Poem Friday: Leilani Tamu’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ — I love the mesh of surprise and political bite

 

 

Lani_bus_printsize

Photo credit: Janet Lilo

 

 

Mouths Wide Shut


it was while I was boarding

the early morning bus

with my mouth taped shut

that I came to understand

 

silence

 

her pale eyes watching me

she didn’t know what to do

or how to react

 

to the challenge

of my impertinent act

not golden but ashen

she seemed to be shaken

 

not wanting to deal

with my rage or passion

her mind was made up

 

who cared about the reason

why my mouth was taped

shut? her role was not

to question or get involved

 

let alone make a fuss

coz it’s not her problem

if someone wants to make

a statement on board

the public bus

 

© Leilani Tamu, The Art of Excavation Anahera Press, 2014

 

 

Leilani’s note about the poem:

In 2012, I wrote an article for Metro magazine called ‘Mouths Wide Shut’ which tackled the issue of racism in New Zealand. The article focused on the implications, both personal and public, of choosing to remain silent, or do nothing, when confronted with racism. After writing the piece, I collaborated with artist Janet Lilo to stage a social / artistic intervention whereby Janet took photographs of me boarding a public bus in Auckland with my mouth covered with black duct tape. We rode the early morning bus from Avondale to Point Chevalier and during the trip not one person asked us what we were doing. People seemed to feel more comfortable ignoring us and most people looked uncomfortable. It was this experience and the subsequent photographs that inspired the poem.

The original article can be read online here

Author bio:

Leilani Tamu is a poet, social commentator, Pacific historian and former New Zealand diplomat. In 2013 she was the Fulbright / Creative New Zealand Writer in Residence at the University of Hawai’i in Mānoa. Leilani’s work has appeared in a diverse range of anthologies and her debut book of poetry The Art of Excavation was published in August 2014.

 

Paula’s note about the poem:

I had no idea about the genesis of the poem when I first read it but it really struck me. Stuck with me. I love the mesh of surprise and political bite. The title and the phrase, ‘mouth taped shut,’ were the initial hooks. It first brought to mind Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in 1955. Leilani’s title is an oxymoron yet it makes sense as the closed mouth of the title speaks volumes. It is a little cipher to carry through the poem. By being ‘sentenced’ to silence, willfully or otherwise, the taped mouth is both potent and resonant. It cuts into your state of ease. For me, it caught hold of centuries of thought, loose conversations, anecdotes and theory on women speaking and women silent, that reach back as far as Aristotle’s ‘A woman’s crown is her silence.’ The poem suggested to me that subject isn’t yet dead and there is still much to be said on the matter. Who is silence? Why is she silence? How is she silenced? Does it matter that she is a woman?

Yet this poem isn’t just issue based. It is vital, vibrant and rich with possibilities.

When I hit the word ‘silence’ in its own pillow of white space, I was tugged in a completely different direction. Now I was lead to the notion that you can observe and absorb and thus understand the world so much better if you are quiet (like the chatterer in the bush doesn’t get to experience the bush beyond the filter or screen of talk).

Then you reach the poem’s passenger and her distance. This returns you to the title and the poignant phrase. The passenger’s stance ignites thoughts on how we navigate difference and how difference is so often held at arm’s length because it is threatening, unfathomable, confusing. The notion that you can observe and absorb and thus understand the world so much better if you are quiet is tilted, flipped on its head. You get to observe, absorb and understand the world more through interrogation, through conversation. The poem is both the public bus and the public performance and it is over to us to draw close and raise questions. I love the way this poem is both understated and packs a punch. I have barely begun to pick at its threads.

Maybe you get to observe, absorb and understand the world  by both silence (observation) and engagement (questioning).

 

 

Anahera author page here

My review of The Art of Excavation here

Art_of_Excavation_cover-726x1024-1   Art_of_Excavation_cover-726x1024-1

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