Vanuatu: Substance without style

Black Stone, Grace Mera Molisa, 1983

The Story of the Eel, Elder Mark of Emil Potun, 2004

  • Vanuatu, #2 & #3
  • Black Stone: skimmed on Google Books; Story of the Eel: read online through JSTOR
  • Read August, 2016
  • Opening line (Black Stone): Ageless Vatu/ primeval source/ of creative forces/ ad infinitum
  • Opening line (Story of the Eel): There was once an old man and an old woman.

I’m not giving these ratings, nor my usual “recommended for,” since in both cases I only read a small portion of the text and consequently don’t feel qualified to pass judgement. The Story of the Eel is part of a collection of oral stories which proved impossible to find. In the end I was only able to source a version of the title story that was published in The Contemporary Pacific, an academic journal published by the University of Hawaii. I think it’s also available for $20 through JSTOR if you don’t have access to an academic subscription but honestly, it’s like four pages long, and I’m not sure it’s worth $5 a page either in terms of edification or reading pleasure.

San Diego, 2005

I was nonplussed by the story, about an eel who takes revenge on the man who killed it. It’s got a sort of dream-logic to it, like the stories in Australian Legendary Tales, but like those stories is told without style or embellishment. This seems to be the way of transcribed, translated oral myths, and I don’t know whether it’s a quality of the translation, or if it’s just a loss experienced when attempting to capture an oral tradition in written form. I’ve read quite a few of these types of works now–besides the above-mentioned Australian text, there was Roland Dixon’s Oceanic Mythology, Sir George Gray’s Polynesian Mythology, the oral stories included in Nights of Storytelling, and collections from Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands–and I have yet to enjoy the experience. I have found them to provide useful insights into various cultures, and especially the Polynesian mythology cropped up quite a bit in the novels I read, so it was good to have as background, but it doesn’t seem to be a genre I will ever read for pure pleasure.

San Diego, 2005

Black Stone was easier to source, but I scanned through a few poems on Google Books and didn’t feel an overwhelming urge to seek out the rest of the collection. The poems are largely focused on anger at European colonizers. There’s a lot of alliteration, which I like (another remnant of my medieval literature degree–I’m a sucker for some Anglo-Saxon-style alliteration), and some good word choice. But there is a lack of imagery and if you take out the verse lines, make them into prose sentences, they can read as foolish or simplistic. Here, for instance, is the last three stanzas of the poem “Victim of Foreign Abuse” with the line breaks removed (in the original, there are no more than three words per line, and often only a single word per line, which is a format I don’t have a lot of patience with):

Since the beginnings of political awareness, Overseas Media plus the so-called “Voice of Vanuatu” owned, edited and published by expatriates have been systematic in their scrupulous efforts to ridicule and portray Vanuatu in the worst possible light. Their contacts and correspondents in Vanuatu always other expatriates and self-opinionated civil servants well-trained to know nothing of Mainstream politics at any level. The Government of Independent Vanuatu is supported by a rural mass-movement very different from the self-interested petty bourgeois dissident urban fringe.

Capitalization is original, though I have added some punctuation for the sake of clarity. It’s not gibberish, but it reads more like a pseudo-literate comment on a Slate article by an angry Bernie Bro than, you know, poetry. On the other hand, “self-interested petty bourgeois dissident urban fringe” is both an excellent insult and a fabulous name for a band.

Los Angeles, 2004

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