Dreams of a Rainbow: Maybe I’m missing something

Dreams of a Rainbow, Kauraka Kauraka, 1987

Los Angeles, 2005

This collection just didn’t do it for me. If this had been a novel I would feel comfortable writing it off with a two-star rating, but because I am less confident in my abilities to judge poetry (I know what I like and what I don’t like, but I don’t know how well my tastes correspond to what other people would consider “good”; I feel the same way about judging wine), and because I think some of my lack of enjoyment may rise from a cultural disconnect that prevents me from appreciating Kauraka’s work in the context of the Polynesian oral tradition from which it arises, I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt and a tentative three stars.

Palo Alto, 2004

I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what it is about these poems that leaves me cold. There’s a lack of self-awareness there, a lack of subtlety; things that are obviously beautiful (sunsets! rainbows! gardenia blossoms!) are appreciated for being beautiful, which is nice I guess, but is something I always find a little bit lazy in art.

San Diego, 2005

But I think what bothers me most is the language, which is simple almost to the point of being crude at times, and is deployed apparently without care. Kauraka’s poems are published in side-by-side Rarotongan and English, and I really wish I could understand the Rarotongan versions, or at least find a recording of someone reading them, because I have a feeling they may make more sense and flow better. Both style and subject matter in this collection are strongly influenced by Polynesian oral tradition, but I think perhaps in the English versions there is too much of a break with the historical style. These poems often relate stories and legends drawn from Polynesian oral traditions, and even the modern inventions often have a sort of legendary feel. “Forbidden Waters”, for instance, about two brothers who break a taboo to catch a beautiful fish, only to have it burst into decay and swarm with maggots, or “Ticket to Turtle Island”, wherein a mysterious crew takes the narrator on a perilous journey, are perfectly at home with verses about the goddess Hina or the ancestral Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki. But this is what I found frustrating about these poems: the subjects are interesting, and when you describe them, what they’re about, they sound like they should be good. But the language (at least in the English version) lets them down.

Los Angeles, 2005

Occasionally the simplicity works out. In My Dawning Star, a later collection by Kauraka, some of the poems attain the sort of mythic, dignified status that Dreams of a Rainbow seems to be aiming for. “War Club,” for instance, short and spare, achieves a ringing and authoritative rhythm:

You gave me the wood
You gave me the clamshell
I carved the wood smoothly
into a war club
It glittered to the South
It glittered to the North
my war club named Torch-of-the-Night
for my homeland Hawaiki-manawa

San Diego, 2005

But too often, in Dreams of a Rainbow, these ambitions fall short. To wit, “Shadowed Head”:

Your golden brown lips
stained bloody red
black thick eye lashes
plucked clean then painted
natural white teeth
plastered with metals
large dangling rings
cut deep into your ear-lobes
long black hair replaced
by wavy blonde wig
your eyes keep begging
for more shadows

(And as an aside: ok, much of Kauraka’s work, at least in this volume, is devoted to embracing ethnic identity so I get that that’s what’s going on here…but at the same time, dude, let a woman wear make-up if that’s what she wants to do, and also, maybe attack the system that puts stringent and unattainable and unfairly Eurocentric beauty standards in place rather than the poor woman who’s just trying to feel good about herself within the confines of the society in which she actually exists. And also, nobody plucks their eyelashes. Do some research)

Los Angeles, 2005

Anyway. The introduction, by Hawaiian poet John Unterecker, praises Kauraka’s “modern/ancient, free-verse/song like poetry” for having “all the eloquence of direct speech and the symbolic force of an art that refuses to compromise with the destructive artificiality of our time.” So maybe that’s my problem–that I’ve embraced destructive modern artificiality (I’m a big fan of blonde wigs and metal teeth) and can’t appreciate simple directness. But I have trouble reconciling myself to poetry that contains such inelegant lines as “large dangling rings/ cut deep into your ear-lobes” and “Their arm muscles waltzing/ to the music of the waves.” So yeah, not for me. But possibly more enjoyable for someone with the appropriate education or cultural context.

California, 2005

4 thoughts on “Dreams of a Rainbow: Maybe I’m missing something

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