotearoa New Zealand – more particularly Christchurch – and South Auckland/Mangere East (where I grew up), all figure as well.
The poem ‘Fale aitu’ is a titular duo of paragraphs right on the mark regarding living spirits, who are here personalised as the waifs and strays you inevitably encounter at twilight and beyond in Mangere, indeed in much of South Auckland: ‘… and there they are waiting for you – some with arms folded, leaning; some blowing smoke; some with hooded eyes, pacing.’ It’s in Mangere where the severely dispossessed congregate too; the new urban poor arrivals – long after the Tongan overstayer scandals of forty years ago – are the Iraqis, the Sudanese, the Syrians:
Only six weeks out of Mangere, the holding centre. [from ‘After the reading’]
There’s a tremendous amount of hurt pain pervading these pages, too; not always the poet’s. Not a lot of humour – except black, such as that wisping through a couple of verses in poems like ‘Ova-sta-ya’ and ‘Fale’s house’ – which is surely tautology writ large – with its wry:
All the children have gone to New Zealand …
they are training to be immigration officers
so they can hunt each other down.
Not a great deal of positiveness either, to be quite frank. Not too much happiness growing up, I wager, given the accusatory: ‘It happened. It happened. And you did nothing’ [from ‘Tableau’]. Anger permeates much of the poetry: ‘Juice’ concerns the memories of a pissed-off girl who spilled beetroot juice in the fridge, an image that recurs elsewhere, just as several other scenes replay throughout the book.
And those bloody aitu just never go away. Māori call them ngā kehua, the spooks, and they will always be around, often obliquely, like the ones I sometimes glimpse awry and side-headed in tight ceiling corners of old houses and whare moe. They can part-appear in windows as shadows too. Just like: ‘the small girl in the corner, she is always here’ [from ‘This is a photo of my house’.]
It is all about how you deal with these scary presences and scarred memories: by praying to the atua (gods), conversing with oneself, exposing them, laying bare your soul. As Tusiata Avia is doing throughout this entire compilation. And because aitu are oblique entities, Avia’s language is also somewhat at times and plenty of her work here consists of cavalcades and caravanserai of eerie and erratic images, dense prose chests of CAPITALISED words, repetitions, disassociated pronouns, Samoan language – which will perhaps alienate conventional readers of ‘mainstream’ verse.
All of which is excellent. Especially in our rapidly diversifying multicultural milieu. Indeed, some of her poetry is down and out in-yer-face, and you are going to need the Notes from page 76 and following to reference yourself at times amidst the experimentation also being employed here.
The book is divided into three sections: the shorter middle section named Fale Mafui`e concerns the devastation of the Christchurch earthquake of 2011 and to me includes the best of the best work. The paean ‘CTV building’ is a great poem, with its stark and simple structure of bare-boned complexity. Take as an example the following evocation of the dead, their ascending wairua, the kaitiaki lift attendant:
There is still a lift
Stopped at the third floor
And an attendant on the ground …
The third floor
Opened out forever now
The inner workings of the rapture
Sheared open for all of us to see.
The other two longer groupings are Fale (house) and Aitu: and the entire collection is a continual interpolation of house and body parts, the condominium as the corporeal. Windows of the soul and all that. Then there’s an interesting coda entitled Poetry Manifesto, where Avia professes an inability to talk/write about poetry:
I imagine poetry as a supernatural force. Sometimes I can contact spirits, like a chaneller. But not a very good one. Once or twice, I’ve been able to do it word for word. Most of the time I just get a glimmer, like a bit of silver lame projected into the air above my head. But often it’s just a picture on the front basin of my skull.
She is, of course, talking herself down, for she transcends her own words here with her intelligent and rather tortured assemblage. The woman writes lived poetry damned well. And the atua have been sitting on her torso, her shoulders, her head, guiding through her the whole time, writing her into a potent original voice that just has to be heard more in this country. Just look at the lyricism of these lines as an example of the craft:
A smile like a terrible accident in a quiet street … a smile like Rwanda [from Tableau]; or:
Astor/4th/Lafayette/8th/ are a murder of straight lines [from ‘Manahatta’];
And then listen to them unbutton their stories [from Demonstration];
I flower like ink in water [from ‘I enter my throat and you are there too’];
… your arms as rough as sailors [from ‘Ifa is the master of the week’].
Fa`afetai Tusiata. But a warning, too: those damned aitu will never leave you alone, eh. Their totems and tokens pervade. So you are just going to have to keep on creating great poetry, channeling those demiurgic atua. I look forward to more of this verbal magic that you make.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA is currently based in the Waikato where he works as an educator. A writer, poet and critic, and a Māori language activist, his books include the novel Toa, published by Atuanui Press in 2013. He has a PhD in existential philosophy from Auckland University.