- Dark Sparring: Poems by Selina Tusitala Marsh
My own father’s death in 2009 was unexpected, from a heart attack while out on a routine evening jog. Grief fell like dense rain forest—a more rugged, shifting, and half-lit terrain than I could have anticipated. Prior to that, I had thought of death as the journey of the departed. Thereafter, I found it to be a journey of those remaining. Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Dark Sparring is about death and the journey through grief, perfectly paired like sparring partners. It exposes the narrator’s loss of a parent and her redemptive, albeit unusual, journey back through her involvement in Muay Thai kick boxing. Dark Sparring is superbly titled; the use of assonance is characteristic within Marsh’s poems, while this collection arguably progresses beyond her earlier works via the “sober realism” it exemplifies (16). There is a willingness, a readiness to sit with our dead. The collection Dark Sparring is purposefully narrow, cohesive, and dark; like a fly delicately spun in a spider’s web, it is a well-chosen meal.
The first part of Dark Sparring, comprising fifteen poems, explores place. It is deliciously local, traversing the region marked out by Epeli Hau‘ofa’s 1993 essay “Our Sea of Islands” and continuing a talanoa (conversation) by other Pasifika artists and writers seeking to make sense of Pasifika geographies and selves through space and place. In this section, Marsh also calls to mind Albert Wendt’s 1996 article “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body,” which described the significance of the Samoan concept of va, or relational space: “Va is the space between, the betweenness, not empty space, not space that separates but space that relates, that holds separate entities and things together in the Unity-that-isAll, the space that is context, giving [End Page 298] meaning to things” (Wendt 1996, 18–19).
I am conscious of the relationality between spaces and bodies in Marsh’s work. Her depiction of our islands traverses Waiheke, an island in the Hauraki Gulf of Aotearoa where Marsh lives; her homelands, Sāmoa and Tuvalu; and the Fiji Islands. I am drawn to the bright colors in her resonant descriptions of place, as in “Bound for Sigatoka”: “children with red balloons / rush at the taxi” (13). There is a visceral and embodied sense of being in-place that these descriptions invoke. Marsh’s form is at times aesthetically suggestive of scattered islands, particularly in “Afakasi Archipelago,” a series of smart haiku (18–19). To build on Audre Lorde’s term “biomythography,” which conjures the relationship between self and reimagined stories and histories (Zami, A New Spelling of My Name, 1982), Marsh’s work is perhaps a “biogeography,” a poetic mapping of self through place, and of place via Pasifika imaginary.
Poems explore the complexities of Pasifika self and subjectivity as selves in motion as our geographies change. Our geographies change through migration, as in the poem “Niu Sila Skin” in which Marsh meditates on the in-betweenness of her uncle’s belonging: “maybe uncle belongs / in the ocean / … / where his spirit / can frigate fly between the two lands” (12). Our geographies are transformed by climate change. The poem “Girl from Tuvalu” begins and ends with an enduring image of “girl sits on porch / back of house / feet kicking” in the rising seawater (23). There is a shift in the representation of the girl’s situational subjectivity from her name “Siligia” to the depersonalized “Girl from Tuvalu: Environmental Refugee” (23), which reflects the institutionalized gaze of development and foreign aid agencies, global media presence, states, and multilateral organizations. The ambivalent image at the poem’s close—“girl sits on porch / kicking”—hints at both futility and the grace of presence (24). It draws us back to the embodied and lived experience of Tuvalu.
If part one of Dark Sparring is the “where” of Marsh’s life, attending to her relationship with the outer world, then part two is the “how,” attending to her psychic, emotional, spiritual, and...