Friday, November 27, 2015



Fast Talking PI by Selina Tusitala Marsh
(Auckland University Press, 2009)

[First published in BONE BOUQUET, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Spring 2015, Editor-in-chief Krystal Languell]

Selina Tusitala Marsh is not afraid of her history. Like the deep waters connecting the islands of her heritages and habitations – Sāmoa, Tuvalu, Aotearoa/New Zealand – history is a dynamic space, there for the crossing and the questioning. Marsh's 2009 collection of poetry, Fast Talking PI, is a kinetic answering, connecting the most modern present with the most storied of pasts. The female, and Pacific, identity she asserts is one of options and iterations instead of directions and limitations. In mapping out a web of concerns ranging among naming and genealogy, cultural identification, and gendered voices, Marsh writes a way for any reader to understand the kinds of issues that condition the contemporary Pacific Islander’s lived experience.

The first section, ”Tusitala”, maps out these concerns in the context of the confusingly incidental. “Googling Tusitala” juxtaposes the urbane randomness of Google search results with the opaqueness of the name Tusitala. The catalogue of search results, from 1 to 57,092, obscures any actual definition because the results are just incidences: “tusitala publishing house a biography of recent psychodrama books”; “the sea slug forum reception at tusitala”. But the obscurity is the joke, whether for readers familiar with Stevenson, or unfamiliar with Pacific worldviews. Aside from being Marsh’s middle name, Tusitala was Robert Louis Stevenson’s name in Sāmoa, given to him because it means “story teller”. Here Marsh immediately acknowledges the received literary legacy of the Pacific from a Western standpoint, and departs from it in the hopes of presenting an equally valid Pacific standpoint. That Stevenson doesn't appear in Marsh's poems means only so much significant absence, which she fills with various constellations of other conversants. The web of personal, political, and Pacific connections that appear, culminating in the eponymous poem, “Fast Talkin PI”, echoes another search meaning of tusitala, that of a genus of jumping spiders. Although that’s an insertion on my part, the image is appropriate: Marsh's poetry is poetry of jumping, rhythmically, from place to storied place, or word to storied word, and from beat to ticking beat.

“Not Another Nafanua Poem” acknowledges how culturally layered poetry balances readerly accessibility against poetic and political concerns. Nafanua is a Sāmoan warrior goddess; in writing not another female warrior poem, Marsh points to the need for such poems to discuss regionally relevant figures because women everywhere have similar, and similarly various, concerns as they work against effacement: “not another nafanua poem she can hear them say as she rides the current of her culture in the new millennium with her electric va‘a [canoe] I’m afraid so her shadow answers back in black”. “Afakasi” also connects the mythical and the marginalized, as afakasi is Sāmoan for “half-caste”. Marsh witnesses the damage of such a label by imagining people as writable spaces instead of definite categories of blood, “hollowed-out tablets of stone” filled with possibilities: pages, anchoring octopuses, warm darkness, music, prohibitions, anxiety. Although presented in a specifically Pacific context, the people in “Afakasi” gesture to anyone who feels contingent. “Some spaces are brown”, and hospitable to indigeneity, and “some are blue”, as connective ocean tissue that we can “flow in and out / turning space sinopia” with an inclusive earthy redness.
The book's second section, Talkback, identifies specific people and cultural narratives that invite revision. These poems settle scores on two simultaneous fronts: women written into silence and servitude, and the last five centuries of European colonial intrusions in the Pacific. Where those arenas overlap, poems like “Guys like Gauguin” emerge, puncturing the dream of men who came to find paradise and its accompanying fortune. The poem's sarcasm is trenchant rather than dissatisfied, playing up sexual references to underscore the violence Marsh is invested in exposing:

thanks Bougainville
for desiring 'em young
so guys like Gauguin could dream
and dream
and take his syphilitic body
downstream to the tropics
to test his artistic hypothesis
about how the uncivilized
ripen like pawpaw

Gauguin reappears in “Two Nudes on a Tahitian Beach, 1894”, narrated by one of his Ma'ohi (Tahitian) models. The poem both excoriates Gauguin's artistic output and questions the nature of gazing in general, suggesting a mutual attraction between the artist's two female subjects that the foreign artist misses for all his staring because “You strip me bare / assed, turn me on my side … because you / Gauguin, / piss us / off”. If Gauguin is an easy target (see also “Tehura” by Brandi Nālani McDougal in The Salt Wind), it is perhaps because his work and life are so inextricable from the progressive romanticization of Pacific women in the European-American imaginaries.

The models' tête-à-tête mirrors the tension of the rest of the poems, wherein Marsh either talks back to the big men of Pacific history, or their female obsessions do: Venus, whose transit of the sun in 1769 motivated Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific; Jenny, the only woman on the HMS Bounty; the Tahitian women Captain Cook and his crews encountered physically and metaphysically. This tension stresses the dual nature of contact, an abstraction of the interactions between people that can both connect and repel. “See the uncorrupted cave,'”Marsh writes in “Contact 101”, which imagines stereotyping encounters with the scholars who study people, “… see the furious womb // … see us in all our glory”. These women find their modern sibyl in Hawaiian poet and political activist Haunani-Kay Trask, to whom Marsh dedicates the poem “Hawaiʻi: Prelude to a Journey”. Here contact results in fecundity, as Marsh narrates her encounters with a strong, indigenous, female presence that shows her what empowerment looks like: “Pele's pen / her black ink lava / ever pricking the night” to illuminate a poetic way forward.

The volcanic result of retelling history from an explicitly gendered perspective is that creative destruction makes new land for new growth. The last section of the book, Fast Talking PIs, contains three poems that present Marsh’s capacity for hope. “Fast Talkin PI” is a catalogue of the myriad identities that Pacific Islanders have (or perhaps that Marsh herself has). In strings of punchy tercets, which are so varied and yet create more of a sense of open space than a sense of specificity:

I'm a shadowing PI
I'm a fathoming PI
I'm an ocean, I'm the wave, I'm the depths of it PI

By embracing contradictions that articulate so many possibilities for Pacific Islanders, this poem ends up being more of a negative definition: Pacific Islanders are not mute, are not helpless, are not complacent. In performance, Marsh lengthens the third syllable of each line and shortens the stresses of the third line of each tercet to a rhythmic triplet. The effect is luxurious and frenetic. It’s as though Marsh calls on the rhythm that also propels waves on shore – constant, pounding, fast, and yet organized in swells. The poem ends with a literary genealogy that places Marsh at the front end of a tradition of female Pacific poets who have written for social, political, and artistic reasons. The catalogue form allows Marsh to build up descriptive layers that refer to this genealogy without saying directly how she's been influenced; the implicit nature of this poem also speaks to openness and inbetweenness, each influence a particular island on Marsh's personal and poetic journey across cultural space.

Fittingly, the final poem, “Outcast”, an homage to Audre Lorde, describes Marsh's poetic agenda of recovering the ownership of discovery. Echoing Lorde's injunction for women, and therefore poets, to “be nobody's darling”, Marsh interposes metaphors of fishing and catching with descriptions of how she has steeled herself against her natural amiability in order to accomplish the goal worth reaching for, which is to be “a brown woman walking / genealogy swimming in her calves”. In keeping with the activist poets implicated in “Fast Talkin PI”, Marsh sees her work as both central and marginal to a feminist discourse because one parameter can't exist without the other:

it's become a map
to get us beyond the line
the justified edge
that breaking page

it's become a map in my arms
to get us beyond the reef

I'm willing to go with Marsh to the deep water beyond the lagoon's calm. By refusing to merely be angry, by embracing humor, by fronting ambiguity, and with lyrical writing that usurps my expectations of conventional score-settling, Selina Tusitala Marsh lives up to her claim to be a teller of stories – stories that set us true questions about where the self can, possibly, go.


Julia Wieting is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, and has a Master of Arts degree in linguistics. She publishes long form narrative poetry at The Cast Off Press, and is poetry editor for Paradise Review.

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