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Reviewed by:
  • Tapa Talk, and: A Well Written Body
  • Robert Sullivan (bio)
Tapa Talk, by Serie Barford. Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2007. ISBN 978-1-86969-319-0, 72 pages, notes, glossary. Paper, US $22.00.
A Well Written Body, by Karlo Mila, with paintings by Delicia Sampero. Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2008. ISBN 978-1-86969-321-3, 80 pages, including color illustrations. Paper, US $35.00.

It is a delight to be writing two reviews in the context of a wealth of recent indigenous poetry publishing originating in Aotearoa, Fiji, and Hawai‘i. Publishers such as Tinfish Press, Huia Publishers, Kuleana ‘Ōiwi Press, Auckland University Press, Victoria University Press, Institute of Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific, and University of Hawai‘i Press have recently made major contributions to the genre and deserve to be applauded for supporting [End Page 488] this economically slender but necessarily vital art form.

Serie Barford’s Tapa Talk is a poetry collection that values traditional knowledge and incorporates its manifestations such as indigenous words and concepts, decorative arts, and aesthetics. I hesitate to reduce Serie Barford’s poetry to general academic categories, however. To borrow Blake’s phrase, there is “eternal delight” here; additionally, the quality of thought and poetic practice is praiseworthy.

This generous collection highlights a number of cultural constructions such as siapo or bark cloth, Lapita shards, and kava (45), naming Ouvéa as “croissant-shaped” (47), and thus reminding us of its colonial situation without being mired in the politics, and a threnody or sorrow-song where “Samoans spread a mat on the shore for someone lost at sea” (59). Each poem is additionally lit with an emotional intelligence informed by the poet’s knowledge of Polynesian and other poetics. The overall effect of Barford’s sophisticated and soulful collection is of an accumulation of momentary sensations and thoughts— on the tongue and ear, or informing the nose, eyes, and hands of the poetic encounter—amounting to a poetics of praise.

This book rewards rereading. Yet the work’s effect on me is firsthand or primary, rather than secondary as in the experience of reading a text; it is figural, lifting off the page, drawing air, blood, and a pluralistic identity.

The suite of five poems “Making Siapo” ranges between personal memories and anthropologically derived observations the poet cites from an essay by Teri Sowell. Without the benefit of reading Sowell’s essay or bibliography myself, I believe the source essay also draws on the section entitled “Bark Cloth” in the book Samoan Material Culture by Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangihiroa) (1971 [1930], 282–294), because the headings in the poem are similar headings to those used by Buck. This creates a poem that humanizes the 1920s anthropological text with the poet’s own memory. For example, here is Te Rangihiroa’s text (1971 [1930], 285; italics and bold in original): “Scraping the bast. The scraping of the bast(fai u‘a or fafai u‘a) requires a scraping board, a number of shell scrapers, and a strip of bamboo for a knife. / The special scraping board (papa fai u‘a) is dubbed out of iliili or other wood and was formerly smoothed down with coral. An average sized board is 37 inches long, 18.5 inches wide, and about 0.75 inches thick at the edges. Sometimes a piece from the side of a canoe is used.”

In comparison and contrast, here is the third poem in the suite by Barford (25–26; italics in original): “3. Scraping the bast / I’ve mistaken the pouring of water / over a sloping board for a wash day/ then realized the board/ \accommodated strips of bast / and siapo was in the making / sometimes an old canoe suffices / it is an inclined surface that is required / running water and something sharp / shells or bamboo or a knife / that can scrape away / remnants of the coarse outer bark / that eluded the bast peeling / clung stubbornly / to its soft inner flesh.”

Barford’s early reference to the washing board differentiates the [End Page 489] cultural/artistic activity from domestic labor, while connecting art and labor through the use of the same tools...


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