Goddess Muscle by Karlo Mila

Goddess Muscle. Karlo Mila. (Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2020).
 ISBN 9781775504009. RRP $35. 215pp.

Reviewed by Tamara Tulitua

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Karlo Mila’s Goddess Muscle is a rippling flex. Weighing in at 215 pages, and a decade long in the making, the answer is: yes, she did have to flex that hard.

I have a habit of reading dedications and acknowledgements first, before anything else. It’s similar to my need to know the year a film was made. It gives me a reference point. The dedication page here presented me exactly this: ‘For Papa Sean who gave me the language to describe another world’. Mila engages in multiple languages in various forms in the collection, and unlocks multiple worlds — from the physical to the cosmic, to the inner workings of beating, throbbing hearts.

I was surprised by the tender opening statement “Your People Will Gather Around You: Love After Love”. Immediately embracing, disarming warmth, comforting song. The piece names the reader and invites her, as if to say: you are here where you belong, in the grand embrace of a collective sighing ocean of dreams. Not just any ocean, but the expanse that is Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. The continent of Oceania where we hold myriad tongues, common gods, and divine humans. Where we sit with ancestors and babies and speak through stars, fleshy moons, and sands.

Yes, your people
will hold fast within you.
In the marrow of your bones,
waiting to be known.
Travelling with you
along the soft breathing
curves of an infinite circle
that has no circumference,
and whose centre
is everywhere
(“Your People Will Gather Around You: Love After Love”)

If you are from these waters, you will see your image in this collection, and perhaps grow your confidence in naming these connections within you. If you hail from other watery continents, this is an invitation to move beyond brochure resorts, statistics, and stereotypes. Here are poems pulled from the belly of our mother. Reader, be warned — Moana time, island time is not in fact slower, but non-linear. Be ready to leap between ages, hop between heavens, language, and lives.

In the first section, Mila sits at the feet of elders past, our seers and prophets. The ones who gave language to our longing and yearning for home, breathed our stories on foreign pages. Tuwhare, Hau’ofa, Teaiwa, Viviare, Baxter, Wendt. Mila draws clever odes to their wit, vision, and daring. She is old mates with Hone:

You and I both know,
the ones who break the rules
get the chicks.
(“A Conversation with Hone Tuwhare”)

but pulls away from Baxter, choosing to instead address him through Jacquie Sturm. Each ode moving in waves at times, irreverent, funny — then moving and delicious.

In other sections, Mila is the frigate bird offering her lens — crossing waters of time, land, heavens. ‘There,’ she says, ‘see the fire of Hawai’i… See, there! The fin of Hina… Listen,’ she urges, ‘for the cry of taniwha… Chill with demigods. Sigh at Tūhoe boys. Walk in dark night with eyes shut wide open…’

The bird lands and shapeshifts to woman, wife, mother, lover, friend. Lost, lonely, forlorn, forgiven, found, wooed. There is unravelling and unbecoming. Poems pulsating with the muck, elation, despair, and exhilaration of love.

Then Mila takes her cue from literary elders, and lays out her vision of Tino Rangatira. Some poems are chastising, others visionary. For me, her strongest statement is the lathering of languages throughout; in the free flow of our tongues — naming our gods, emotions, and landmarks. One, two, three languages within one, two, three lines. With each reo, she opens a gateway for belonging. Tagata o le Moana were never singular, homogenised. We were and are myriad: carriers of time and place, bearing the markers of all corners of our whakapapa. The physicality of language grabs and pulls you in, shoves reason to the side, pushes heart to centre. Imagery pounding in your chest as if standing against a loud speaker.

Curdled green-blue
head-bashing into white
wrestling in every direction,
deeply muscled waves
rip tides, thick spit, swirling hips,
saltwater saturated,
spindrift sweat.
(“Odyssey in Black Sand”)

Installations of
we slash and cut,
stitch and sew,
bind and lash.
(“Bottled Ocean (for Jim Vivieaere)”)

If you have wondered what it means to be connected to land, to be in tune — try these poems on, follow their directions. Take the prescription therein. Let the goddess muscle flex and flow, and tell me that stretch doesn’t feel good.

Tamara Tulitua flows from Sāfa’ato’a, Matā’utu, Vailima, Tanugamanono, Sapapāli’i of Samoa. Aotearoa is her birthplace and current home. She writes from between the margins to explore boundless galaxies beyond cultural/ethnic li(n)es.

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