Ahi Kā — The House of Ngā Puhi

We light the poem and breathe out
             the growing flames. Ahi kā. This
                                is our home — our fire. Hot tongues out

— pūkana — turn words to steam. This
                fish heart is a great lake on a
                                  skillet. Ahi kā! Ahi kā!

Keep the fire. The sun’s rays are ropes
              held down by Māui’s brothers.
                                They handed down ray by burning

ray to each other every
                day — we keep the home fires burning
                                    every day. Mountains of our

house are its pillars — I believe
                in the forces that raised them here.
                                  Ahi kā burnt onto summits

char in the land, ahi kā dream,
               long bright cloud brilliant homeland.
                                 Ahi kā our life, ahi kā

carried by the tribe’s forever-story
               firing every lullaby.
                                 Shadows shrink in our hands’ quiver

as we speak — ahi kā sing fire
                 scoop embers in the childhood sun
                                  stare into molten shapes and see

people — building, sailing, farming —
                see them in the flames of our land
                                   see them in this forever light

no tears only fire for ahi
                kā no weeping only hāngi pits
                                     no regrets just forgiveness and

a place for the fire — it’s our song
               to sing — ahi kā— got to keep
                                    singing the shadows away — ha!


Robert Sullivan was born in 1967. He is of Ngā Puhi (Ngāti Manu, Ngāti Hau), Kāi Tahu, and Galway Irish descent. He teaches creative writing in the English Department at the University of Hawai‘i, Manoa. He is Honolulu based. He has published five books of poetry with Auckland University Press, a graphic novel illustrated by Chris Slane, and a book of Maori myths and legends for children illustrated by Gavin Bishop (Random House NZ). He also co-edited with Albert Wendt and Reina Whaitiri an anthology of contemporary Polynesian poems in English, Whetu Moana (University of Hawai‘i Press, and Auckland University Press). This poem comes from his latest book, Voice Carried My Family.

Sullivan comments: ‘He mihi aroha ki a koutou katoa. Tēnā koutou katoa. “Ahi Kā” refers to the practice of keeping the home fires warm. It is a cultural symbol of maintaining your presence on the land. The mountain pillars in the poem refer to the district of the Northland tribe Ngā Puhi which is likened to a sacred house or shelter. For those who might not know, a “pūkana” is a fierce facial contortion often seen in haka.

I wrote this poem overseas – it is my way of keeping my heart close to home.’

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