Poetry Shelf favourites: Robert Sullivan picks ‘Waka 100’

Waka 100

Stroke past line 1642 into European time.
Stroke past 1769 and the introduction of the West

Stroke on the approach to 1835
and formal Northern Maori sovereignty.

Stroke into the New World and stop.

Crews alight, consign waka
to memory, family trees, remove the prowed
tauihu, drape the feathered mana
around the whare-womb
of the next crew

who are to remember waka into the beginning
of centuries years minutes hours seconds
long and short hands centred on Greenwich

each person
of waka memory to hold their thoughts,
each person of seagoing
and waterborn descent whose hard waka
are taken away.

And years later,
we ask our ancestors to wake,
whose mokopuna are carving in eyes,
restoring chiselled features, mouths
coming out of wood, genitals, feet planted
on shoulders winding into stars on ceilings,
our ancestors of a culture that has held
its breath through the age of Dominion.
They’ve adzed waka out for them –
the memories, intricate knowledge,
fleet leaders, their reasons for being –
shoulders that carried so many waka –
summoning souls of myriads of names
above hundreds of waka names.

And you waka, who have seen heaven,
the guts of the ocean, brought terror and pleasure,
who have exhausted your crews of home thoughts
who have lifted songs above the waves
of the greatest and deepest ocean,
rise – rise into the air – rise to the breath –
rise above valleys into light and recognition –
rise where all who have risen sing your names.

And you, Urizen, Jupiter, Io Matua Kore,
holder of the compasses – wind compass,
solar compass, compass encompassing known
currents, breather of the first breath
in every breathing creature,
guide the waka between islands,
between years and eyes of the Pacific
out of mythologies to consciousness.

And you stars, the ancestors,
nuclear orbs, red giants, white dwarves,
burn brilliantly, burn on the waka down there,
burn on waka riding valleys,
burn on waka on mountain summits,
burn on waka in the night,
burn on waka past the end of light.

Robert Sullivan from Star Waka

“I think the poem I go back to a lot is ‘Waka 100’ from Star Waka, the one that walks through periods of colonisation to decolonisation. It’s one of the ‘ones’ I think of when I think of the collection, although the 2001st line in the collection is at the end of the back cover poem, ‘A Cover Sail’. The repetition of the word ‘stroke’ is really a reference to the word ‘hoe’ or ‘hoea’ which also means to stroke or to paddle. These words are used in canoe chants to keep time. I’m getting quite close to explaining my own poem so I’ll stop there, except to say that I have been slowly adding poems to Star Waka in my other collections, including my newest one, Tūnui / Comet (AUP, 2022).” Robert Sullivan

Robert Sullivan (he/him/ia, Ngāpuhi and Kāi Tahu) has won awards for his poetry, editing, and writing for children, including the 2022 Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a distinguished contribution to New Zealand poetry. Tunui Comet is his eighth collection of poetry. His book Star Waka (Auckland University Press 1999) has been reprinted eight times, also with a German language edition. Robert’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Massey University. He is a great fan of all kinds of decolonisation.

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