The Sounds of Princess Ashika

The sound of tents flapping for seventeen nights outside the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia,
a vigil, a camp of families waiting in the dark,
night after night, despair tempered
by hymns and prayer.

The sound of more than one hundred thousand offerings:
tears, sweat, still sticky on those local notes,
pieces of paper floating.

The sound of mourners
breaking the backs of small boats,
barely able to hold their grief above sea-level,
small boats groaning under the weight of their burden.

The sound of photographs silent, sombre,
loved ones held with trembling hands,
faces on T-shirts smiling lifelessly back at us.

The sound of koloa dropping into the ocean
the ngatu, the wreaths, the fine mats
the flowers, the petalled synthetic
kissing the surface of the sea,
swirling sacrifices.

The sound of the memorial stone,
coffin-shaped, heavy with names tapped into its back,
tapped like tatau,
blood, the flesh, the stain of human names on marble,
a coffin wrapped and dropped into the water.

’Oiaue. The sound of live bodies jumping into the ocean,
submerging themselves in grief,
throwing their bodies to the elements.

But they are lost to the lost,
irredeemably buoyant, they rise floating,
hopelessly alive.

We all dream that our mouths are filled with the ocean,
salt at the back of our throats,
but how hopelessly afloat we are.
We all rise for another day.

How alive we are -
this we know for one unsettling moment -
how alive.

In Suva, at the Patterson Mansion on Raisara Road,
the SUVs line up for another night of drinks.
It is their destiny to forever be
as is, where is, and nothing more,
whisky flowing like a swell
all the way out to the shore.

From the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia
we hear the bitter salt sound of ‘no comment.’
And the government that paid for the Princess
will keep on paying,
keep on paying.

And the King leaves the Kingdom
to attend a military tattoo,
drumming some kind of incessant beat,
rum-pa-pa-pam, rum-pa-pa-pam,
whisking, frisking, beating,
batting, tapping, scratching
in his ears – the bagpipes serenade him.
But can he hear the sounds of Princess Ashika?

Of seventy-four lost, of the two-month-old, the one-year-old,
the three two-year-olds, the three-year-olds, the four-year-old,
the two five-year-olds, the six-year-old, the seven-year-old,
the two nine-year-olds – this unnatural silence.

Only the stars were watching
when the Princess went down,
witness in that night sky.
Their mouths taped for the inquiry.
The silence of no comment,
Seventy-four lives lost.

The sound of despair tempered
by hymns and prayer.

Karlo Mila is a poet, mother, researcher, writer and the Programme Director of the Mana Moana Experience at Leadership New Zealand. Of Tongan and Palangi descent, her creative, academic and professional work has all centred on the experiences of Pasifika peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand. She has two books of poetry and is widely anthologised. She has spent the past five years researching Mana Moana – collating a canon of power words, proverbs, archetypes and narratives from across the Pacific - to be harnessed and vitalised in contemporary life. Karlo is the mother of three boys and lives in Auckland.

Mila comments: 'This poem was written in response to the tragic sinking of MV Princess Ashika, an inter-island ferry in the Kingdom of Tonga.  It was purchased from the Patterson Brothers Shipping Company by the Government of Tonga.  The ferry had only made five voyages in its new role when it sank on 19 August 2009.  Seventy-four people lost their lives. An investigation found the vessel was not seaworthy, with repeatedly poor judgment, lack of due diligence, multiple mistakes and many oversights creating this tragedy.'

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Photographer credit: Pati Solomona Tyrell