'What if all I can see is a mountain?'

Poetic meditations on place in Hawai`i

No`u Revilla, Aiko Yamashiro, Jaimie Gusman, Lyz Soto


     an architecture of choice.


     clutched to bone.

     — Aiko Yamashiro


This past Thursday, March 1, 2012, I attended two poetry events in Honolulu. The first was an English department colloquium presented by four University of Hawai`i at Mānoa graduate students, Lyz Soto, No`u Revilla, Aiko Yamashiro, and Jaimie Gusman, entitled “Place, Space, and Performance in Poetry.” The second was “A Conversation with W.S. Merwin” at Kennedy Theater on the UHM campus. As luck would have it, Merwin also wanted to talk about place. After receiving an honorary doctorate and the gift of a poi pounder, he noted that the honor was especially meaningful to him because it came from the place he'd “adopted as [his] homeland.” Throughout both presentations, the conflict between home as a chosen place and home as a place “clutched to bone” resonated; it resonated very close to that bone.


Jaimie Gusman opened the afternoon colloquium by reading part of an essay on “white space” in poetry. She began a meditation with the word “open,” which is one meaning of white space.  But another meaning of “white space” came quickly after in Aiko Yamashiro's singing of the hapa haole song “Haole Hula,” which you can listen to here. “Haole” is the word for “white person” in Hawai`i; it can describe someone (“he's the haole guy in class”) or it can be an insult (with profane prefix). Haole are people who came from elsewhere, and hapa haole music emerged in the early 20th century, as a kind of Hawaiian music sung in English. Harry B. Soria, an expert on pre-statehood music, describes hapa haole music this way: "It was the outgrowth of the professional arm of tourism . . . It was danced to, in the Western style, seen as a means to promote visitors to Hawai'i; at the same time, it first appeared in the early 1900s as an outgrowth of the suppression of the Hawaiian language, when a generation of Hawaiian youth was being discouraged to speak Hawaiian to their children. In fact, there was a statute that made it illegal to school your children at home in Hawaiian to perpetuate the language." When the Hawaiian ‘ōlelo came back in the late 20th century, along with traditional hula, hapa haole music went into decline (though my daughter learned to dance “Little Grass Shack” recently in her hula class).


The “fair haunting” of Hawai`i invoked by Aiko Yamashiro's singing led the others in many directions, from Lyz Soto's description of a bank line in which a woman clutched a romance novel and a man was sweating with what the speaker feared was “credit causality.” The themes began to pile up: womanhood, daughterhood, motherhood, meditation (as a way of dealing with these anxieties?), tourism, art.  Then there was the male gaze on Hawaiian women in No`u Revilla's Powerpoint (irony upon irony): "To really see me, to (go)ogle me.  The search box beckons you.  Enter those keywords...Hawaiian Woman in Bikini." Where the afternoon had begun with an invocation to silence and white space, that space was soon filled, both aurally and actually, as the four performers walked around the room, making us into a theater of the nearly round. Central to all of this intellectual and emotional activity was the performance of Aiko Yamashiro as a photographer at "Long-Back Ranch" north of Kāne`ohe. Photography, like hula, is an art, but it's also imbricated with tourism; at one point her speaker heard tourists wondering why they should pay $15 for photographs of themselves. At best, such photographs memorialize vacations. At worst, they record the destruction of beautiful places.


     The old woman takes a picture of those subarashii mountains.

     The teenage girl takes a picture of the cats who follow my boss around and meow for the chicken bones he throws them.

     I take a picture of a cross-eyed goat on a hill, with Chinaman's Hat in the background.

     The tourists take pictures of white horses, black horses, mottled horses, spotted horses, all with big horse nostrils. They remark on how big they are.

     My boss takes pictures of tourists wilting on tired horses.

     The mother takes a picture of buffet food: a slab of barbeque ribs wider than her daughter's smile.


And so on. A local audience knows that “Chinaman's Hat” is a contested name; the Hawaiian name is Mokoli`i. And that same local audience knows that goats, like pigs, ravage the landscape of these islands. So the lovely photographs (and they would be lovely, because the Ko`olau are gorgeous) contain the seeds of destruction within them.


Later that evening, W.S. Merwin talked at length about very different seeds. He has grown rare indigenous palms on land in Haiku, Maui since 1976. He began his extemporaneous talk by citing Henry David Thoreau's “faith in a seed.” The seed carries the 90 million year history of its palm, Merwin said, and trees are places in themselves. He talked of making his Maui land fertile after it had been ravaged by “rats, goats, pigs, and humans.” He knew that Hawaiians who had been occupying Kahoolawe in protest of the military's 40 year bombing run had taken shelter on that land for a few days. (Kahoolawe's other enemy has been goats.) And he spoke of the destruction of native lowland birds by the mosquitos brought in on English whaling ships. He left no wiggle room for humans, saying that to “have dominion over all” is suicidal. After quoting Wittgenstein, another writer who had changed homelands (moving to England from Austria), Merwin read a series of poems around the idea of homecoming, noting that Rainer Maria Rilke (also Austrian) had written that every true poet at maturity has one basic theme, homecoming.”  According to Merwin, "our society is in danger of losing its sense of place and homecoming."


Merwin has been criticized in Hawai`i for his epic poem The Folding Cliffs, based as it is on Pi`ilani's account of Ko`olau's flight from authorities after he contracted Hansen's disease in 1892, just a year before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by American businessmen. Issues of history, truthfulness, representation, citation, and — above all — appropriation and colonialism, were raised in regard to this book, the one full-length book he has written about Hawai`i. He recorded his own thinking on these issues in the poem “Chord,” originally published in The Rain in the Trees (1988), ten years before The Folding Cliffs came out. This poem poses the excruciating problems of place in Hawai`i by making contrasts between the English poet, John Keats, and the ravages of colonialism in the Pacific. Let me quote the first and last lines of this poem.  You can find the entire piece here:


     While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests

     while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes echoing through

     the forests

     while he sat in the walled garden on the hill outside the city they thought of their gardens

     their gardens dying far away on the mountain

     while the sound of the words clawed at him they thought of their wives

     while the tip of his pen travelled the iron they had coveted was hateful to themselves

     while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers



     when he lay with the odes behind him the wood was sold for cannons

     when he lay watching the window they came home and lay down

     and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language 


Aiko Yamashiro's photographer isn't so far from W.S. Merwin's poet. Both make beauty, often oblivious to the destruction of the earth and the imposition of new languages on places where people already spoke them. In my graduate class the next day, Merwin talked about how poetry is the “precise expression of mixed feelings — a point of indecision.” Notably, seeming almost to echo Jaimie Gusman’s instructions to her audience to meditate, to “open” spaces, he talked at length about Buddhist traditions and practice. There are so many possibilities for closing down.  It was a delight to hear all these talented writers working to clear space — not by destroying life, but by unsettling it — “hammocked between ideologies that resemble family members,” as Lyz Soto aptly put it.