- The Bond of Time: An Epic Love Poem by John Puhiatau Pule
Niuean poet and artist John Pule’s The Bond of Time, written when he was twenty-one, first appeared in a run limited to a hundred copies in 1985. A second edition came out in 1998 when Pule was the Pacific Writing Forum’s Writer-in-Residence at the University of the South Pacific. As Jeffrey Paparoa Holman notes in his introduction to the present edition, it has garnered little visibility in New Zealand, but the poem has remained present as text in Pule’s paintings, as referenced in art catalogs, and in the memories of those who have read it or seen it performed. In publishing this third edition, the Canterbury University Press makes available once more, in a handsome paperback, a vibrant work that anticipates much of the poet/artist’s extraordinary vision of the Pacific.
The poem’s eighty-eight pages are tightly structured in form, each containing five unrhymed five-line stanzas of verse, each line roughly the same length; the orderliness of the stanzas belies a significant turmoil built into the poem’s imagery and flow, as an ocean surface hides worlds of subaqueous complexity or a sleeping person appears motionless while expansive dreams actively occupy her mind.
Readers who approach The Bond of Time as an epic love poem expecting a coherent love story might become frustrated; narrative conventions of plot, setting, and character are diffuse, discontinuous, and erratic. Instead, Pule’s poem conjures up constellations as it interweaves varied images, scenes, words, and motifs, suggesting continuity and chronology. Pule conveys the fecundity of the natural world in the poem’s repetition of references to dolphins, whales, turtles, crabs, butterflies, ants, doves, sparrows, katipo and tui (a spider and a bird species, both indigenous to Aotearoa/New Zealand), oceans, mountains, fruits, vegetables, as well as sleep, dreams, knives, bruises, and misfortune. While the appearance of any of these and many other motifs might seem commonplace in isolation, the rhythm of their significant repetition across the epic time and space of the poem produces a gradual familiarity with the figures that populate it. Not unlike some of his paintings, Pule’s patterned arrangement of motifs makes them pulse with energy. Since he is an artist capable in many different genres and media, it should come as no surprise that Pule contemplates the affordances and conventions of poetic language, as when the speaker provocatively mixes sensorial language: “A whole repertory of symbols dances / to the tune of love-lyrics, a sculpture of / snow and yam rises from your flesh” (62).
If it is not a conventional narrative, neither is The Bond of Time a conventional love poem. While the speaker declares his love for the female addressee with euphoric sexual imagery, such words flow freely into miserable images of hatred, violence, suffering, and misfortune. The speaker narrates one prurient scene in which “as my hands toward / your breast roam, you inhale air of / ecstasy, and we love and love / again and sleep, so [End Page 296] gentle a sleep” (12), which is followed immediately by a stanza expressing dire conflict: “Your eyes close over in dagger and / glass; you breathe onto me anger and / black hate with holes of traps and / nets. What pain did we not suffer? / What bruises have not yet been done?” (13) Pule’s vision of love is volatile, regularly jolting between such extreme passions and opening the reader’s eyes to both love’s beauty and its horror, which, Pule suggests, may be mutually constitutive.
The poetic landscape that Pule creates is a dreamy phantasmagoria that constantly pushes the reader’s imagination with lurid imagery. The poem’s opening lines are evocative and grotesque: “Dolphins, nectarines and turtles, / and all at once, they jump out from your / mouth” (1). Reminiscent of the excruciating first scene of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist movie Un Chien Andalou, Pule’s imagery assaults the reader directly using the...