Passing worlds: Tahiti in the era of Captain Cook: poems.
Louisiana State University Press.
I have read a number of Cook-inspired poetry books over the years, but this one is the most interesting and unusual that I have read; unusual, not in its structure or style (although it is written in free verse) but in the topics to which the poems are devoted. Most poets write about Cook’s voyages on a grand scale, telling of the Captain’s encounters along the way. Ms Holmes enjoys examining the smaller aspects of life at Tahiti, especially when they highlight the cultural differences between the ship’s company and the islanders.
Her book contains 45 poems, all with Tahiti as the central theme. They are arranged in a chronological sequence starting with the pre-contact poem Prophecy, and ending with the retrospective Counterpoint, in which the author records the calm pace of Tahitian life, and how it was affected by the arrival of Europeans. In between these “book-ends” are tales of Captain Wallis’s arrival in 1767, Bougainville’s brief flirtation with the island in 1768, and Cook’s voyage and arrival in 1769.
The author’s approach to her work was revealed in an on-line interview,1 during which she reads several of her poems providing a useful insight into how her free verse is meant to be read. Encountering her work for the first time I was struck by the lack of punctuation. The absence of commas, which usually guide the reader through each stanza, required your reviewer to re-read some passages several times before the author’s true meaning was discerned. However, such an exploration of her text added to my enjoyment, rather than distracting from it.
Here and there, Passing Worlds contains words or phrases that are highlighted in italics. These are the words and phrases the author encountered during her extensive research into her subject. At the end of the book is a section that reveals where these words and phrases originated. For example, in one poem the island of Tahiti is described as “uneven as a piece of crumpled paper”, a phrase written by Sydney Parkinson in his journal.
On this basis, I was surprised that George Robertson’s Poem was not all in italics, as the author had taken a section of Robertson’s journal, when Master of Dolphin, and converted it into free verse!
I found Passing Worlds an interesting read. Holmes is a brilliant wordsmith, and her literary vignettes capture the sight and smell of Tahiti as it was 250 years ago.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 16, volume 42, number 4 (2019).