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Reviewed by:
  • Voice Carried My Family
  • Selina Tusitala Marsh
Voice Carried My Family, by Robert Sullivan. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2005. isbn 1-86940-337-1; 66 pages, notes. Paper, NZ$21.99.

The iridescent mother-of-pearl cover of Robert Sullivan's fifth poetry collection, Voice Carried My Family, mirrors its ephemeral motifs of movement, [End Page 466] shadow, voice, ocean, and fire. There is also the reappearance of the waka (a seafaring vehicle) as a leitmotif, a conceptual vehicle carrying not only genealogy but also Mäori concepts of nature, time, space, and place. Here, it symbolizes the resurrection of Mäori: their journeys, destinations, dreams, and achievements.

Divided into four parts, each conveying a movement, this new book by Sullivan, whose anthologized poems are often densely allusive, eases the reader in with simple five-lined textual islands floating in a sea of space, joined by a longer third poem, "Waka." Physical movements are conveyed by bodies of water and chant; philosophical movements are delved into with discussion of love and politics—where "impossible / leaps over the possible" (4); and eternal movements toward death and renewal are visited through feelings navigated with elemental images of fire, water, air, and energy.

We then head into larger seas and movements on a grander, more official, historical scale. But, as Sullivan shows, such territories are as intimate and as fickle as the emotional terrain previously traversed. "London Waka" remaps historical journeys as he reinvents mythologies, re-auditioning and recasting historical scenes. He incorporates a Wendtian (as in Albert Wendt) subversion where, in true flying-fox form, the world is viewed upside down, and back to front, as Mäori colonize England, moving from plundering terrorism to paternalistic political correctness. Amid the constant renegotiation of histories with imaginative reconstructions of intimate conversations, yearnings, and misgivings of canonical colonial figures, Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, and Mäori navigators Tupaia, Te Weheru, and Mai, Sullivan's ironic and sardonic humor is always reflected both in content and poetic context. His use of long couplets is a visual partnership teasing that alliance officially endorsed by the Treaty of Waitangi, but yet to be fully realized save for the politically correct tidbits of "limited self-government" and patronizing language restoration projects.

But this kind of anachronistic demythologizing also takes place in Maoridom serving to reenergize myths for a contemporary audience. In "Täne retrieves the baskets of knowledge," the persona shimmies upa vine "like a cord plugged into heaven" (8). There is energy in knowledge, a pathway upward, and areference to the climbing Mäori hero Tawhaki, in Sullivan's Pike Ake (1993). Io, supreme deity, says to Täne, "I liked your thought—maybe / your descendants will find one too and also climb it" (9). The movement is upward, onward, and into the future by ideologically adhering to that universal Polynesian adage, "We face the future with our backs."

The title poem, "Voice carried my family, their names and stories," further conveys the double-edgedness of Sullivan's poetry. There's an astute cynical knowingness underplaying purportedly straightforward images. The poem pays homage to the spoken word and Mäori orality but is embedded in irony. A deliberate omission ofte reo (Mäori language) and any specific Mäori cultural references demonstrates both the overwhelming [End Page 467] effect written English has had on Mäori oral traditions and culture, overwritten like a palimpsest and "frozen" beneath the stultifying rigidity of the English language. But the colonizer's tool is also subverted by the notion of voice appropriation and representation. It forms one of those "shadows" that keep resurfacing and on which the second section, "II For Shadows," focuses. Who has the right to speak for someone else?

In the context of these continual debates, there is turmoil as the persona wrangles with the individual poetic voice's communal responsibility and accountability, and between the "enemies of the imagination" (28). Sullivan inserts a Mäori presence in the history books as seen in the shift of perspective in "I/Eyes/Ae." In the previous poem, "8 A Resolution," the English language is described as "rude sounds" by Mäori voyager Koa, yet he will "make...


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