So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


Songs & Poems of Queen Salote. Edited by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem

Translated by a linguist rather than a poet, these poems tend to be more literal than poetic. Also many of the poems are very formal because they were written for stately occasions. The bilingual text is filled with a lot of details about Tongan royal family affairs and local history mostly of interest to other Tongans. Left pages are in Tongan with the English text on the right. There are lots of black and white pictures from the royal family archives that have never been published before which create an interesting image of early 20th century life on Tonga.

The actual poems and songs begin on page 148. Full of references to islands, tropical plants, ocean winds, and the surrounding seas, yet also filled with references to local places and events. The very Tongan context can frustrate off-islanders. Also the translation, while correct, is sometimes difficult to follow and filled with local terms and customs. The volume has a series of glossaries and sub-glossaries at the back that can make finding a definition difficult.

The early songs are full of either happiness at being in love, or sadness brought about by the death of her consort Tungi Mailefihi in 1941. I have chosen to select small sections of the poems that have a universal appeal to illustrate the work.

"Oh, happy is the wind
That blows wherever it pleases
While I live a prisoner
To love with its silver lock." (p. 148)

The poem Leiola starts out:

"Heart obsessed, dying of sorrow
Ever seeking the road to consolation
Groping in case there is hope
I call amid the desolation"

and ends with:

"My mind will not be consoled
Leiola mine, where can you be" (p. 173)

Sea of Death describes

"Rain falling on the mountain-top
Descends to the valley of sorrow
Flowing into the ocean
Turning into bitterness"

and the Chorus states

"Tears flowing steadily
As dew in your flower garden
Or fountain water falling on the crystals" (p. 179)

Many of her images are of the natural world reflecting her feelings:

"The moon shone like a second daylight
My heart was captured and obsessed" (p. 195)

The Lullabies don't have the intense emotional impact of the Songs, but tend to be more contemplative.

"Oh, I am weary, let us sit here a while
Rest a little and sleep" (p. 207)

"When the waves break far out at sea
My fond memories are aroused" (p. 212)

"Of all the splendour in this life
Supreme is the love between true friends" (p. 213)

The Laments are again full of sadness and loss.

"Friday dawned
And word came
The war had begun
At evening came the shock
The army of death had won
Disbanding the centre of my pitiful house" (p. 232)

"Happy is the native bird
That takes to wing and flies
While I can only breathe my longings
For magic to empower me
Oh, to be the foam on the waves" (p. 256)

A wedding song states:

"Let me attempt to climb
The tower of my joy.
The cloudless sky beholds
The grounds of Nuku'alofa [the capital city]
Its being astir and carried away
Like a flock of pigeons swiftly gliding
In the warm zone of love." (p. 295)

A lovely way to end this review is with this description of Tonga:

"The sun rises in a clear sky
And it is talked about as a treasure
Whose fortune I shall relate
Love still reigns
Enveloping beloved Tonga" (p. 310)

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