Aloa Oe

By D. E. Steward

Leave the Mainland at Point Reyes for the grand Pacific span

Twenty-four hundred miles more, all open ocean

To Waikiki schlock, glottal stops, ukuleles, Portuguese sweetbread, exceptional coffee, a spectacular climate, mountains protruding through the mid-Pacific sky

The most isolated island group on the planet

A landing pattern over Pearl Harbor, the Arizona Memorial with the USS Missouri chained down-channel in perpetuity

City bus into town through Chinatown at nightfall

Then walk down Bishop Street to the port

Yellow muumuus, imaging Queen Liliuokalani, one with ukulele, the other with acoustic guitar, singing "Sweet Leilani" and then "Aloa Oe"to the high decks of the Norwegian Princess casting off from Pier Nine near Aloha Tower

Magnificent, as if out of the spiritual presence of all Polynesian women of all time, keening to parting ocean voyagers not to ever be seen again

It was Queen Liliuokalani herself who wrote "Aloa Oe"

Her statue is in dead-center Honolulu on the Iolani Palace grounds’ Bermuda grass, near the aerial roots of the banyan trees’ maze

In the morning under the mango and koa trees there a sharp-tailed sandpiper, java sparrows, common mynas, zebra doves, a stubby Marisol full-front statue of Father Damien, the Belgian priest who worked with Hansen's disease patients on Molokai

Across Beretania Street from the Marisol, a bus out to the spacious deeply dark-brown varnished Bishop Collection

Through hilly bungalow streets like Berkeley in the tropics

When mainland haoles overthrew Queen Liliuokalani in 1893, Princess Pauahi, heir apparent to the throne, was bypassed and she married one of those thin-gray trimmers, Charles Reed Bishop

An afternoon O’ahu Transit dollar-fifty bus around the island

North Shore big surf O’ahu

“...the good winds were back // the trades out of the northeast coasting along the ridges”

Great frigatebirds, common waxbills, spotted doves, cattle egrets

Back across to Honolulu past big Dole pineapple fields, by Schofield Barracks and Wheeler where all the fighters were destroyed lined up wing-to-wing on December 7th

These places where the War began, small from the air, Pearl Harbor like a boat basin, Scholfield in 1941 like a WPA camp with clapboard barracks’ dusty grounds

Now Honolulu sprawls along the Koolau-crested coast

On the flight across the Kaua’i Channel to Lihue through puffy cumulus that hang there spotting the coruscant light and shade as though fluffed and gardened by the Trades

Shadow and sun-patch empty wonder westering with far-off Japan the next landfall beyond Kaua’i and Ni’ihau

In the vast, empty, central Pacific the islands’ volcanic profiles are absolutely alone

Inter-island ferries used to breast the Hawaiian channel currents, some of the worst waters in the world

To the serenity of the Kaua’i taro ponds by Hanalei

Na Pali

Fire throwing by the ancients from Makana Mountain above Limahuli Valley

Dried out and light, burning logs lofted from Makana’s peak into the trade-winds night that lifted them to soar far out to sea trailing sparks in their seaward arc

Like Elizabeth Bishop’s “frail, illegal fire balloons” against the peak behind Petrópolis north of Rio

“rising toward a saint // still honored in these parts // the paper chambers flush and fill with light”

Brazilian Catholic rituals, Polynesian rites

Sharkskin hula drums

Limahuli Valley is one of the first settled spots in all of Hawai’i, the canoes arrived at the mouth of its stream one thousand five hundred years ago

“to live in the falling before time until the first canoe // appeared in the west and only the birds saw it”

They brought breadfruit, taro, paper mulberry, bananas, kava, turmeric, sugar cane, ti whose waxy leaves were used for thatch and wrappings

Screwpine (thatch and sails), loulu (a low palm), lama (an ebony), papala (the light wood of the fire throwing), ohi’a (hardwood and esteemed flowers), and koa (the great wood of the islands, huge-trunked trees that made canoes and furniture) were already there

From the Marquesas, later from the Societies, they came in big sailing canoes

Green coconuts strung on their outriggers, pigs and chickens in the hulls

Searching for windward green coasts

For valleys like Limahuli to dig their taro ponds' terraces along cascading streams

A complete society in a paradisaic locale that could have gone forever

And in some ways feels like it still could

Coral and lava reefs with the open Pacific behind, copious rain and tropical sun on rich volcanic soils, Polynesian savvy

And the ancient parochial brutalities of clan and tribe

Spear and battle-ax wars

“the merciless web of caste and ceremony // of ritual and dread and sacrifice and coherence // the kapus that maintained the power of the war god”

Until Cook in his justaucorps came searching out taboos, and until what followed him

Changing everything Polynesian

Hawai’i to Easter Island to Auckland

Disease, moneycraft, hooch and Christianity

While the ocean, the climate, and the birds and clouds perdured

Brazilian red-crested cardinals on Kaua'i, wedge-tailed shearwater chicks burrowed in its north shore bluffs, red jungle fowl like feral farmyard banties, a wandering tattler, chestnut mannikins, nutmeg mannikins, motile Japanese white-eyes in protean flocks

White-rumped chama, white-tailed tropicbird, Hawaiian duck, common moorhen, golden plover, red-tailed tropicbird, red-footed booby, black-crowned night heron, black-necked stilt, Hawaiian coot, beautiful red high-elevation apapanes, Erckel's francolin

Lesser yellowlegs and the other migrant waders on the Hanalei Valley taro ponds

Kilauea Point’s seabirds on the black cliffs of Kaua’I with nothing between them and Kodiak Island on the Alaskan coast

Spot a Newell's shearwater far out beyond the surf off Tunnel Beach just west of Hanalei

Up on the conifer mountain meadows of Koke’e on the Waimea Canyon Road at dark, the heavy deep dusk flight of one after another after another short-eared owls descending

There in the locales of Merwin’s epic of Pi’ilani and Ko’olau, of West Kaua’i, of Hansen’s disease, of The Folding Cliffs

Of Na Pali from above

“...climbed to the sharp ridges and down into // the steep green clefts where water was running on the rock walls // through curtains of fern...

“of canyons with white wings circling a vast distance below them // drifting across blue shadows and the far red rock face grooved // stained split with age where the white threads of waterfalls // hung swaying in the silent sunlight...”

The high Alakai Swamp’s thick moss on all four sides of everything that stands or grows, the wettest place on the planet

Mountain tops, all across Hawai’i are mountain tops above windward beds of clouds

Windward, leeward, the constant Trades

Climb from the welcome balmy coasts toward the summits, on the upper slopes of Haleakala on Maui in the winter there is even sometimes snow

And the myriad birds enhance

Kalij pheasant, Hawaiian hawk, housefinch, red-billed leiothrix, elepaio, wild canary, yellow-billed cardinal, melodious laughing-thrush, canvasbacks

The nenes, those serene, magnificent geese, the emblematic ones

On Hawai’i at sunup on Uwekahuna Bluff overlooking the Kilauea caldera, its sulfur-yellowed cliffs, the steam vents condense in the chilled pre-sunrise air

A pair of nenes flew in low through the steam on their moaning calls, they land farther along the rim to walk the lava fields

Lava fields lead downslope eventually four thousand feet toward the ocean where the advancing glowing magma swells

Tonguing ineluctably toward the surf

On top, along the Volcano Highway above Hilo

Minka cottages

Broad eaves, the constant rain

Old plantationland

Hawai’i not long past was Sugarland

Orchidland

Lavaland

Ubiquitous ohi’a, the tree shrub that’s first to root on lava flows

A thick, matted profusion in the rain of orchids, vines, aerophyte roots

Hapu’u that begins as a small fern in shadow, with light and luck it grows in forty years to a tree fern of seven or eight meters before finally top-heavy it topples

Old dry lava fields down the long incline into the leeward side’s desert

Intense green profusion of Hawai’i’s windward side along the Kohala Mountains to Upolu Point where the Big Island ends at the Alenuihaha Channel

And Hilo, Asian Hilo with mildewed stucco walls, wide eaves and its old Japanese bayfront gone from the big tsunamis of 1946 and 1960

Fifty-foot waves in over the city’s seawall

Slamming against that magnificent open coast

With a road all the way north to Waipi’o Valley

Near the Waipi’o lookout terrace a luau is prepared for two days and nights by dozens of men at a house off the road

They group around an imu, the earth oven in which the kalua is slowly baked

They are immense shadows in the flickering light through a rain shower soon after sundown

A mother-in-law has died in her eighties and men go about preparing the feast

Ball caps and pickup trucks, but a mysterious, ancient, thoroughly Pacific island rite

From the Waipi’o Valley lookout terrace, a huge colonial roost of cattle egrets in the trees just off the mouth of the Waipi’o Stream on the flats behind the strand along the bay

Returning in the hundreds flock after flock through the dusk that from the lookout almost two thousand feet above is quiet as eternity

In the era before Cook landed on the island’s leeward coast, the alluvial below supported tens of thousands for many centuries

Sheer valley after valley, stream after stream, cliffs stretch away

Green thousands of feet below

The valley sky goes through sundown, dims, and then is nearly black

Off the cliffs the metallic Pacific begins

Going darker from silver to pewter to last light dimmed-down electro-polished gray

Thousands and thousands of miles each way  

Quotes from W. S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs, Garrett Hongo’s Volcano and Elizabeth Bishop's 'The Armadillo'.


D. E. Steward writes serial month-to-month pieces like 'Aloa Oe', and of the more than twenty-eight years completed so far over two hundred have been published in literary magazines, some electronically. The whole immense project is called Chroma, and the months are mostly published as poetry, with enough autobiography to make them nearly the enemy of the verity of remembering, which of course is what good writing must do. Shorter poetry and prose appear in the same manner.

You can read more about Steward's 'months' in the Los Angeles Review.

Header image by Joenevill, under Creative Commons license