Fale Aitu | Spirit House by Tusiata Avia

Fale Aitu | Spirit House. Tusiata Avia (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2016). ISBN 9781776560646. RRP $25. 84pp.

Reviewed by Molly Crighton

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Unravelling Tusiata Avia’s Fale Aitu / Spirit House is like trying to piece together an ancestral history from diaries, memories, people, and myths. She maps out the body, spirit, and home as a conjoined trinity, cycling through non-linear memory like a zoetrope, everything existing at once.

Some poems contain a mythic religiosity so strong that the reader can see through another’s eyes, and feel what they felt. The poems in part two do this particularly well, each a separate howl of horror and shock, such as this prose poem:

everyone is leaving for their home / in the sky…bright babies / through concrete steel and glass / I promise my daughter / and run to Barbadoes/ the holy sisters are fallen / look up through the broken window / God the mother has turned to face us
(“Mafui’e: 22 February 2011”)

The poems “CTV Building,” and “After You Leave” in this same section — named “Fale Mafui’e” for the Samoan God of earthquakes — are each an example of how Avia constructs harrowing generality from specific tragedy.

The other poems — particularly in part one, named “Fale”— explore in depth the tension and mirrored synergy between bodies, spirits, and houses. In “Juice,” the period and body of a pubescent girl, kneeling before juice spilled from the fridge, is given power, given strength:

me with my fist balled / stuffed with paper towels / the legion that lives inside the adolescent body / the strength to pick the fridge up / hurl it

And in “House,” lines so perfect that they could be surgical construct a poem where the house is a body, or the body is the world, or each is the other or a god:

            ask aitu: walk with me
            my heart is younger than the sun
            …here is the place where I will keep you.

In the last section,“Aitu” (spirits), holiness and unholiness are explored and untied:

            Aitu are born to the world as bloodclots
            Atua comes from heaven
            Aitu are born to the world as abortions
            This is what happens when you sleep with your sister.
            (“Spirit pantoum”)

This section contains the poem that I found affected me the most in the whole collection, for its sheer panic-inducing frustration. Reading it, one feels Avia’s rage, her sorrow, and her need to write what words only seem barely able to contain:

I cannot write a poem about Gaza because I cannot eat a whole desert.
…I cannot write a poem about Gaza because of my friend Izzeldin and his three exploded daughters and one exploded niece filleted across the living room.
(“I cannot write a poem about Gaza”)

There is bravery in Avia’s poetry — bravery, rage, and an eye that sees beyond the mortal, with a mouth that describes to us what dwells there.

Originally from Wiltshire, Molly Crighton has lived in Dunedin for over a decade. She currently studies English at the University of Otago.

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