Poem – The Sound of Their Drums

One of the things I’m attempting to do with the Chumming the Waters/Words for the Men in Grey Suits project is do change the perspective of sharks from their place in our culture as monsters to beasts worthy of celebration and song (or poetry, as is my medium).

Some cultures, however, need no perspective shift.  For those who practice native Hawai’ian beliefs, sharks, very often tiger sharks, are already seen as not just worthy of protection, but as part of the family.  In this poem, I am writing not from the perspective of the practitioner of those beliefs, but from the tiger sharks who learns of his place in this belief.

Thank you to Jack Stone, Hawaiian Cultural Advisor, whose advice was invaluable in clearing up some choices in this poem that may not have been respectful of those beliefs (any errors/appropriations that may still exist in this poem remain mine – and as always, I welcome feedback!).

The Sound of Their Drums (Galeocerdo cuvieri)

He called me ‘aumakua.  

An intoxicating scent of blood,
billowing opium in the azure deep,
brought me to the canoe.
A rhythmic resonance of a paddle
plying the ocean path paused…
A splash!
The telltale quiver!
I know what food sounds like!
Ono, ahi, and roi,
all seemed to fall before me,
and I made quick work of them.
Others might be suspicious,
free meals are never cheap,
but what do I have to fear in the Blue Eternal?

I then heard the word.
Before, when my fin breached the surface,
I would hear men and women
yell “mano!” or “niuhi!”
accentuated by the sudden acceleration of heartbeats
while I passed over the coral
and sliced through the waves.
This one’s heart was steady.
then a splash
then my supper,
and it did not take long to realize
these were gifts from a man,
gifts for me.

this was not how we shared the seas.
They fought us for fish,
with hooks and harpoons,
they did not surrender them with soft words.
I dove into the dark reaches,
seeking out our eldest for counsel,
and I found her,
ancient and massive,
her stripes faded almost to absence,
scars of a thousand turtle shells round her eyes,
they said she had lost more teeth
than were fish in the sea.
She was our mo’i ka pali,
Queen of the Abyss.

I swam into her wake,
fins low in supplication,
eyes forward
glance askance,
and she summoned:
     “Swim closer, young one. Ask your question.”
“Why did the man feed me?”
    “Why not? Are you not worthy?”
“But we do not share.”
    “He was not sharing. Offering.”
“I do not understand.”
    “You sees you as immortal, as a god.”
her last thought cast me spiraling
all senses askew,
deeper into the darkness,
ideas slamming into me
like waves on the volcanic shore.

I remembered our history.
How we followed them from the coasts of the Eastern lands,
shared bounty from the lines and spears,
tended to their dead when slipped into the foam
watched them on new land,
listened to their prayers.
Their gods not ours,
but I knew the names
shouted from outriggers or
tended by bright fires,
and the depth of sharkskin drums
that reached the face of the waters
and now I?
‘amuakua – his guardian shark.

More than just a predator,
Now I swim with purpose.
When I hear wood sliding on sand,
paddles propelling them on,
I will follow,
because I am them,
they are me,
we are together in the endless tides,
as the land is to sky,
as sky is to sea.
His generations will know me,
even if I am but a shadow on the reef,
for I will always be there,
circling beneath them for eternity
and if they need my protection,
their voices dancing on the ocean,
I will hear it,
because once you are a god,
you can never be unmade a god.

He called me ‘aumakua.
I listened.

(© Bernard Schober/The Klute 2016)

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