Review by Craig Santos Perez

by Robert Sullivan

Auckland University Press
University of Auckland
Private Bag 92019
Auckland, New Zealand
ISBN 1 86940 337 1
2005, 64 pp., $14.95

Voice Carried My Family, Robert Sullivan’s 5th book of poetry, navigates the difficult currents of narrativity, while exploring the personal and mythological history of Maori culture. The title poem, “Voice carried my family, their names and stories,” establishes the central theme early in the collection:

Their names and fates were spoken.
The lands and seas of the voyage were spoken.
Calls of the stroke at times were spoken.
Celestial guidance, sightings, were spoken.
Prescriptions – medical and spiritual – were spoken.
Transactions – physical and emotional – were spoken.
Family (of), leaders (to), arguments, were well spoken.
Elders (of), were well spoken.
Burials were spoken.
Welcomes at times were spoken.
Futures lined up by pasts, were spoken.
Repeating the spoken were spoken.
Inheritance, inheritors, were spoken.
Tears at times were spoken.
Representatives at first were spoken.
The narrator wrote the spoken.
The readers saw the spoken!
Spoken became unspoken.
[Written froze spoken.]

Prior to the 19th century, the oral Maori language was the predominant language of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Around 1814, missionaries made the first attempts to develop a writing system for Maori using the Roman alphabet (“The narrator wrote the spoken”). By the 1860s, Maori became a minority to the English brought by British colonialists. When the English school system was introduced, the Native Schools Act of 1867 forbade the use of Maori in school. The exclamatory response of the readers in Sullivan’s poem highlights the violent transition of the spoken becoming unspoken, of Maori becoming English. We feel this tumultuous history between the lines of the poem, and the fact that Sullivan writes this poem entirely in English testifies to this history. Even though the “written froze spoken,” the poem does not remain frozen in the colonial past. Instead, the orality of the poem (its chanting repetition pushing against the end stop) ignites the written into a lyric fire.

This parallels the Maori language initiatives that ignited Aotearoa in the 1970s, including Te Ataarangi (a language learning system), Kahanga Reo (Maori language pre-schools), Kura Kaupapa Maori (Maori language schools) and Maori broadcasting. In 1987, the Maori Language Act declared Maori to be an official language of New Zealand and established the Maori Language Commission, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo. Sullivan’s poetry ascends from this revitalization to prove that poetry (the written) does not, of necessity, freeze the spoken, but can revitalize the spoken into new, vital fires. A powerful example of this is “Te ao hurihuri”:

The everchanging presence of the earth
is a term, te ao hurihuri, it shifts
like a dancer turns and turns.

The everchanging term is the presence
of the earth, te ao, like it shifts a dancer,
hurihuri, turns and turns.

Like turns the everchanging turn
of the term is te ao hurihuri,
the earth—a dancer shifts.

It shifts the earth, te ao hurihuri,
a term like a dancer.

If shifts te ao hurihuri, a term.

A term, hurihuri, in te ao.

Te ao hurihuri.

As a dancer turns, Sullivan shifts through the ever-changing terms of an oral tradition into the scripted presence of the word. The bilingual interplay enhances this dance and negotiates the fragile, political undertones of language policy in Aotearoa. Sullivan suggests that the poem is a site for the intersections of Maori identity to enter into critical and lyric dialogue.

This dialogue continues in the poem “Ahi Ka—The House of Nga Puhi”, which carries the metaphor of fire across the frozen page. As we learn in an endnote, “Ahi ka” refers to a “person’s right to land, so long as they maintain their presence, or ‘home fire.’” The poem moves in a tidal tercet, creating a powerful rhythm:

We light the poem and breathe out
the growing flames. Ahi ka. This
is our home—our fire. Hot tongues out

—pukana—turn words to steam. This
fish heart is a great lake on a
skillet. Ahi ka! Ahi ka! […]

carried by the tribe’s forever-story
firing every lullaby.
Shadows shrink in our hands’ quiver

as we speak—ahi ka sing fire
scoop embers in the childhood sun
stare into molten shapes and see

people—building, sailing, farming—
see them in the flames of our land
see them in this forever light

no tears only fire for ahi
ka no weeping only hangi pits
no regrets just forgiveness and

a place for the fire—it’s our song
to sing—ahi ka—got to keep
singing the shadows away—ha!

Sullivan’s poems become a place to maintain the fires—the forever-stories—of culture and identity. We can’t change the colonial past; we can only attempt to heal the trauma of colonialism by “singing the shadows away.” Poetry creates a “forever light” from which to navigate a decolonized future.

The central poems of this collection, in a series titled “For the Ocean of Kiwa,” tell the story of 4 Polynesians on Captain Cook’s several crews: Tupaia, Mai, Koa, and Te Weherua. The first poem begins in the Great Hall, a part of the old University of Canterbury complex in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the narrator looks at the stained-glass figures. Interestingly, Sullivan begins by questioning storytelling itself:

Who am I to extol Tupaia? Star navigator. Great chief.
Cartographer of a chunk of the Pacific Cook claimed his own?
Loving Tupaia of the Arioi? Who am I to say these things?

When he tells the story of Mai, a similar questioning ensues: “You’re in the public domain — perhaps I could claim / your story through your eyes? […] Why not? Why can’t I tell your tale, slip under you skin? […] But I can’t I just can’t take the middle of your throat. / Who would I pay for the privilege?” Sullivan’s self-consciousness disrupts a narrative of objective representation to question the very idea of “voice” and re-imagine the historical figures:

I’m trying to make sense of this shadow
that follows me across my shoulder.
Why this discomfort? I’ve heard it said
that i should not listen to ‘enemies of the imagination’.

Whose image? Who is imagining?

The emphasis on narrativity becomes a site for the reader to imagine new ways in which the spoken can become written without becoming unspoken. Sullivan reaches into “the throat of history” to keep his and our “eyes wide open with ancestors,” suggesting that the true “enemies of the imagination” are found in the refusal to question representation. The violence of such discomfort comes to fruition in the section titled “Captain Cook”:

Didn’t we get rid of him? There are far too many statues, operas
and histories. If only I could be a brown Orwell—a Moari Big Bro,
find every little caption card in every European museum and scrub it out:
change the working to, ‘This was given to Captain Cook as a token of friendship
and should be buried with him’, OR ‘This was temporarily given to Caption Cook
and would have been expected to be returned on his death’, OR ‘ Well, actually, Captian
Cook stole this’, OR ‘The Captain exchanged this for something vastly inferior in value—
ha ha for him!’ But even as an extra large bro I suspect the lies are superglued.
The empire that sent him to his death three times has its hero.

Sullivan allows us to see that history-making is a story imagined by the privileged. The discomfort arises when this imagining becomes accepted as “forever-story,” and those outside this privileged imagining become forced from their right of narrative. Poetry embodies an opportunity for Sullivan to “scrub out” the European valorization of Cook in order to reinscribe or re-imagine alternative histories.

Voice Carried My Family
carries us through a poetry of fire, a poetry of the spoken being written and the written being spoken. Every current of this book carries the “ahi ka” into our imagining of Maori culture, history, and identity, establishing a presence that can’t be stolen by any empire. As Sullivan writes in “Ocean Birth”:

Every wave carries us here—
every song to remind us—
we are skin of the ocean.


Craig Santos Perez is a co-founder of Achiote Press and author of from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008). His reviews have appeared in The Colorado Review, Pleiades, The Denver Quarterly, The Latino Poetry Review, MiPoesias, First Intensity, Rain Taxi, and Jacket, among others.

Rattle Logo