Selina Tusitala Marsh, Dark Sparring, Auckland University Press, 2013 photo credit: Emma Hughes Photography
Selina Tusitala Marsh is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent and teaches at The University of Auckland. She was the first Pacific Islander to graduate from its English Department with a PhD. Her debut poetry collection, Fast Talkin’ PI, was awarded the Jessie MacKay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 2010. She represented Tuvalu at the London Olympics Parnassus event in 2012.
Selina’s second collection, Dark Sparring, lifts off from her debut in extraordinary ways. The poems embrace a variety of subject matter and forms, but they are held together by a voice that has grown in both strength and lightness. Selina writes out of two experiences that might seem opposed but that are equally linked both in life and on the line — the death of her mother and her adoption of Muay Thai kickboxing.
I have heard Selina perform these new poems twice in the past week or so. On each occasion, the strength of the poetry resonated in the air. At her launch, Selina was accompanied by Tim Page’s musical layerings, and she interrupted a kickboxing poem with a round or two of sparring in the room. The music and words fed upon each other with infectious energy, and the kickboxing was like a trope for the poems — graceful, startling, strong. Her performance was energised and entertaining (a definite wow factor). On the second occasion, Selina read at the Ladies Litera-Tea without musical accompaniment and without a round or two of sparring. What struck me about this performance was the way silence was a significant part of the poetry palette. The little and longer pauses heightened the emotional, personal and political kick.
The poems in this new collection embrace both the personal and the political; the former reaches out and draws you in close to private moments (a poetry of intimacy) while the latter is a voice that probes and exposes (a poetry of conscience). Both are fueled by Selina’s ear; by her attentiveness to the musicality of the line.
In the terrific opening poem, ‘Matariki,’ the poet is guiding a young writer named Matariki (who has no idea of the constellation and its meaning) in a writing workshop. The poet’s response on what to write serves as a perfect gateway into the book: ‘write what you remember/ write your lost and found/ write the toiling of the year’s grief/ write the seeding of new ground.’
Sound is always paramount. In ‘Chant from Matiatia to Orapiu,’ the words are like present-participle, daisy chains between the two locations with rhyme building the linking stems. The words zigzag down the page like bird flight or like an autobiography of movement. Then there are the single lines, without rhyme and without present participle that check you momentarily. Selina’s fondness for the present tense (a kind of be-here-now philosophy) accentuates the moment and movement.
The political poems (as with Selina’s first book) explore notions of identity, representation, genealogy, tradition, ethnicity and so on. There is always an acknowledgement of the line of writers (mostly women) from which Selina writes. Albert Wendt is there in ‘Emailing Albert.’ There is the poem about the Somali refugees that make words ache and rebound in new ways in the poetry workshop. This poem’s structure is handled beautifully so that it becomes an occasion for both poetry and politics with elegance and a sharp edge. There is the poem, ‘NZ, the Lucky Country,’ that is like a homage to here, unblinkered, incantatory, thankful. It is like a breath of fresh air.
The poems that centre upon the death of her mother, are deeply personal, utterly moving, and stall you, but they have a touch of the grace and strength of the kickboxer. These poems are highly original as Selina has moved about her boxing ring falling upon different shapes and forms to house her experience. The titles suggest this terrific movement; ’30 ways to Look at a Mother,’ ’13 Ways of Looking at Mourning,’ ‘To War with Story,’ ‘On Plagarism’ (which is after Bill Manhire and is all for killing off cancer and breaching copyright). ‘Genesis’ is like a biblical tale or parable on the origins of cancer, on cell warfare. These poems tug at you, stop you, soothe you, make you laugh out loud, and they feed empathy. In ‘A Formal Dinner,’ Selina moves you from smiling at the need to provide so much food at the funeral to a heart twinge at the absence of the table setter. These poems work as glorious symphonies of sound on the page but they also work as acute and tender tributes to a beloved.
In the debut collection, ‘Fast Talkin’ Pi,’ became a vital mantra for Pacific-Island women and women in general. In this second collection, Selina has returned to the poem by way of ‘Kickboxing Cancer’, but now the poem opens it arms wider to take in all women and a more personalised, particular woman. And then the poem holds its arms close in an intimate hug as this is a poem that comes out of love and death and loss.
Selina’s second collection lifts you out of your senses. She lifts her grief out of her body and translates it into word music on the page and in the air (there is A CD in the back). Reading this collection takes you to the sun and the moon and the clouds, and then returns you to your own patch of ground to grieve and celebrate and challenge. I adore it.
Thanks To Auckland University Press I have a copy of this book to someone who likes or comments on this post or either of the two interviews. Thanks AUP!
Poetry Shelf Interview
Auckland University Press page
New Zealand Book Council page
Radio NZ interview
Best New Zealand Poems here
Blackmail Press page