Homage to Tongan poets

On this sunny morning
rain falls in Malamahu maketi:
last week’s storm is still a pool on the roof,
draining through the rusted iron
a few drops at a time.
I step past the earliest hawkers,
past their undersized avocadoes and bootleg DVDs,
and see a bleb of dirty water break
on the forehead of Siua Ongosia,
punake, lover of Carroll and Lear,
first Tongan to rap in glottal stops,
star on youtube and at the Billfish bar,
and now the first beggar to arrive at Malamahu
every morning, to mount the bench that is his last stage.

Yesterday Siua told me about Tennyson
and the Amazon; today he greets me like any other stranger,
asking for taha, ‘ua pa’anga, for a smoke, for a light.
His hands are scarred and dented, like the tin
the avocado farmer uses to catch last week’s storm.

It is taha noa, and Siua
watches the utes arrive from Kala’au and Te’ekiu,
as young men in torn tupenu unload their fathers' harvests,
offering ‘inasi to tourists
and the Nuku’alofan bourgeoisie.
Their yams look like missiles; their dirty talo are landmines
harvested from the ancient battlefields of Hihifo.

The farmers’ boys do not talk with Siua, though they’ve all watched him
on youtube, seen him swinging from a mango tree while rhyming
uaea with tractor, heard the love poem he wrote for his wife
after she left their home, dragging their only suitcase
around pools of kava and beer.

Twenty maile away, at Lapaha, the punake and their kings are silent.
With toki made of stone, the tu’a cut stone
from the beaches of Fafa and Pangaimotu, Niutoua
and ‘Uvea. They shook coconut heads from the heavens,
split and sipped from them, lashed coconut hair
round the stones, dragged the stones to Lapaha,
laid one stone on top of another.
Today tour buses stop at the royal tombs.

Do not talk about reverence, about fatonia.
The tu’a were not offering tribute.
They raised stones to keep the dead
from rising, to keep the ‘eiki and their whips
in Pulotu, to keep the mouths of the royal poets
stuffed with earth.

Photo by Sabrina Hong

Scott Hamilton was born in Auckland in 1974. He has published two books of poetry, an annotated selection of lost poems by the late great Kendrick Smithyman, and an academic biography of the historian and socialist EP Thompson. Hamilton’s blog has had more than six thousand visitors since 2006, though visitors and comments are down lately as readers tend to defect to Twitter and Facebook. Hamilton lived in Tonga in 2013, where he learned to love kava and taught Creative Writing and Sociology at the ‘Atenisi Institute. In November 2016 he published The Stolen Island, an account of nineteenth-century slave raids on Tonga, through Bridget Williams Books. In 2015 he won the inaugural Auckland Mayoral Literary Award for his ongoing study of the city’s Great South Road. His book Ghost South Road will be published by Atuanui Press in October 2017. Hamilton has begun to research a book about sorcery and sorcery-related violence in Melanesia.

Scott comments:  ‘I wrote “Homage to Tongan Poets” in Tonga in April 2015, after a very sad encounter with Siua Ongosia, aka Swingman, the talented and funny rapper-poet. Back in 2013 I had spent some time with Siua, and had watched while Paul Janman and two students from Nuku’alofa’s ‘Atenisi Institute filmed him talking reciting excerpts from an epic poem he had composed about the Amazon. When I tried to get a look at the manuscript of this poem last April Siua explained that he had lost it. He also seemed to have lost many of his memories.

‘I suppose I didn't stop to wonder about the propriety of writing about Siua because the man is a public figure in Tonga and in the Tongan diaspora. Everyone knows his story; most people know his music.

‘But some of Siua’s friends in the Seleka Club, the bastion of Nuku’alofa’s nonconformists and creatives, recently gave me the wonderful news that the rapper had given up drugs, reignited his marriage, and begun to make music again. This sort of extraordinary transformation is not uncommon in Tonga, where notions of self are less cumbersome than in the West, and personae can be worn and cast off easily. Womanisers and boozers can become, overnight, puritanical men of God; implacable critics of the monarchy and the state church can suddenly kneel before the king and at the altar.

‘I apologise to Siua if this poem perpetuates an outdated image. I hope to meet him again soon in Nuku’alofa, and write about his renewed musical career.

‘The second part of the poem reflects my divided feelings about ancient Tonga. I am fascinated by the beautiful artefacts of the Tongan empire—the layers of cut stone that decorate the graves of kings and their court poets, the sacred birds and knife-like moons incised on deadly and elegant war clubs—but repulsed by the class divisions of that society, and the way thousands of commoners dug gardens and dragged stones for the benefit of a few royals and chiefs. I feel the same way about the glorious but barbaric empires of ancient Egypt and Rome.’

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