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.’