[It's a year tomorrow since I arrived back in Auckland after a stint teaching at Tonga's 'Atenisi Institute. My body may have spent 2014 in Niu Sila, but my mind has often gone back to the Friendly Islands.
I've written about Tongan art for EyeContact and about Tongan marching bands for Landfall, and in the latest issue of Poetry New Zealand I have an essay about the visits that Murray Edmond and Richard von Sturmer made to 'Atenisi last year, the adventures they had in the seas and streets of Tonga, and the friendships they made around kava bowls. The first seven hundred or so words of 'Jumping in the Drink' turned up on this blog back in July; here are they are again, along with rest of the text.]
In 1931, when he was twenty-six years old and had already published a couple of volumes of poetry, RAK Mason visited the Kingdom of Tonga on the Tofua, a steamship that connected Auckland with the ports of the tropical Pacific.
Then as now, Tonga teemed with punake, or poets, whose works, which typically feature dance and music as well as lyrics, were performed around kava bowls and at events like weddings and festivals. Punake were part of the ornate culture that had developed over the three thousand years since humans had settled the Tongan archipelago. (1)
Although Mason enjoyed his short stay in Tonga - in letters home he described the kingdom as a 'delightful place', and reckoned that its people were 'the happiest' in the world - he does not seem to have sampled the local literary culture. (2)
It is fascinating to wonder what Mason might have made of his Tongan counterparts, had he encountered them at a kava circle or festival. Frustrated by his distance from the literary centres of Europe and by the indifference of his countrymen to his books, the young Auckland poet had often complained that he was trapped in a remote and philistine corner of the world - a 'perilous hostile place' at the 'friendless outer edge of space'. (3)
In the late 1930s and the '40s, Mason's vision of the South Pacific as a remote, rawly new, and philistine region would be accepted and advertised by younger writers like Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch, and Monty Holcroft; by the 1950s it would be an orthodoxy.
Might the history of New Zealand literature have been different, if Mason had been ushered into a kava shack on the shore of a Tongan lagoon, and found the work of the kingdom's esteemed caste of punake being performed there? Might the young poet's conviction that he lived in a remote and philistine corner of the world have melted, as he drank bowls of narcotics in the warm Tongan evening, and joined the clapping and foot-stomping that often accompanies kava songs? Might he have realised that a rich and highly valued literary culture could be found not just in faraway Europe, but in New Zealand's nearest neighbour? And might the punake of Tonga, rather than the Georgian poets of England or the verse propagandists of the Soviet Union, have become Mason's literary models?
Tonga is a place that prompts this sort of counterfactual speculation. The only piece of the Pacific to avoid colonisation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has evolved unusual and surprisingly robust economic and political systems. The kingdom's constitution bans the sale of land, and most of its people still work small farms land granted to them by the state. From the air even Tongatapu, the largest and by far the most populous island of the archipelago, resembles a forest of coconut, banana and mango trees. Palangi make up only a sliver of the Tongan population.
A visit to Tonga can feel, then, like a journey into an alternative version of New Zealand history, where Polynesians were never robbed of their land and language, and where Wakefield never planted capitalism.
In the 1950s some of Tonga's top students began to arrive at universities in Australia and New Zealand. The anthropologist and novelist 'Epeli Hau'ofa, the classicist and philosopher Futa Helu, and the poet and educationalist Konai Helu Thaman all began dialogues, in their texts and in their teaching, between Tongan and palangi cultures.
In the 1960s Futa Helu returned to his homeland and founded the 'Atenisi, or Athens, Institute on the waterlogged outskirts of Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital and only city. Helu's school soon attracted hundreds of students, and became a sort of borderland between Tonga and the rest of the world, where the gods, philosophers, and poets of Polynesia, Europe, and Asia were equally revered, and where scholars and students from New Zealand and many more distant nations were welcomed.
In 2012 a feature-length documentary film about Futa Helu prompted new interest in 'Atenisi, and in 2013, when I worked at the school, I was able to get several New Zealand intellectuals, including the distinguished poets Murray Edmond and Richard von Sturmer, to visit. (4)
Edmond and von Sturmer spent a week each in Tonga. During his visit in June, Edmond mentored my Creative Writing students and members of 'Atenisi's performing arts group, gave a public lecture about the history and literature of his native Waikato, offered a workshop on drama writing and acting to sixty excited students from local high schools, and read his poem 'End Wall' on national television.
When von Sturmer visited in September, most of 'Atenisi's students were away on a short-notice tour of America. Tonga's Baha'i community, though, organised a series of lectures and workshops where von Sturmer instructed their members in Zen Buddhism, meditation, and haiku writing. Von Sturmer also befriended members of Nuku'alofa's thriving visual arts scene, like the sculptor Visesio Siasau and the painter Tevita Latu.
Siasau brought von Sturmer to his workshop, and showed off the crucified Tangaloas and hermaphroditic Virgin Marys he was sculpting from glass and painting on tapa; later he took his guest on a tour of the sites of Tongatapu's ancient pagan godhouses.
A few days after he'd returned to the cold latitudes of New Zealand, Murray Edmond e mailed me a series of ten texts he had titled 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses'. With their loose lines connected by sound as much as sense, the 'Choruses' might have been a response to the musicality of Tongan poetry.
When Richard von Sturmer arrived in Tonga, I showed him Edmond's 'Dream Choruses'. I joked that Tongan poets had traditionally engaged in verbal battles with one another - the senior court punake Fineasi Malukava, for instance, famously exchanged insults with a boastful young rival named Fakatava at the beginning of the twentieth century - and suggested that he and Murray might like to emulate that pattern. Richard is far too good-natured to engage in verbal duels, but I think that the precedent of the 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses' encouraged him to write poetry of his own during his time in Tonga.
At a kava gathering held the night before his departure from the kingdom, von Sturmer read some of a series of poems he had recently written into his notebook, and had given the title 'Tonga'. Although they were constructed in the tight, Zen-inspired forms that von Sturmer has long favoured, the poems were full of images of Tongatapu – there were pigs and whales and coconuts and, of course, kava.
I want to mention four themes that I find in Murray Edmond's 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses' and in Richard von Sturmer's 'Tonga'.
Tonga teems with churches. Theological dispute is incessant, and sects regularly split, as the losers of an argument about the nature of the trinity or the proper interpretation of a hymn declare their organisational independence and eternal righteousness. (5)
Both Murray Edmond and Richard von Sturmer were fascinated by Tonga's fractious religious life. The second of Edmond's 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses' records the visit that a young would-be church-builder made to an 'Atenisi kava gathering. As Edmond nodded neutrally, the young man, who claimed to have cracked a mathematical code hidden in the Bible, explained that Tongatapu had been the site of the garden of Eden, and that Tongans were god's chosen people. More confusingly, he insisted that Adam and Eve were both men, and had only been able to reproduce because of a miraculous improvisation by the Holy Ghost:
On a Sunday we drove Edmond to the village of Folaha, which sits on a peninsula in the Fanga'uta Lagoon, Tongatapu's warm, shallow, and very polluted inland sea. We had been invited to a service at the Folaha branch of the Church of Tonga, one of the kingdom's dozen or so Wesleyan sects. The church's black-suited priest delivered a long sermon at high volume from a high pulpit, giving particular emphasis to the nouns tevolo (devil), vale (fool), and Setani (Satan).
Edmond decided we should recover from the sermon by moving on to Oholei Beach Resort, which has a bar built into a large cave and a special license that allows it to sell alcohol to palangi tourists and other degenerates on Sundays. We arrived to find a band playing loudly from a stage set up in the middle of the cave. Edmond, my wife and I were sipping beers and forgetting about god when the bandleader, who happened to be the owner of Oholei resort, silenced his musicians and began to preach. "I worship the lord in my own way" he told us. "Mine is the church of rock and roll." Oholei's owner spent the next hour singing old Wesleyan hymns, while his guitarist leaned on a wah wah pedal and his drummer played jazz rolls.
Murray Edmond was delighted by the concert in the cave, which reminded him of the chaotic, competitive jams that poets and musicians held on New Zealand stages in the 1970s. The eighth of his 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses' honours Oholei's Sunday service:
Church of Jesus Christ of
Rock'n Roll save your soul
immortal Jelly Roll
Richard Von Sturmer's studies of Buddhism have taken him to Chinese cave-temples and American monasteries, but he is interested in all religious traditions, and shortly after arriving in Tonga he asked to be taken to a church. "I’d like to visit the most fire and brimstone of them all", he said, with the defiant look of a diner who has just insisted on ordering the hottest curry on a restaurant menu. When we ended up sitting through another loud peroration at another branch of the Church of Tonga, von Sturmer used his training in meditation to make the escape he described in this tanka:
when the long sermon begins
to hang out with the spiders
Big Mama's island
Writing from the Tofua, RAK Mason explained that Tongan ports were 'so difficult' they could only be entered 'by daylight'. Nuku'alofa's harbour is decorated by dozens of coral atolls and sandbars. Wrecked steamers and yachts lie on strips of coral; buoys and wooden crosses attempt to distinguish safe channels from sand. Maps produced by palaeoclimatologists show the ground where Nuku'alofa now stands covered by sea, and a medieval Tongan poet's description of the harbour mentions several islands that have since drowned.
The little archipelago in Nuku'alofa harbour has been favoured by invaders, traders, and exiles. Pangaimotu, which sits only a couple of kilometres off the coast of Tongatapu, was a base for Cook and a refuge, nearly seven decades later, for Bishop Pompallier, whose Catholic faith and French allies were unpopular with the rulers of Tongatapu.
Today the island is the home of Carl Emberson, a lean, brown-skinned Dane who was a favourite at the king of Tonga's card table in the 1960s. Carl and his wife Ana, who hails from the northern Niuan islands and is known throughout Tonga as Big Mama, run a sand-floored bar whose walls are covered with yacht flags, polaroids, erotic graffiti, and exotic banknotes left by generations of visitors. A few feet from this sanctuary, the hull of a wrecked ship rears out of Pangaimotu's warm, shallow lagoon. A couple of hundred feet in the other direction is the foundation mound of an ancient godhouse, where shaman-priests drank hallucinogenic kava and channeled voices from Pulotu, an island over the western horizon inhabited by spirits. (6)
With its lovely but sea-eaten coast and its reminders of a ruined past, Pangaimotu can both delight and discomfort visitors. Von Sturmer's writing has always been both grateful for and sadly aware of the transitory nature of earthly pleasures. For him, the fish that cruise Pangaimotu's lagoon have become part of the island, and will share its fate:
by their shadows.
In the ‘Tongatapu Dream Choruses’, Murray Edmond makes a more jocular reference to aquatic adventures in Nuku'alofa's harbour:
when you're feeling full of beans
jump in the drink
The ruins of Nuku'alofa
Nuku'alofa is not an especially old place - it was only a minor settlement before the first modern ruler of Tonga, the Wesleyan warlord Taufa'ahau, chose a site for his capital in the middle of the nineteenth century - but it is full of ruins. Humidity and termites have rotted and collapsed scores of the city’s wooden buildings, while poor-quality concrete and self-taught architects have ensured the dereliction of many of its newer structures. The riot of November 2006 saw arsonists and looters add to Nuku'alofa's stock of ruins.
Richard von Sturmer is a film maker and actor - he first visited Western Polynesia in the late '80s, when he co-starred in Martyn Sanderson's adaption of Albert Wendt's Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree - as well as a poet, and last September he spent hours wandering Nuku'alofa with a camera. His poems record visits to a couple of the city's ailing buildings.
On Hala Mateialana (hala is the Tongan word for road), just east of the Nuku'alofa's central business district, von Sturmer discovered the half dozen termite-tormented cottages that serve as the city's public mortuary. In Tonga, the dead are usually prepared for burial at the home of family members. Inevitably, though, some of the dead are unable to find hospitality in a private home. Although it lacks the high-tech freezers of its New Zealand equivalents, the mortuary on Hala Mateialana provides a place where these people can await burial. After talking with the supervisor of the mortuary, von Sturmer was allowed to look around the site. Like the unstable archipelago of Nuku'alofa harbour, the warm bodies lying on termite-ridden wood make the poet fearful:
to bury my bones...
is filled with yellow wasps.
One of Nuku'alofa's more spectacular ruins is the Meseia (Messiah) Plaza, a sprawling concrete building in the city's central business district. The Plaza was opened in 1980 by the Tokaikolo Fellowship, a recently expelled faction of Tonga's state-endorsed Free Wesleyan Church. Tokaikolo's founder and first leader was Senituli Koloi, a thin, charismatic faith healer who held huge open air meetings in the Tongatapu countryside where he denounced modern medicine as an insult to God. Koloi urged his followers to prove their faith by fasting; he died the year the Meseia Plaza was opened, after refusing food for eighteen days.
If Koloi was a Tongan Cathar, then his successor, the long-reigning, bloated Liufau Saulala, resembles one of the debauched Popes of the fourteenth century. Under Saulala's leadership, Tokaikolo has run up big debts and suffered big splits. The Meseia building was supposed to brim with shops and offices, but when Richard von Sturmer squeezed through a smashed window and explored its dim and dank interior the only occupants he discovered were lying in sleeping bags on the concrete floors of empty rooms. Von Sturmer eventually found his way to the Plaza's abandoned rooftop, which for a while housed a popular restaurant and nightclub:
no one answers your prayers.
an ancient satellite dish.
Swingman, whose real name is Siua Ongosia, was Tonga's first hip hop star. About a decade ago he began rapping in Tongan over beats and samples that were sometimes supplied by other members of the Ongosia family, like his brother Jimmy. Then, as now, Swingman's lyrics were held together by insistent rhymes, rather than by linear narrative or argument. Swingman can throw bizarre images at this audience, begin and break off anecdotes, boast about or bemoan his love life, and tell long jokes that appear to lack punchlines, but his ramblings are always contained within strict, hypnotic rhyme schemes. After a period of success, when he was employed by the government to rap about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and recorded a series of videos that became youtube hits, Swingman developed a reputation for odd behaviour. He was seen beside Nuku'alofa main drag, waving his arms about as if he were flying; he took the stage at a music festival in the countryside, but refused to open his mouth, preferring to entertain the audience with a series of enigmatic hand gestures.
As his live appearances and new recordings dwindled, Swingman could often be found on Railway Road, which follows the route of an old tramline between downtown Nuku'alofa and the dirty lagoon on the city's southern fringe. Railway Road runs past the ruins of many buildings that were torched during the 2006 riot, as well as stores full of pirated DVDs, kava shacks, barber's shops, and the headquarters of the Fakaletti Association, which looks after the needs of Tonga's increasingly oppressed trans-sexual community. Railway Road is a popular site for drug sales; during the night fakaletti solicit from its burnt-out lots.
The young people who gather on Railway Road are alienated from Tonga's traditional village-based life. Often, though, petty criminal convictions and a lack of cash mean they cannot leave Tonga. They spent their time getting stoned on marijuana grown in the Tongatapu bush, on crack cocaine pulled off ships from America, and on anti-psychotics stolen from Nuku'alofa's hospital.
A kilometre or so from Railway Road, in a lagoonside kava shack, the painter Tevita Latu has founded the Seleka Club, where he mentors some of the Nuku'alofa's youth and teaches them the intricacies of drawing and collage. The Seleka Club is a determinedly rebellious institution - its name is an anagram of the Tongan word for shitting, its members drink kava from a toilet bowl, and its stereo blasts death metal and hip hop into the Nuku'alofa night - and it has provided a refuge for Swingman, and for some of the other casualties of Tongan society. If he is not on Railway Road or in prison, the rapper can often be found at the Seleka Club. (7)
I was introduced to Swingman's music by 'Atenisi students Miko Tohi and ‘Alokoulu ‘Ulukivaiola, who have been shooting footage of the rapper for what they hope will develop into a documentary movie, as well as translating some of his lyrics into English. Both Tohi and 'Ulukivaiola consider Swingman a genius, and are depressed by the way that other, lesser rappers, like Junior Fakatava, a descendant of the boastful Fakatava who confronted Fineasi Malukava more than a century ago, have usurped his place in Tonga's music scene. (8)
Not everyone shares Tohi and 'Ulukivaiola’s enthusiasm for Siua Ongosia. Many conservative Tongans believe that his strange music and drug-assisted antics symbolise the decadence of Nuku'alofan youth.
In certain ways, though, Swingman can perhaps be considered a traditional Tongan poet. Like many previous punake, he relies on rhyme to hold together long, essentially unmetered lines, couples his words with music and dance moves, and duels verbally with his rivals. Even Swingman's interest in drugs is arguably traditional: in pre-Christian Tonga poets, as well as priests, would use hallucinogenic kava to receive inspiration from the spirits in Pulotu.
Both Murray Edmond and Richard von Sturmer were fascinated by the stories they heard about Swingman, and excited by his work. Swingman makes an appearance at the end of the 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses':
Streets at night
With its use of rhyme and half-rhyme to connect sometimes absurdly divergent thoughts, Edmond’s sequence reminds me of the Tongan rapper.
When von Sturmer performed some of his Tongan poems at the kava gathering held to mark his last night in the kingdom, the audience was delighted by his surreal imagery. Tevita Latu, who was a part of Richard's audience, remarked that the images in the following lines could have come straight from Swingman:
And a giant hand
of a hurricane.
of a green hurricane.
I like to think of the poems that Murray Edmond and Richard von Sturmer wrote in Tonga last year as belated correctives to the indifference that palangi New Zealand writers have shown towards their nearest neighbour. Edmond and von Sturmer have taken the opportunity that RAK Mason missed back in 1931. I hope others will follow them.
(1) Eric Shumway’s essay ‘Ko E Kakalangilangi: The Eulogistic Function of the Tongan Poet’, which was published in the Journal of Pacific Studies in 1977, provides a detailed introduction to traditional Tongan-language poetry, but is influenced by its author’s very conservative politics. Wendy Pond’s essay ‘Wry Comment from the Outback: Songs of Protest from the Niua Islands, Tonga’, which was first published in the Journal of Oral Tradition in 1990, analyses several songs and dances created in the 1960s and ‘70s, and shows the political complaints that are half-hidden in their imagery and in their historical allusions. In 2012 Atuanui Books published On Tongan Poetry, a group of articles that Futa Helu wrote in the early 1980s about the various genres in which punake work.
(2) RAK Mason’s adventures in the tropical Pacific are described in Rachel Barrowman’s Mason: A Life, which was published by Victoria University Press in 2003, and in John Caselberg’s Poet Triumphant: the Life of Writings of RAK Mason, which was published by Steel Roberts in 2002.
(3) The phrases come from Mason’s ‘Sonnet of Brotherhood’, which he wrote seven years before his visit to Tonga.
(4) For information about Tongan Ark, which draws on its director Paul Janman’s experiences as a teacher at ‘Atenisi in the early noughties, visit this webpage.
(5) Anthropologists Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole, who visited Tonga at the end of the 1930s, decided that the country’s religious diversity was, paradoxically enough, a source of social cohesion. In their short book Pangai: a Village in Tonga, which was published by the Polynesian Society in 1941, they argue that the variety of churches allowed individual Tongans to express a sense of difference or register a protest without venturing into the largely proscribed realm of politics. The Beagleholes cite the example of a Tongan with eccentric but passionate theological views, who moved from one church to another as he tested the tolerance of fellow worshippers, and talk of men who felt disempowered by the kingdom’s Wesleyan establishment and so joined its Catholic community as a sort of protest. Not everyone agrees with the Beagleholes’ sanguine view of Tonga’s religious disunity. For Maikolo Horowitz, an American sociologist who taught at ‘Atenisi for many years, Tonga is the ‘Texas of the South Pacific’ because of the inability of its people to agree about theological, as well as secular, matters. Other scholars, like ‘Opeti Talia, note the ritualised brawling by students of schools run by Tonga’s rival churches. I blogged about the different analyses of Tonga’s religious disunity here.
(6) Niel Gunson, a missionary turned scholar of religious history at the Australian National University, has written repeatedly about Tonga’s ancient godhouses and the priests who performed inside them. In ‘A Note on Oceanic Shamanism’, which was published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 2009, Gunson summarises his findings and defends them from critics. Gunson’s excavation of Tonga’s pre-Christian religious history has greatly influenced some of the kingdom’s artists and intellectuals, including Sio Siasau.
(7) I have written about Tevita Latu and his extraordinary club here.
(8) To give some idea of Swingman’s style, here are some lines from Ulukivaiola and Tohi’s the translation of ‘Taahine Kaka’ (‘Cheating Girl’), a song that can be found on youtube:
Over my love for your flock of hair
I often ride the bus and play music.
I’m begging you to make a family with me
Trust me, I’m getting wirier
Join with me for I have a tractor…
Even though I have no lover
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]