Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Alice Te Punga Somerville’s ‘Written yesterday’

Written yesterday

It’s Valentine’s Day at this far edge of the Pacific
Clouds hang heavy, obscuring the shape of the land

Cook never made it here
But, according to Wikipedia, he made all of this possible:

I now live in the most livable city in the world
Named after a man who, they say, died in obscurity 

One Of Those White Men whose names are all most of us know
about places they barely touched


Whose names have become lines we are forced to repeat to repent of our sins

Vancouver who was born in Norfolk
           (Pauline soaks aute on an Armidale afternoon –
           her work and her veins tying her family via Norfolk Island
           via Pitkern
           to Tahiti)
Vancouver who forty years later died in Petersham
           (my Sydneysider Ngāpuhi friend Carleen
           lived near Petersham
           on Gadigal country)
which is in Surrey
           there’s a Surrey here too –
           home of the fourth largest Indo-Fijian community in the world)

Vancouver mapped this Eastern edge of Oceania,
Becoming one of those white men who will never be obscure or forgotten

From here, when I look back towards home,
Hawai’i is in the middle distance –

Those complex supple islands where I repaired my waka
the other time I fled from home

Those staunch expansive islands
where love put Cook where he belonged  

It’s already the fifteenth of February in Aotearoa
And the annual jokes about Cookery and love for Hawaiians
are day-old tweets

While here, today, it’s still the fourteenth –
The day to march downtown for lives and deaths of Indigenous women

But we’ve moved too recently with a daughter
too young to be kept safe in a pandemic
            (As if this colony has ever been safe for Indigenous girls)

So I sit, scrolling, in a hired car and read
that New Zealand’s sixth highest mountain
           is also called Vancouver.

I am trying to guess which maunga his name has smothered
and for how long,

I am undone, again –

By how much I have yet to learn about the place I am from

And how much I have yet to learn about this lovely drizzly place

With all these names that hang heavy,
                                               obscuring the shape of the land.

Alice Te Punga Somerville

Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Āti Awa, Taranaki) is a scholar, poet and irredentist. She researches and teaches Māori, Pacific and Indigenous texts in order to centre Indigenous expansiveness and de-centre colonialism. Alice is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. She studied at the University of Auckland, earned a PhD at Cornell University, is a Fulbright scholar and Marsden recipient and has held academic appointments in New Zealand, Canada, Hawai‘i and Australia. Her first book Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) won Best First Book from the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association. A recent book is Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook (BWB, 2020). Alice’s debut poetry collection, Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised (Auckland University Press), is shortlisted for the 2023 Ockham NZ Book Awards.

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