On viewing Gauguin's Mana'o Tupapa'u ,The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch

The chill of violet around you,
Olympia of Oceania, you lie pito down:
a burnished, brown body like mine, draped
over white sheets. And for the moment,
I can't move ⎯ How did we get here?
Your framed face turning toward mine,
I see a pleading in your eyes, on your lips
                                                                      a moan of dread.

            Quickly I struck a match, and I saw Tehura,
            immobile, naked, lying face downward on the bed:
            Feet crossed at the ankle, hands palm down, eyes
            inordinately large with fear.

I draw closer to you, mounted on the wall ⎯

            Never had I seen her so beautiful, so tremulously beautiful

see waves of dark hair tucked
behind your delicate ear, pulled
violently from your face, neck.
Your seduction rendered ⎯

            With a scattering of flowers,
            completely naked, waiting for love. Indecent!

through brush strokes of bronze:
arching your back, lifting your chin to meet
                                                        a ceaseless stare.

            She seemed not to know who I was, and I too
            felt a strange uncertainty, in this half-light ⎯

Behind you, the spirit of the dead,

            a dangerous apparition only she could see

more his than yours, looms in black, stares⎯

            I was afraid to move. Might she not take me for a tupapa'u?

blankly, unbending. In its hand,
the spark of a bud lights the tiares⎯

            Yet, such coppery beauty, gold skin ⎯

on your mattress, each blossom opening
                                                        into a glorious sneer.

            ... and the night was soft, soft and ardent, a night of the tropics...

E Tehura, my pokiʻi,
in your face I see my own,
the same curves and shadow twisting
into a sad silence. I know
this is not who we are, not Why or How⎯

only smoke from flailing ghosts, tricks
of fading light, only the wash of gold paint over
                                                        this rotting wood frame.


Italicized stanzas are excerpts from Paul Gauguin’s autobiography, Noa Noa, translated by O.F. Theis (1920), selected letters and journal excerpts.

From The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Pa‘akai (Kuleana ‘Ōiwi Press, 2008). Copyright © 2008 by Brandy Nālani McDougall. Used with the permission of the poet.