- The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Pa‘akai
In her first poetry collection, The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Pa‘akai, Brandy Nalani McDougall grounds themes of family, culture, land, and politics in Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) mythology. In addition, she wrestles with historical and contemporary colonialism in her homeland through the themes of language, education, and exoticism. Just as the salt wind of Oceania is “spun fine by time” (11), McDougall spins her diverse range of subjects through an impressive array of poetic forms: along with free-verse, collage, personae, and prose-narrative poems, there are a villanelle, a sestina, and a sonnet sequence. While many of the poems are tightly constructed single-page poems, McDougall also shows her skill at managing the waves of serial poems (each section of the serial poems remain as tightly constructed as the single-page poems). Finally, McDougall seamlessly weaves together Hawaiian language and English to create a complex, bilingual texture. To contextualize this emerging poet within the tradition of contemporary Kanaka Maoli poetry in English, we might say that she has inherited Haunani-Kay Trask’s decolonial poetics, Dana Naone Hall’s memorable imagery, Joe Balaz’s [End Page 84] intimate tones, Mahealani Perez-Wendt’s political lyricism, and Wayne Kaumualii Westlake’s subtle humor. What sets McDougall apart, in my opinion, is her complex narrativity and formal skill.
The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Pa‘akai begins with a section titled “Po” (the creative source of the Hawaiian world): “the dark before the light” (6). The first poem of the same title begins:
Before the land was tamed by industry, the oceanside resorts and pineapple plantations, before the cane knife’s rust, the dark time of sickness, the coming of cannons, the bitter waters drunk, before the metallic salt of blood
McDougall alludes to the colonial history of Hawaii—from the establishment of tourism and sugar and pineapple plantations to the violent overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. McDougall grounds her collection in the time before history, when “[t]here was darkness without breath and Po, / pressing the entirety of a universe into a shell” (3). As a poet fluent in Hawaiian history, language, and mythology, McDougall suggests that the poem itself is a kind of shell, providing us with breath within the presence of Po. In various poems throughout, McDougall invokes the gods—Po, Kane, Lono, Kanaloa, Ku, Hina, Papahanaumoku, Wakea, Haumea, Pele, Hi‘iaka, Maui—to “stir the darkness” and “bring forth the light” (6). In addition, she invokes her kupuna, or ancestors, who “are all around us now, / caressing the grasses, the leaves / on each branch—they won’t let go, / just yet” (7). The undeniable hold of memory, mythology, and the past is engraved powerfully in a sonnet titled “The Petroglyphs at Olowalu”:
The highway to Lahaina, newly paved and lined in paint, curves against the mountain,
its ridges, cutting black against the gray. Draped in dry grass, windward slopes descend
from a cloudless sky toward Olowalu, whose pali is sharp, abrupt. Here, the waves [End Page 85]
carve tunnels, caves. They’ve outlived the hands who pressed the lines of ghosts into the cliff-face:
stiff triangular figures, broad-shouldered men and women, the ancestors who climb
or fall against the pali wall, buffered by ocean wind, the salt spun fine by time.
Tracing the lines those before me began— their words I ask for, the old work of hands.(11)
McDougall creates a compelling nexus of time: the ancient petroglyphs at Olowalu, Maui, carved onto lava rock; the profound aftermath of the massacre at Olowalu that occurred in the eighteenth century; the ever-changing grass, sky, waves, and cliff comprising the site; the contemporary “newly paved” highway that inscribes the landscape; and the poet herself, in the present moment, “tracing the lines.” This sonnet contains much of what is great about The Salt- Wind, Ka Makani Pa‘akai: the winding syntax, sharp imagery, subtle lyricism, and perceptive receptiveness. McDougall seems to suggest that the work “those before [her] began” continues...