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Tightrope by Selina Tusitala Marsh

“We are what we remember, the self is a trick of memory … history is the remembered

tightrope that stretches across the abyss of all that we have forgotten.” Albert Wendt

This insightful quote begins the books and is a theme that we revisit throughout. Things that you will notice about this book at once. The black cover has the thinnest of vertical lines running down its centre, a line that is a rainbow of colours; green, yellow, orange, red, purple and blue with all those lesser known colours like amber, vermillion and magenta along the way. That tightrope line echoes at the start of each of the three sections, horizontal this time above the titles of Abyss, Tightrope and Trick. And the other thing you see at once are the Blackout pages. The poet has taken pages from Albert Wendt’s novel ‘Pouliouli’ and with a vivid black marker blocked out almost every word, leaving as few as four or five, sometimes as many as a dozen, allowing them to form their own new narrative which “hijack meaning ransack intention”.

You will travel widely when reading Tightrope, from Pacific Islands and New Zealand to New York and to London. In the central section, called Tightrope, is the poem ‘Unity’ which was delivered to the Queen and Prince Philip in Westminster Abbey. I had never read it before but I liked its challenge “There is a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in Unity costs the earth and yet it’s free.” Tusitala Marsh subsequently reflects on the whole experience in the poem ‘Pussy Cat’:

Pussy cat, pussy cat

Where have you been?

I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.

Pussy cat, pussy cat

What did you there?

I frightened the Western World with my hair.

She continues in another poem called ‘Queens I have met’ to consider four; Dr Ngahuia, HRH Elizabeth II, Oprah and Alice Walker. Each section has some interesting insight into their lives.

Tusitala Marsh likes to play with words and this is one of the aspects of her poetry I enjoyed the most. A name is repeated twelve times, each time the ink fades to lighter and lighter grey. Perhaps there are more repeats in white ink. In ‘Led by Line’ she lists the lines that lead us; blood line, love line, land line and ends by reminding us of how to realign “laying it on the line by drawing a line in the sand”. Just a few words that repeat many times over but have a powerful effect and a powerful message. ‘Apia Seawall’ also plays with words, two word columns down both sides of the page challenge the reader about how to approach the poem - down each slim column or across the page, conforming to the norm? The poem works both ways, so that it is like having three different poems on the same page.

The poet is not afraid to confront us, such as with ‘In Creative Writing Class’ which portrays the ignorance of the pakeha man and his envy of the work of Pacifica women who can draw upon their oppression while all he can offer is “… staid, North Shore-ish lukewarmish gumboot tea”. A cry against the cliché and how terrible it sounds to be called “North Shore-ish”.

One of my particular favourites was ‘The Working Mother’s Guide to Reading Seventy Books a Year’ which challenges our time-poor lives to find more time to read a book. This really resonates for book reviewers.

Don’t have babies

Don’t have a full time job

Don’t be working class

Don’t be time poor and extended family rich

If you have babies, don’t let them play sports

Definitely don’t let them play an instrument

(extramural activities increase peak-hour traffic commuting time)

Instead there is a list of Reads, such as “Read one-handed in the line at Countdown”. There is no mention of writing as well, finding time for children, family, job and your own writing. Perhaps that would be a step too far.

Selina Tusitala Marsh is our poet laureate, last year, this year and next year. I enjoyed the accessibility of these poems, there is something for everyone, be it walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers or going to the Auckland Nines with its carnival of costumes. I enjoy her celebration of the Pacific writers who have gone before her and all the promise of more great words to come.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Auckland University Press