O ke alelo ka hoe uli o ka ‘ōlelo a ka waha.
The tongue is the steering paddle of the words uttered by the mouth.
                                                      – ‘Ōlelo No‘eau


Think of all the lost words, still unspoken,
waiting to be given use, again, claimed,
or for newly born words to unburden
them of their meanings. There are winds and rains
who have lost their names, descending the slopes
of every mountain, each lush valley’s mouth,
and the songs of birds and mo‘o, that cope
with our years of slow unknowing, somehow.
It was not long ago that ‘ōlelo
was silenced, along with its dying race,
who lived, then thrived, reverting to the old
knowing words. English could never replace
the land’s unfolding song, nor the ocean’s
ancient oli, giving us use again.


Like the sea urchin leaves, pimpling its shell
as its many spines let go, turn to sand,
my great-grandfather’s Hawaiian words fell
silent, while his children grew, their skin tanned
and too thin to withstand the teacher’s stick,
reprimands demanding English only.
The law lasted until 1986,
after three generations of family
swallowed our ʻōlelo like pōhaku,
learned to live with the cold, dark fruit under
our tongues. This is our legacy—words strewn
among wana spines in the long record
the sand has kept within its grains, closer
to reclaiming our shells, now grown thicker.


Ka ‘ōlelo has a lilting rhythm
arising from the coastal mountains’ moans
as they loosen their salted earth, succumb
to the ocean and its hunger for stone.
It carries the cadence of nā waihī,
born from the fresh rain in nā waipuna
and flowing past the fruiting ‘ulu trees,
wiliwili, kukui, and koa.
It holds the song my grandfather longs for
most, as he remembers his father’s voice,
and regrets not asking him to speak more
Hawaiian, so that he may have the choice
to offer words in his inheritance,
knowing his ‘ohā will not be silenced.


Think of all the old words that have succumbed,
their kaona thrown oceanward for English
words we use like nets to catch the full sum
of our being, finding too little fish
caught in the mesh, even as we adjust
the gauge, reshaping them to suit our mouths.
I must admit I love the brittle crust
my only tongue’s foreignness forms; it crowns
the dark, churning pith of prenatal earth
rising in the volcano's throat, unspoken
for now, founding my wide island of words.
And kaona, a ho‘okele’s current,
circles during my wa‘a’s slow turn inward,
steering my tongue through each old word learned.


As the ‘ape shoot, whose delicate shoots
shoot forth their young sprouts, and spread, and bring forth
in their birth, many branches find their roots
in the dark, wet ‘ōlelo the earth bore.
My unripe tongue taps my palate, my teeth,
like a blind ko‘e that must feel its way
through the liquids, mutes and aspirates of speech,
the threading of breath and blood into lei:
“E aloha. ‘O wai kou inoa?”
I ask, after the language CD’s voice.
“‘O Kekauoha ko‘u inoa,”
my grandfather answers, “Pehea ‘oe?”
So, we slowly begin, with what ‘ōlelo
we know; E ho‘oulu ana kakou.

From When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry (W. W. Norton & Company, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Brandy Nālani McDougall. Used with the permission of the poet.