Thursday, June 4, 2009

Fast Talking PI by Selina Tusatala Marsh

This review first appeared in the Christchurch Press Saturday 30 May 2009.

Selena Tusitala Marsh's debut collection reads like something spoken, rather than written. This cements her a place in the longstanding tradition of volumes published by performance poets in New Zealand. Notable precedents include David Mitchell, Apirana Taylor and of course Tusiata Avia. The central position of the poem as spoken work is further emphasised by the CD included with the book.

Marsh demonstrates a strong understanding of how the poem's placement on the page, its punctuation and use of repetition can inform the way it is read, evident in the impetus and speed of "Googling Tusitalia", "Not Another Nafanua Poem" and "Has the Whole Tribe Come Out From England?", contrasting with the slow meditation of "Langston's Mother" and "Contact 101".

Also at work is an astute knowledge of precedent and tradition, through which Marsh demonstrates an acute awareness of the history of both New Zealand and the Pacific. The legend of Himemoa and Tutanekai is invoked alongside the Samoan goddess Nafanua (Familliar from Avia's book Bloodclot) and the Hawaiian volcano deity Pele-'ai'honua; Gauguin makes an appearance, as does Bligh with his fellow mutineers from the Bounty. In "Realpolitik" Captain James Cook's Journals are pillaged in a more politically overt echo of Alan Loney's similar treatment in his A Great Antiskorbutick. The eponymous poem of the collection is dedicated to Anne Waldman, to whose Fast Speaking Woman the poem's title does homage. Also present is the ghost of the Oxacan Shamaness-seer María Sabina, whose trance-like chants permeate both Marsh and Waldman’s texts.

Having said all this there are several qualifications that I would like to make, though these are generally on matters of taste rather than objective issues of quality. Certain poems seem weak when compared to other, stronger poems in the collection, and some that are technically strong are let down by their underlying concepts or subject matter, or vice versa. An example of this is “Two Nudes on a Tahitian Beach, 1894”, where the subject matter, the sexual objectification of Pasifika Women in Gauguin’s painting of the same name, and the associated rage, are let down by predictable treatment. Compared with the real emotional impact that a persona poem can manifest as demonstrated in “Mutiny on Pitcairn”, and the stronger treatment of the same theme in “Guys Like Gauguin”, the former poem seems lacking.

In spite of this the collection is a very strong debut, and “Le Amataga”, “Afakasi”, “Cirlce of Stones” and the two Hawai’i poems are reason enough to continue rereading this book time and time again.

No comments: