Fale Aitu ‖ Spirit House by Tusiata Avia.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Erik Kennedy.
‘I can write poetry, but don’t ask me to talk about it,’ says Tusiata Avia in the “Poetry Manifesto” that serves as an appendix to her third collection, Fale Aitu | Spirit House. This is a fitting apologia for a suggestive, sometimes numinous book of verse. Avia implies by this statement that she specialises in feelings and not ideas, things and not structures. ‘OK, so I can talk about poetry,’ she jokes, ‘but I can only use ordinary words like “good” and “fruit-bat”.’ (As opposed to lit-crit words like ‘negative capability’ and ‘amphibrach’, I imagine.)
But Avia is misleading us slightly. This is not an unplanned outpouring of raw truths, nor are the book’s effects only, or even primarily, emotional. Fale Aitu (in Samoan fale is ‘house’ and aitu is ‘spirit’) is a carefully structured production. The book is in three sections: “Fale” focusses on Avia’s home life, early experiences, and traditional Samoan religion; “Fale Mafui’e” which means, ‘house of the Samoan earthquake god’, concerns the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes; and “Aitu” sees her spirit wander abroad from Gaza to New York.
What unifies these thirty-nine poems – and this should come as no surprise to readers of Avia’s previous books, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt and Bloodclot – is an emphasis on the domestic gothic and invocations of Samoan mythology. Sometimes the two motifs are intertwined. In “Fa’anoanoa”, the Samoan term for lugubrious grief (characterised by ‘dull eyes, grey skin colour, monosyllabic answers given in a monotone, and a generally unkempt appearance’) is personified as a friend’s sister. This sister has supposedly ‘been beaten to death / by the man she loved’. But by the end of the poem, ‘I look up and there she is, Fa’anoanoa, / sitting at the kitchen table’ – an unkillable, shapeshifting misery that dogs the speaker. In the two poems “Birds” and “Fish” the speaker’s father names various feathered and finned creatures in Samoan, and a fofō (traditional healer) ‘says secret words only the fish can hear’. It is playful, but at the same time a loss of home or status is hinted at. The present, in Avia’s poems, so often lacks something that was supposedly abundant in the past: ‘we all know about things that fly out of the sky / and take everything you’ve got’.
And sometimes the connection between trauma and tradition is more tenuous. The tour de force “Demonstration” is a six-page poem that ends with a full half page of the capitalised, repeated mantra ‘IT WAS NOT MY FAULT IT WAS RAPE’. The incident under discussion took place after a Samoan Students’ Association event, but this fact is not central to the poem’s arguments, nor are there any mythological resonances. Poems like this have been written about other places and people and, unfortunately, will be again. There is a grim, shocking universality to the experience, and one of Avia’s strengths is getting this across. I saw her perform this piece at the Darkroom in Christchurch a year or so ago, and it left the audience stunned and then ecstatic with surging empathy. Never forget that Avia is a performer who can force her poems into a fresh meaningfulness whenever they are spoken by her own voice.
But this voice is not always frantic or ludic. As I claimed at the beginning, Fale Aitu | Spirit House benefits from a tight structure, and this allows even the book’s pensive poems to hit hard. The title poem, “Fale aitu”, shows how the domestic and spirit worlds are coextensive, and wherever you are, the one thing that is always at home is the spectre of death:
There’s a house with glass doors all around, none of which will lock and you are inside and outside are aitu, half-grown, not puppyish, grazing the glass. And of course you check the doors, pointlessly trying to secure them. Who knows how long you have been here like this.
Now you hurry. A handful of money, an empty bag, no change of clothes or decent shoes. You make your way outside and run down the path to the gate, and there they are waiting for you – some with arms folded, leaning; some blowing smoke; some with hooded eyes, pacing.
Erik Kennedy is the poetry editor for Queen Mob’s Teahouse and is the treasurer of takahē. In this hemisphere he has published poems in Atlas Medical Literary Journal, Catalyst, Landfall, Snorkel, and Sport. He lives in Christchurch.
First published takahe 87