Harry, Gandalf and the Tokotoko

At the Governor General's invitation, I performed an adapted version of my poem 'Lead' at the Royal Reception for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at Government House, Wellington on the 28th of October. The theme for the evening was 'Women's Words: Where To From Here?'

My speech before the poem follows:

Each New Zealand Poet Laureate receives a specially carved Tokotoko, a Maori walking stick, made by Jacob Scott from Matahiwi Marae, to reflect their unique poetic contribution to the country. Mine, as you can see, has a LOT of hair [lots of laughter from the audience]. As the current New Zealand Poet Laureate I lead through words. So, I say this to you, fellow wild women of worded whirlwind, and those who stand with you (yes, there were about 6 men in the room):

'You're a leader in the making, you're making history...'

 and so begins the poem 'Lead':

I changed the last stanza to:

Lead through action, lead through word
Lead with your voice, lead and Woman, be heard.

After my poem, Le Art, three glorious song-makers (they write their own material too) from Porirua College whose YouTube clips have gone viral with over a million hitstook centre stage. Radio New Zealand covers their viral-ity.

Selina and the song-makers Rosetta Lopa, Me, Anastasia Sirila and Tiresa Foma'i.

We didn't get to meet Meghan in the shortened time we had due to the unexpected alarm and evacuation just prior to the reception, however, we four did speak with Harry.  My conversation went something like this:

Harry: Yes, I remember you!
Me: Oh, pishaw! [Pishaw? Was this my nod to using royally in/appropriate Old English to voice my disbelief?]
Harry: You were all in blue.
Me: Yes, I was!
Harry: But your hair was different.
Me: Erm, no it was the same. Except for this silver streak. Watch out, it's coming for you!

Then, when the ring of photographers had all turned away to capture Meghan in yet another engrossing conversation.

Me: Would you like to touch the Tokotoko?
Harry: I would. Wow. [Harry feels the weight of it and runs his hands along the carvings, then suddenly widens his stance and stamps it on the ground]
Harry: You shall not pass! [As in Gandalf's famous line in Lord of the Rings]
Me: Ah...yes, thanks. [Reaching for my Tokotoko, straightening her tousled hair]


Prince Harry meets Selina, Tiersa Foma'i and Anastasia Sirila. Photo: NZ Heral

Making stones

Black Stone poem Black Stone by Grace Mera Molisa

Black Stone

Black Stone
Molten lava

jagged forms
awe inspiring.

Black Stone
flowing free
from depths
a viscous form

Jet black
sleeping fortress
weather rock
come wind or shine.

Black Stone
and obstinate

Black Stone
bird of wealth
solid bedrock
dwelling of death.

Eternal essence
of immortal soul's steadfast fixture
founding Man's
physical cosmos.

of the spirits
to the stable
of constancy
and permanence.

Black Stone
Black Stone.

I look at this poem on the page, as you have.

I see the short lines of physical language simultaneously rise up and fall down the page. Its adjective-heavy lines offer material descriptions of volcanic rock: ‘molten lava / solidified’. But its spare language lures me into digging for more. Something more simmers beneath its calm surface. I Google images of Vanuatu’s volcanoes. Obsidian is found throughout its volcanic areas. Black basalt rock lines the shores of Molisa’s birthplace, Ambae, home to the nation’s most voluminous live volcano, the formidable Manaro Voui. Reminds me of Grace Mera Molisa herself.

I look again at the poem on the page. Now I see a volcanic fissure vent on the page with oppositional activity murmuring beneath and spilling up through it. I move from stone, ‘solid’ and ‘jagged’, to ‘free flowing’ and ‘viscous’ forms; I move from what is immediate and knowable to intangible ‘depths unknown’. Black stone is a source of life and ‘wealth’ and yet a ‘dwelling of death’; it is a tangible ‘fixture’ yet holds ‘Eternal essence’; it is a ‘threshold’ of ‘spirits’ who are at the same time ‘transfixed’ by the materiality of black stone. Black stone embodies physical and spiritual properties.

I move between this poem and other of Grace’s writings, where black stone is synonymous not only with the land, but its people. In ‘Blackstone Milestone’, the epigraphic poem in her book Local Global Indigenous Network, Grace writes ‘Blackstone means Vanuatu....Blackstone is Vanuatu’. The idea that the land and its people are one and the same reflects the NiVanuatu principal of manples, the Bislama transliteration of ‘man’ and ‘place’.

Anthropologist and long time friend of Grace, Margaret Jolly, defines manples as the ‘condensation’ of the land and its people, noting that the term is often used to differentiate between local Melanesians and Europeans. Both the term and the idea then, is loaded with political agency in Vanuatu’s postcolonial era. The description of black stone as a ‘sleeping fortress’ links its protective potentialities against foreign incursions with the intensity of the stone’s ‘jet black’ colour in the previous line.

Then I turn back to the title of this poem — just two words, ‘black’ and ‘stone’.

I see the word ‘black’ releasing contestable cultural and political meanings. ‘Melanesia’, a label first applied by European explorers, stems from the Greek translation for ‘black islands’. Today Melanesia and the racial marker ‘black’ has been reclaimed from its origins in imperial racialist taxonomies. Molisa employs both terms as proud identity markers, most strikingly conveyed by the line drawn portrait on the covers of both Black Stone collections.

Black and white drawing of Grace Mera Molisa Image from front cover to Black Stone.

Black dominates this cover. Wearing her trademark Afro, Molisa stares directly into the reader’s eyes, defiantly asserting an indigenous visibility. Her portrait is drawn in white on black for the cover of Black Stone and on feminist purple for its sequel. Here, black is the basis for proud Melanesian identity, politically and poetically.

I also see the word ‘stone’ releasing paradoxical elements. Stone is fluid and in flux while also solid and constant. The stone foundations of these volcanic islands are also used to build roads, buildings, walls, and paths. Stones literally ‘build up’ the nation. Likewise, the one to three words per line, building-block layout of Molisa’s poems, build up words on the page. Both stones and Grace’s poems evoke the nationalistic Bislama phrase that urges everyone to ‘build ‘em up’ — to build the nation.

Building one nation was always going to be a volcanic experience. With over 80 distinct languages and clan groups, Vanuatu is a cultural and linguistic kaleidoscope, captured by the Bislama phrase ‘wan wan aelan’ — each separate island. With two colonial systems operating on a ‘divide and conquer’ basis, the challenge of transitioning from diverse, multiple and independent clan and regional allegiances to one politically unified base to thwart foreign powers, has been volatile. Despite eruptions from competing French, British, and NiVanuatu political parties, an equilibrium was maintained long enough so that in 1980 the New Hebrides (1906-1980) became the new nation of Vanuatu.

Equilibrium is crucial to both the formation of a nation and to the formation of black stone. Black stone is made when lava is produced, cools, then solidifies. Too cool and there is no lava; too hot and lava won’t solidify. When hot fluid comes into contact with cool air or water, stone is formed. This counteraction of forces — equilibrium — creates new land.

Molisa’s political and poetic writings are like the sentiments of her visionary father. Both aim for unity in diversity. Both proffer ways that multiple and conflicting forces can work in productive counterbalance to make one nation. One tactic for creating unity is to find a way to tell the new nation’s story that connect all its citizens. As a poet, Molisa understands the power of metaphors to bridge cultural and linguistic divides. Black stone does exactly that.

Part 2 of a 3 part blog about the poet Grace Mera Molisa

Read Part 1 of the blog — National Poetry Day — want to know a secret?