Review: Fale Aitu | Spirit House

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I first encountered Tusiata Avia’s work at the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia just after she published her first book, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. Her mocking voice, sometimes full of mimicry, sometimes searingly sarcastic, often aims at neocolonialism and globalization. Samoan/Palagi, Avia’s mother is descended from the Europeans who first colonized New Zealand and her father, a stunt man, was among the first wave of Samoan immigrants to New Zealand in the 1950s. For seven years before Avia’s second book arrived—Bloodclot, about Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war, who leaves the underworld to wander the earth as a half-caste girl—she traveled from Siberia to Sudan and read or performed her work in places like Moscow, Jerusalem and Vienna. Last year Avia was poet-in-residence with Simon Armitage at the International Poetry Studies Institute in Australia. This year Wild Dogs Under My Skin was adapted as a theater event for six women and received rave reviews. The recipient of a Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency, the Ursula Bethel Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury, a residency at the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies in Christchurch, she won the 2013 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. Truly an international poet with an indigenous Pacifika frame of reference, in Fale Aitu | Spirit House, Avia writes with a visceral, political, spare and passionate authority of someone who has seen the world.

In “I Cannot Write a Poem about Gaza,” Avia’s eulogy for her friends “Izzeldin and his three exploded daughters and one exploded niece” she suggests how expressing her grief will kill her too:

I cannot write a poem about Gaza because my fury and my grief will rise up out of my chest like a missile plotted on a computer in Tel Aviv, it will track me, pinpoint me and in a perfect arc, it will whine down out of the surgical sky, enter the top of my head and implode me.

Placed in the center of her book, the poem resonates throughout, with a pulse that suggests its heart: the politics and sufferings of those oppressed. At home in New Zealand, she witnesses racial conflict with mordancy:

All the children have gone to New Zealand

they are overeating for the Lord

they are training to be immigration officers

so they can hunt each other down. (“Fale’s House”).

She has no patience for politeness in the midst of such paradox. In “Birds,” the speaker states:

We all know about danger

we all know about loss

we all know about things that fly out of the sky

and take everything you’ve got.

Avia gives the listener few options in “Me telling it, the imaginary listener listening,” which begins with a taunt: “Just allow me to stand/just ask me how my day went at the Sandhills,” and ends with the speaker suggesting that the listener “get your shotgun out of the bedroom wardrobe/hike up into the hills and kill something defenceless/or yourself, even.” Avia does not suffer fools gladly.

Her take on the family is equally ferocious. In “Feagaiga | Covenant,” sibling rivalry ends with a visit to a brother who shows the speaker a tiny box of ashes. His wife catches him displaying it and says, “So you’ve shown them our son.” In the fury of her grief, she rips the buttons off her brand-new jacket. The mother in the prose poem “Tableau” has a smile “like a terrible accident in a quiet street, the death of disfigurement of a child that no one witnesses, a smile like Rwanda.” Their quarrel is rooted in personal history, not political – perhaps unacknowledged incest. Her daughter “aim[s her] voice with all the force of forty years and say[s], It happened. It happened. And you did nothing.” It is a chance for the mother to express her regret at failing to prevent her daughter’s suffering and to demonstrate her commitment to parenting, but she does not. Avia knows, however, that she herself is no innocent in the personhood department, even and especially spiritually. She condemns herself as well in “Wairua Road”: “The Spirits love me so much they turn me into a plastic bag/I will live in a whale or a shrimp and kill it.”

Fale Aitu | Spirit House‘ssecond section comprises four poems on Christchurch’s terrible earthquake, although Avia approaches the subject obliquely, as if, like the Palestinian slaughter, it is also too much to face. Perhaps it is too much to face, with the speaker having to protect a three-year-old daughter: “I snatch her up/like a football/I sprint the slowest steps/it is underwater/this dream/it is eternal.” (“Mafui’e 22 February 2011”). Six point three on the Richter scale, the earthquake was so powerful it turned around a statue in the Christchurch cathedral. Occurring at lunchtime when the city was busiest, it killed 115 people and destroyed a television studio where sixty percent of the casualties took place. In “CTV Building,” Avia eulogizes a man who had once interviewed her, who died when the building sheared down the middle.

According to Jeannette Marie Mageo’s Theorizing Self in Samoa: Emotions, Genders, and Sexualities, Samoans often suffer from extreme anxiety and are prone to hysteria from what she describes as “cognitive rigidity.”  In Avia’s poem, “Fa’anoanoa,” a friend announces that her sister has been beaten to death and becomes hysterical, joined by girls with “mouths stretched wide as the portals to Catholic hell.” Just as the speaker understands this wild display grief as being quintessentially Samoan, she spots the supposed dead girl sitting at the table.  In “White Sunday | Lotu Tamaiti,” women with hangovers gossip about “two women/who cornered each other in the church toilets/and beat the hell out of each other” and “the girl who called her uncle Dad/and then got caught at the airport trying/to run off with him to Wellington” and about how embarrassing it was for the parents whose child told his teacher the marks on his legs were from a beating. Avia shoulders the dysfunctions of the culture with: “The food is tasteless; we all remark on it, but we eat anyway.”

Samoans have a centuries-long history of chanting, one contemporary example being the fierce ritual songs sung by the national rugby team before they begin play. Avia’s poetry reads as well off the page as on, as I can attest from witnessing her perform in St. Petersburg. Her litany on the body, “Apology,” is relentless in syntax:

My body is the mother dying slowly


My body is the frightened child coaxed out from beneath the body

of her fallen mother with a promise of honey

my body is the honey drowning the  blind, the halt, the deaf, the mute

In the prose poem, “United States of Vigilancia,” the equipment list she imagines for thirteen-year-old girl border guards includes: “binoculars fitted with blue or brown mirrors from the dead/radios fashioned from the ear bones of the elderly—only the dedicated operator can translate the base sounds and the chirp sounds, the muting and the penetration/tracking devices worn against the heart, soft as the skins of babes taken from grieving women.” At the end of the poem, the girls dance with the percussive force of “the blowback, the bull pup, the open bolt and the closed/bolt; watch them dance with Galil and Negev and Uzi.” The last three are Israeli arms, the first two named for places in Israel.

Her internationalism is not always bleak. “We are the diaspora” asks “What collection of molecules are you?” and the speaker answers: “I’m from From/that’s my country.” Faced with the opportunity to flirt with “the most beautiful poet in the world/…his skin is too shiny, his teeth too white/his eyelashes too curled, his hands too intelligent,” she is struck dumb. “You get a prize if you can speak.” An African lover becomes the object of disillusionment in “Ifa is the master of the week.” He begins as “a tree…hard, iron-wood” and ends with the speaker warning him not to

come down to the Egyptian market. I have sent letters out of everyone who knows you, everyone who has seen you, even the thinnest of cats under the pomegranate tables. And they are waiting—them and all my family from the desert who have come out here in    their hot plastic sandals, with their decorated rifles.

In “Penthouse” she imagines a man who makes crayfish pinch his nipples “like adjusting a spanner” and offers a complete recipe for a guy who has “sex/with French bread.” But her métier is witnessing the worst. The following is quoted in whole:

Elegy III “The things a mother does”


She buttons down the woven lid on the cradle coffin of her child

looks at the crowd and speaks to them


her soul bright and pushing up under the skin of her eyelids

the thinnest parchment thins so we wonder


if she might leak filaments of the other world’s light into this one.

She holds her husband, rubs the place his heart is underneath


sends him her hope and hopes that it will land and seep.

We watch as she pulls off her dress, naked in this winter circle


to feed the other babe.

Breast and belly sing the prose of birth


the insistent chorus of death

not all of us know the words yet, but we can hum


and watch the hawk fly round and round—her baby in the sky–

and then away, with the ones who trail him, up just out of sight.


“Demonstration” is about a man whom the speaker “did kind of like” who was “a hell of a lot stronger than you could’ve imagined/and was prying you apart.”  Does he rape the speaker? He tells her what happened that night was “no big deal.” Twenty-five years later she watches a young woman strip in public to protest the accusation that rape is always the woman’s fault, and the poem shouts in caps: “ITWASNOTMYFAULTIT WAS RAPE.” And she is right, not only about the rape but that, too often, all that can be done about such a violation is to shout.

The book ends with the chilling poem “Fale aitu,” which means “house of a malevolent spirit.” Americans have just released an Iraqi in the previous poem so the “you” in the final poem seems to be both the reader and the ex-prisoner “pointlessly try[ing] to secure [the doors],” with spirits waiting outside “some with arms folded, leaning; some blowing smoke; some with hooded eyes, pacing.” Why not be hysterical in such a situation? From slaughtered Syrians to unwarranted assaults on Australian aboriginals to the police-slain African Americans in the U.S., people of color around the world continue to be hunted down and traumatized by inhumane and murderous treatment. As Shelley wrote two centuries ago of a “people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field,” such violence is ageless and without borders and poets must find ways everywhere to express their outrage.

  Spirit House

Starting with a quote from Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Anne Kennedy situates The Darling North in the realm of prose as well as poetry, a geography with “an alien, disturbing secret loveliness.”  Kennedy is a poet-fictioneer, winner of the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award, and twice-winner of  the New Zealand equivalent to the National Book Award in poetry. Infused with the self-reflexive—read: thoughtful, surprising—her poems propel themselves with wry wit and uncanny revelations in clear lineated sentences that surprise or gracefully reverse. “The land/hated them. How do I know this: I don’t. Don’t/listen to me.” She nods to Seamus Heaney in the acknowledgments, but sounds, with all her irony, like a cross between Tony Hoagland and Anne Carson.  “I’d never looked at landscapes, only heard them,/which was safer, the ear a sieve for/devastation.”  It doesn’t hurt that there’s a sprinkling of New Zealand terms to shakeup the familiar for Americans– “and the accent of the newsreader bouncing/in loping kilohertz.”

On a slim island nation like New Zealand, north or south are the only real options. (I am reminded of the two buses in the main island of the Cooks, “Clockwise” and “Counter-clockwise.”). “We were going up north, the thing to do/down here in the hemisphere.” Kennedy audaciously chooses and does not choose to go north with the lover. In the geography of emotion, this stance feels true, and the history and landscape of the island unfolds to support it. “What I realise,/as my black car copperplates over the bridge, is/love makes the land appear and disappear.”  Punctuated by “chapter” headings that signal a shift of place or time, the poem envelopes the loss of the lover but holds the sadness of the end of the affair at a distance: “Did you know Brahms copied out chunks of Beethoven/and inserted them in his symphonies./He said Beethoven’s music is mine/because I love him.” The poet yokes the affair to the political by referring to the fractured history of the north as the place where the second treaty between Maori and European peoples was signed.

All of the poems in the book are long, yet lineated and hewn into stanzas that read well. The second poem, a series on nursery stories, from Red Riding Hood to a terrifying account of the Gingerbread Boy retold with contemporary references and diction. Fairy tales always touch on origins, and each retelling, grounded in the present, resonates.

The biggest little pig was Big Pig. He said ditto to Dad

re: the house, and Dad said ditto to you too, Big Pig,

but seven things: no straw no strange men no games no wood

no sleeping on the job no bad grunting, and it’s a fort.

In “The Wedding Ring Lost to Sea and Other Stories,” a man loses a ring to the sea, there’s a near-death experience by water, a whale with “that sinking feeling,” swimming figurines, a boy, smoking, who drowns trying to drive away a girl. This last is particularly intriguing. The poet assigns the boy a dog, takes it away and then asserts it again at the end, as if to alert us to the story-making power of the writer and “truth.” “The boy/said to his dog (if he’d had a dog),/The sea is not even blue. I can walk to Te Atatu/….” The boy tossed his cigarette hissing/at the sea and with his dog//went to the place where/the mud and water first become one.”

The Carson-touched “Forty Years of Habitation” is a series of categories which, defined, obliquely reveal the lover and her relationship to him, framed by the first and last section “His dream,” which is of course the poet’s.  It begins:

Under the tarpaulin of his face he’s fumbling with matches.

A flare. I watch its history (young, at least/so far).

It rains outside, enough to swell the river.

I might come in.

Under “His thighs:” “A long time ago I saw a man lying under a car fixing it./I came home.” Often these speculations spill into the next category, with his physicality and their relationship a thread through the whole poem.

“Lostling and Foundling” is a magisterial series of poems that situates the poet between New Zealand and the America of Hawaii, that lost colony of Maoris and colonials, magisterial in the sense that it fully occupies the passage. “That thing/on the rim of the glass is the sun going down/on America.” The change of locale is not quaint, but wrenching, a leaving behind of the poet’s history, a casting forward into the future with her children foreign in a foreign land—the immigrant’s story. In the section “Buying a Phone,” it “is the first piece of furniture, hopeful,” with “a tendency to weep. No – beep,/you idiot!”

“My Carbon Gaze” wonderfully mediates on hills burning with memory, with loss. But that’s not to say she isn’t cheeky.

In spring they were brassy yellow with gorse flowers. In summer they were ‘tinder dry’ (a cliché) and ‘brown’ (not a cliché because the word brown doesn’t have much to it and people haven’t got sick of it yet.) Okay, brown.

“Hello Kitty, Goodbye Piccadilly,” the final poem, begins with a series of denials posed by a person who believes herself to be living in the capital “P” Paradise, a.k.a Hawai’iki, the fabled homeland of all Polynesians, the un- or de-commercialized version of the contemporary state. “The balconies of apartments blocks downtown/look like box seats for the Pacific Ocean.” In long indented lines streaming dreamily across the page, the “you” in the poem

                                                misses the cold wind and you wish

                        that instead of leaning into it

                                                                                    reading it with your mouth

                        and casting it aside like small talk

                                                on all those occasions of cold wind

                                                                                    you had gathered it up

                        and kept it in a suitcase. Then you could

                                                                        carry it with you to the new place

                        open it there

                                                and remember what cold wind feels like.

Even in paradise the immigrant stops to sum up the broken identity: “You need to add that for your children/this is not Paradise because for them/there is only childhood.” Who but the uprooted can really assess the place of geography in the psyche? This liminal woman straddles two countries at a time, emotionally and physically. The poem ends with her embracing the adopted geography, but there’s more than a touch of resurrection involved:

                        warmth rises through your body

                                                and it rises through your body and it rises

                        through your body, and you see

                                                                                    and you feel

                                    that you had to go some time

                                                                        and that this is Paradise.


Terese Svoboda is the author of several books of poetry and prose, most recently the novel Bohemian Girl, which Booklist named one of the ten best Westerns of 2012. Bison Books has re-issued her fourth novel, Tin God, this year.

Review: Fale Aitu | Spirit House

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