Leilani Tamu The Art of Excavation Anahera Press, 2014
Leilani Tamu graduated with an MA in Pacific History at the University of Auckland. She is also a poet, social commentator and has worked as a New Zealand Diplomat. She was the 2013 Fulbright -Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer in Residence at the University of Hawai’i. Her poetry has appeared in numerous collections.
Leilani’s debut collection is in debt to the ‘concepts, ideas and philosophy’ underpinning her Masters thesis: Re-defining ‘the beach’: the Municipality of Apia, 1879 -1900. This poetry is the work of a poet who is Pacific archaeologist, word alchemist, hot-air balloonist (sees the world from new perspectives), scholar, musician, navigator, storyteller. The poems forge vibrant links with people and place, and with both economy and flair, they frame scenes and anecdotes. I was struck by the way the weighty package of a thesis is reduced to the slender frame and form of a poem yet billows with scholarly insight. A single phrase can open the poem out for the reader (‘layers of decaying colonial matter’ ‘but the missionaries/ caught the message/ on the wind/ and ate the bat’ ‘hijacked history remains supreme/ over dusty archives’).
Yes, these poems take you into history, a Pacific history that is forward facing as much as it includes travels into the past. Yes, these poems are fueled by a genealogy of Pacific writers (there is a wonderful tribute to Albert Wendt’s ‘Inside Us the Dead’). Yes, these poems are lifted by a familial genealogy. The extensive endnotes and glossary add to the reading experience as they shine light on the genesis of a poem or linguistic options. What I particularly admired were the poetic choices that sung the Pacific as much as they commented on the Pacific. The line breaks augment the economy of words, together establishing the silent beats that evoke that which cannot be spoken, that which is spoken, that which is cradled and shared within overlapping traditions of the Pacific. Or the aural chords and suspended alliteration that enacts the chords that link this person with that person, this place with that place, this event with that event. In ‘Midden Secrets’: you move from’ gut’ to ‘while at road juncture/ a collarbone juts out’. In ‘A Tribute to the Black Ghost’: ‘like a black ghost the Sun’s ray glides/ on the surface of the lake-like lagoon’ and ‘with a flick of a wing/ her long sting trails behind.’
This is an impressive debut that lays poetic roots in the present in order to nourish the past.
Anahera Press page here