Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Serie Barford

Serie (Cherie) Barford was born in Aotearoa to a Samoan-born mother and a Scottish, English and Scandinavian Kiwi father.   Her early collections Plea to the Spanish Lady (1985) and Glass Canisters (1989) were published by Hard Echo Press and Tapa Talk was published by Huia in 2007.  Her poetry and short stories have been published in various national and international print and electronic anthologies.

Serie performed with Poylnation, a poetry troupe, at the Brisbane Poetry Festival in 2008 and was the recipient of the Seresin Residency in 2011.  She performed in the 2013 Auckland Fringe Festival and is currently in discussion with a publisher in the Ukaraine about the translation of Tapa Talk into Ukarainian.

Serie grew up knowing that the narratives that were part of her family discourse were not part of the sanctioned national narrative and were basically ignored or rejected by school teachers.  This has affected Serie’s choice of subject matter and she is drawn to the obscured narratives of  'other voices'.

Making Starfish

to the untrained eye 
starfish have no front or back
but village women know better 
these days they cut 
from discarded x-ray plates
create whole beds of starfish 
on bark cloth and cotton 
when you cut x-rays 
they utter a peculiar cry
but starfish split silently 
make more of themselves 
to fill up 
empty spaces
something the lonely could do

I wrote this for a lonely man I knew whose outlook and involvement in the wider world diminished as he systematically withdrew himself from communities of belonging, including his own family, and became a recluse.  Towards the end of his life he was interested in little else than his medical ailments and only a clone of himself would’ve sufficed as a friend. 

Published in Tapa Talk, OBAN 06 Online Blackmail Press 29,  Booksellers NZ (Blog Tuesday Poem June 14 2011).

Te Awaroa (The Valley of the Long River)

Molly traversed the ocean on a sailing ship
that floundered on sandbars within sight of land

she spilt with horses, fruit and other pale faces
into a river valley drowned long ago by the sea

and weighted by her buttoned boots
sank beneath the wails of migratory birds

fish unpinned her knee-length hair
flicked their tails through her petticoats
kissed her hands and lips farewell

but what everyone remembers
is the waves carrying Molly ashore
and how her husband knelt beside her

polished an apple from the capsized cargo
on the left pocket of his torn, briny shirt

then sliced it in half with a bushman’s knife
to reveal the five-pointed star of Venus

when he pressed it gently against her cheek
the eggshell-white of his face
was so tightly stretched over the bones
it appeared to be on the verge of tearing

This poem is from a clutch of poems that I wrote to acknowledge and celebrate Albert Wendt’s importance as a trail blazer for writers and artists of Polynesian descent.  It was included in a special issue of The Contemporary Pacific: Flying Fox Excursions:  Albert Wendt’s Creative and Critical Legacy in Oceania. I incorporated some of his writing into my poems (with his knowledge and consent) to demonstrate how he is my ‘literary papa’ and how we’re part of each other through the woven threads of our Samoan DNA and our writing.  The italicized lines are quoted from Albert’s novel, The Mango Kiss (Auckland;  Vintage, 2003, page 91).   I got the idea for the poem whilst talking to a neighbour who used to dive around the Kaipara Harbour.  He told me how the men often settled in Aotearoa then sent for their wives and how he’d seen hoof prints in a ship wreck that were made by frantic horses as they tried to escape a sinking ship. 

Published in The Contemporary Pacific,  A Journal of Island Affairs, vol 22:2,  2010: University of Hawai’i Press.

Culture Shock


bussing from the west into town
mumbling my destination to the driver

so shy I couldn’t hold the eye
of any other passenger

sitting by myself
every day an ordeal

that first year at university
I almost went back to the factory

but I wanted out


penned in theatres

lectured and air-conditioned
hundreds of us at a time
freezing or sweltering

you’d have thought they’d get it right
all those brains inculcating us
and no idea how to set a thermostat


I wanted to be home
ranging the peninsula
a Swandri to put on
or take off
with the mood of the day

the salt wind in my face
less harsh than the woman
in gumboots and dungarees

her face scrubbed bare
and not a factory foreman
now a cow to milk in sight

she believed adornment satisfied men
manipulated and degraded women

but my family always dressed for the city
not that we had much to choose from


she didn’t understand my bolt for freedom
the gamble for my future on a piece of paper
my family could ostentatiously frame

their eyes moist as they wrote home
the future full of answered prayers
their sacrifices rewarded

until we all understood
the unchartered frontier of academia
had unhinged me forever from my elders

I’d never belong completely to the past again

to the factory floor
my mother bottling gin at Seagars
feet swollen from standing overtime
weary and sodden in a smock

no adornment there

just remittances for Samoan postboxes
money for hospital bills and liquid food
for my dying opa’s veins

she couldn’t fathom my father
desperate to meet the mortgage
hanging out washing
supporting the extended family
while veins spread above his garters
and his lungs clogged with dust

every day the same

polishing shoes for work
one pair black
the other brown
after dinner at six

the numbness
the dullness of drudgery

shouting and tears
the complicity of silence

I fought it all

like the Saturday night
I fought my father
for the right to slash
my lips red

a compromise
pink lipstick
not too dark
until I left school

then any colour I liked

I held him to it


I ached to paint the strong
pale moth of my tutor

all grown-up in her gumboots
dull as a nesting duck

I had chromatic dreams

wished I could afford the make-up
applied from tester at Smith & Caughey’s

perhaps a drench of perfume
instead of Janola at my cuffs

she found me swamped by family ties
and a limited view of life

it was obvious to me
she hadn’t grown up with
thumbs pressing her down

we talked
some of her ideas
got through to me

years later I met her mother
at a hui for artists

she was a weaver
a passionate woman
with a complicated past
was fussy with her food

I couldn’t get over
how she loved her daughters
even when they lived
lives of their own


I took to dressing like a gypsy
taking risks to know I was alive

one Guy Fawkes night
high as the skyrockets
hissing over the bay
I walked a sewer pipe

excavated a niche beneath some tracks
laughed as the train rumbled over me
cried when it passed without taking me

I travelled to Europe and Asia
revelled in my mind
crumpled sheets
exotic and pungent odours

opened chakras
was opened by surgeons

went to theatres and galleries
read poetry and hummed tunes
I’d forget in the morning

loved unwisely
just to feel my veins throb
and arms that wanted me
discovered that middle-class men
made love to their wives
professional women
chic in simple lines and basic colours

had sex with women who wore fake pearls


It was at this time
I created my own rule of thumb
if you have to buy cheap
buy dark and plain

it nudged the ruffled florals
out of my wardrobe

when I finally hung myself
out to air in the Waitakere wind
I thought of my tutor
woman-proud in her gumboots

wondered if she’d recognise
or even remember me

sometimes I hear her on the radio
she writes with authority on Polynesian girls
and barriers to learning in the education system

I think my pale face and blue eyes fooled her
she should have looked at my hair
my shovel-shaped incisors
the angle of my jaw
met So’onalafo my grandmother
a matriarch to rival any doña

thought about what happens
when you challenge someone so thoroughly
they have nothing left to believe in
but the words of strangers

breathing in a vacuum
unable to connect with family or faith

mind blazing with knowledge

wondering where it will all


This poem explores my experiences in New Zealand’s university system and how it affected me. I was brought up the 'old way' within the church and with chaperones and stories of Samoan spirits and history and found myself alone in a strange place under the glare of the feminist movement (late 1970s and early 80s).  Every time I spoke in a tutorial I was mocked and my worldview was ridiculed.  It was a very stressful time.  One of my tutors wore dungarees and gumboots to class and assumed that I was European and to this day I find it difficult to even look at her without reliving the alienation and pain I felt in her lectures. When I graduated with a BA I was offered the chance to do a Masters degree but couldn’t wait to escape.  Once my parents secured my graduation portrait on the wall I went wild for a few years.  I felt that I didn’t belong anywhere as I was too palagi to be a 'true' Samoan and too Samoan to live without cultural tension in the palagi world. 

Published in Tapa Talk, Pacific Identities and Well-being: Cross-Cultural Perspective (Routledge: 2013).

Found Again 

our love is a tracking device
more sure than any global
positioning system

just carve us into wooden tablets
then imprint us on opposite corners
of a mighty length of siapo
and watch tusili’i spring forth

making bridges to connect us
over rock-bound starfish
scampering centipedes and
the footprints of bemused birds

we have many stories of
losing and finding each other

of getting lost
and losing others

but today all is well

I lie beneath the old mango tree
smothered with coconut oil
embellished with wild flowers
and droplets of your sweat

your aging shoulders
still fling back proud

and I still arch towards you
like a young sweetheart

you have whispered in my hair

found again

and we both know
this is our final harbour

*siapo - bark cloth (Samoan)
* tusili’i – fine or way lines used to connect individual designs and spaces on siapo (Samoan)

I wrote this for my partner who I first met in January 1982 in Samoa.  We stayed loosely connected over the years, although we each lived our own lives in different countries.  We finally connected as partners and have been together for 10 years.

Published in Tapa TalkMauri Ola (AUP: 2010), Writing the Pacific (PWF: 2007), Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems (Random: 2012)

Plea to the Spanish Lady 

The people of Western Samoa were told that the sickness which eventually killed 22 per cent of their population after World War 1 was called 'The Spanish Lady'.  This is one man’s plea.

Important streets fall before you
and now  Talune berthed in Apia
harbours your sway
Sway not our way  Lady
Such homage grieves us

Aboard Talune the Doctor examines
bodies propped by mail bags
Colonel Logan agrees
a sea-sick lot this one.”
The ocean is calm

Today the Samoan Times is all news:
death notices and a front page
Today the editor died
Today Teuuila’s screams awoke me
as she lay between her parents
dipping fingers in their sweat

Her name means flower  Lady
see her tremble and wilt
We will bury her in lavalava
scented with frangipani

He’s never cared for us   Lady
He’s not my brother in Christ  He can’t be
Logs tumble, tumble from his eyes
Crosses bearing corpses swim in them
My flesh is moist  too moist
Who will harvest the taro and breadfruit?
Who will instruct the young?  Feed my children?

Don’t linger Spanish Lady
The trenches are full and
my family spills into the ocean
fevered and dazed
drowning at each other’s feet
Go now  Lady
We have fallen before you

I started reading poetry at the Globe Tavern, an Auckland pub, which was demolished long ago.  The Dawn Raids and the Springbok Tour were still fresh in people’s minds and hidden/suppressed  narratives were being revealed.  The Spanish Influenza was spread by soldiers returning from World War One and was personified as the Spanish Lady.  I remember reading this poem to a disbelieving Globe audience and being heckled by people who didn’t have a sense of 'colonisation' and what it does to people. New Zealand administered Western Samoa at this time and incompetently handled the flu epidemic.   Almost one quarter of the population died. 

Published in Plea to the Spanish Lady (Hard Echo Press: 1985), Pacific Voices:An Anthology of Maori and Pacific Writing (Macmillan: 1989), Whetu Moana (AUP 2003),  Aotearoa New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive, New Zealand Poets in Performance (AUP: 2008).

How Things Change

Now that I’m an old woman
I hear breathing in my head

a patina of brown spots
speckle the veined spread
of my knobbly hands

and the nights seem longer
so I dream to pass the time

last night I dressed you with
the scented heads of gardenia
strung with seeds salvaged
from the ocean’s embrace

we slept on an island
floating in the fragrance
of distant mountains

and when the moon rose
rocky outcrops exhaled the heat
they’d snaffled from the sun
to warm our tangled limbs

we never imagined
our secret pandanus grove
turning into clumps
of paspalum spikelets

or our young love
giving way to bile and age

how things change

the littoral forests have fallen
and our grandchildren
speak a different tongue

this morning my namesake
drank tea with me

that smile

she was almost you

Sina’s a good girl
she goes to church
visits me every Christmas
does what she’s told

I want her to stay
but her heart’s elsewhere

tomorrow she goes home
to Niu Sila

This poem is about the diasporic identity conundrum.  'Who/what are you and where do you belong?'  Sina is me in many ways but she is also representative of women who are connected to the Samoan 'homeland' but have formed emotional connections to the 'new land' and NEWzeaLAND has become the destination of their internal homing compass. I honestly feel more comfortable living in Aotearoa. This generates a cascade of emotions such as grief, guilt, longing, regret, relief, confusion, and acceptance.  I didn't go to Samoa every Christmas because my grandparents lived with us anything between 3-9 months a year in Niu Sila - especially when they were older and needed medical intervention. My mother was the only daughter (she has 5 brothers) and she emigrated to Nui Sila during the 1950s when she was 19. I'm the eldest grandchild as well as the eldest granddaughter and felt the pressure of what this meant in terms of preserving family stories and values  - but carved my own path.....

My Samoan grandmother had trouble pronouncing the ‘sh’ phoneme.  She always called me Seer-ree.  I decided in 2006 that I would change my name to ‘Serie’as a way of keeping her close to me because I really missed her when she died.

Published  in Tapa TalkMauri OlaWriting the Pacific.

Nautilus Woman

I’m aware of sweat running
the channel between heart and belly

spreading into the waistband
of my too tight skirt

sticking to the clammy space
where a  babe could be growing

and into this thought
a woman in a terracotta
Mother Hubbard dress
saunters and bonjours me

she’s as beautiful as a deep-sea nautilus

a mollusc with an ivory shell adorned
with reddish-brown stripes on the outside
and mother-of-pearl on the inside

she’s wrapped a scarf about her head

frizzy black strands of petulant hair escape
defiant in the heat they will not lie down
smooth with sweat against her scalp
her loose-fitting dress is striped with
pearly lace between the shoulder blades
and on the flared sleeves beneath her elbows

she moves slowly in the heat
hands rubbing her swollen belly
and I wonder if my body
ripening with years
can house another child
survive another birthing

the woman is near her time

I can feel the drag of her babe’s head
positioned to move from buoyancy
into its mother’s arms

we smile at each other
lightly brush fingers
as she glides by

I wrote this poem in the Loyalty Islands.  It was so hot and there are no streams or rivers because the rain sinks through the coral into underground caverns.  I was sitting on a beautiful beach and connected without a common verbal language to this beautiful, heavily pregnant woman. 

Published in Tapa TalkMaui OlaTrout 12.


on Sunday the priest said teu le va
 make presentable the distance
between you and the other

there’s no such thing as empty space
just distances between things

made meaningful by fine lines
connecting designs and beings
in the seen and unseen worlds

distances can be shortened
made intimate or dangerous

or lengthened
until the connection weakens
finally withers away


on Monday the chief evicted
the diving school from the island

said sailboats and men in black suits
upset ancestors visiting the bay

the instructor packed his gear
waved goodbye with two fingers

the chief smiled
lit a match


on Tuesday I swam with a green turtle
and an old man riding an iron bike
stopped to greet me

we shook hands

not a city-corporate shake
just a gentle slipping
of fingertips over palms

like origami cranes
delicately pressing
their bills together

a hongi of sorts


on Wednesday we drove inland
past columns of limestone
where birds huddle in nooks
overgrown by banyan roots

banyans start as flimsy seeds
dropped from heaven
onto unsuspecting hosts

their roots twirl down
strangling flourishing trees
as they grope for the ground

we stopped at one banyan
more majestic than others

a grizzly man in track pants
materialised at our side

can we take photos?

he smiled slowly

told us he was the guardian
of the cyclone stone
hidden at the base of the tree

hands on hips
he posed for the camera

we took three pictures

none of them turned out


on Thursday children playing hide ’n’ seek
dashed out of their hidey holes
to watch me walk by

I’m the only blue-eyed woman
with frizzy hair on this island

they lifted sunglasses off  my nose
peered at me up close

then ran away to spy safely
as I fended off the hungry village dogs

it was a test of sorts

they emerged when the last mongrel
had yelped and slunk away

they’d no idea
I could kick and throw stones
before I could walk


on Friday time melted
on a beach interrupting cliffs

where feral donkeys meander
past magical caverns
sharks enter with moonbeams

and leave as beautiful people
with decorative trailing braids

on the ridge of this world
a warrior ran with his club
towards the towering cliffs
and the chasm that breaks them

the enemy closed in
their breath humming
like coconut-leaf whizzers

he jumped the impossible breach
invocations and ancestors buoyed him up
bridged him to the other side

while beneath the cliffs
waves slapped rocks


today is Saturday

I’ve bought a new siapo
for the overcrowded living room

it’s harmonious

the land, sea and sky are in accord
the motifs complement each other
everything’s connected

which reminds me

I’m still trying to measure
the distance of our connection

have even thought of painting
my body onto yours

it’ll fit

we could do it in the backyard
under the banana trees

where roosters flap their wings
and puff out their chests
for the squawking hens

who scratch in the dirt with chicks
they peck to keep in order


*hongi – the exchange of greetings between two people, the pressing of noses together, the exchange of breath (Maori)

The Samoan concept of ‘teu le va’ enables us to understanding our relationship to people and places and deities and how we are connected to everything in the visible and invisible worlds.  I wrote the poem during my time in the Loyalty Islands where I explored both visible and invisible worlds.

Published in Tapa TalkNiu Voices: Contemporary Pacific Fiction 1 (Huia: 2006).

Mary Johnson via the SS Ocean Mail

Mary migrated with a liquefaction remedy
from a Shetland croft to a whare in Karamea

where she grew into a midwife
who grated potatoes onto muslin strips
then baked them on rickety window ledges
until the water-logged pulp dried
into a powder fit for dusting sores

Mary could walk and talk and knit socks
with four needles and collect things to slip
inside her apron pouch without missing a step

she pocketed all sorts of treasures
wild berries, flowers, nuts and fruit
tufts of wool stranded on thistles
plants and lichen to dye spun rolags 
Fair Isle knitting patterns and faerie tales

 when your name’s Mary you can perform miracles

like birthing two of your fourteen bairns alone
in the bush on your knees beside a blanket

or burying a bairn taken by worm fever
in the cold earth with a broken heart

I wrote this poem for Mary McHarrie (nee Johnson), one of my great grandmother’s who was a migrant from the Shetland Isles. My grandmother was her 13th child and both women were incredibly strong in their own way.  When I was a child my grandmother used to pick daisies and make faerie rings with me and tell me family stories and the world of the 1800s was as real as yesterday.

Published in  JAAM.

Papa de los pobres (Potatoes of the poor) 

it’s the morning after Anzac Day
medals and politics have been aired
with bugles, haka and stylised poppies
marking distant shores, valour and loss

but there’s still battles to be had in the suburbs

where the recession’s struck a hunched-backed woman
in jandals, track pants and a budget-rack floral parka

she’s braked a pushchair choka with chokos
on the pavement outside Foodtown

when I close in on her I see she’s fine-boned
that her misshapen back is actually a papoose
slung beneath a mantle of synthetic flowers

and there’s bald patches around the hood
where tiny fists have plucked nylon fur
to suck for warmth in the Autumn wind

the woman holds a shard of corrugated card
her smile as shaky as the crayoned lettering
$1 a chocko
her face is gentle

but I have chokos galore at home
their wrinkled, prickly flesh a green chorus
with feijoas and fresh figs in a pottery bowl

and I need the four gold coins for the special toothpaste
guaranteed to soothe receded gums and nerves

the papoose whimpers

I pluck two fruit from the sagging canvas shelf
extract gold coins from my purse
smile then wince when the wind targets my mouth

this is for the chokos
and these are for your child

she shakes her head
no no
takes one coin
presses the others back into my palm

I mean well but I’ve got it wrong
she lifts her chin

I left my island for a better life

another woman approaches
scoops up chokos
papa de los pobres! she exclaims

she sees a woman with empty cupboards
who’s taken to the streets to change things

stands to attention
salutes the urban activist

I wrote this poem one ANZAC Day after I’d been to my local supermarket.  I was moved by this woman’s story and what she represents and what she taught me about how several people can perceive the same event/sight in different ways.

Published in Landfall 218.

The following 3 poems are performance poems and part of my 'Disrupted Narrative' series.

The Flying fox and Che Guevera

I cared for my children like a flying fox
kept them safe under my wings
when they were small and hesitant

tipped paracetamol and antibiotics
down persistently inflamed throats
during endless nights of earaches

gassed them with ventolin cocktails
when asthma stole their breath

had broken bones reset and a tongue bitten off
from a faulty landing on a trampoline
reattached in a theatre without movies

then regretted it
when that fiapoko mouth
started up again

and we’ve laughed at dinosaurs and cartoons
at Grandma crooning Buffalo Soldier
at Pa’s jokes and the bills that kept arriving
for the ever-declining cashflow card

then there were the retreads that outlived cars
and the unexpected appearance of food
in our sprayed and wiped out cupboards

hmmm, there’s so much to think about
sitting barefoot in church at Nakety

behind the vividly turbaned mamas
paying their respects to Eloi Machoro
a South Pacific Che Guevara
a dead son of this island

that siege and the photo of Machoro
smashing a ballot box with an axe
immortalised him beyond the bullets
that felled a man into a crimson pool

my sons are still learning the difference
between people’s needs and wants
and how to match actions with words

but I remember
they wore their Che Guevera T-shirts
until they fell off their backs

*fiapoko – a cheeky person, a know-it-all

Every Bus Stop Tells a Story

on this island of opencast mines
decapitated hills stretch endlessly
and bus stops are graphic novels

their pages communally authored
on concrete blocks and iron sheets
assembled to showcase legends

Bob Marley  Che Guevera  Eloi Machoro
shelter with travellers from the tropical sun
and the bleeding earth when it rains

rest in peace brothers
you’re not forgotten

for you’re remembered by the rivers
where bamboo grows exceptionally tall
resembling flocks of animated parrots
with trailing emerald feathers

as well as the blackwood trees and rocks
that witnessed valleys rise up for freedom

and your names are sung by young women
coaxing horses over flooded bridges
youths and dogs panting in their wake

and spoken by elders kindling fires
with stories of your deeds
for on this colonised island
threads from disrupted narratives
weave themselves underground
like sunken streams in a desert

emerging as an oasis of counter-stories
to challenge the master narrative

Hearts and Sensitive Grass

our hearts are carefully accommodated
the left lung being smaller than the right
so our passions and woes can harbour
our blood beat thrr-thrump thrr-thrump

but shifting the universe of our mind
a paltry three hand spans to our heart
seems a journey too distant for most

even on this blatantly colonised island
where migrants have traversed oceans
and sensitive grass flourishes with passion fruit

when my mother was a school girl
she spoke her mother-tongue in class
was sent outside into the blazing sun
to weed sensitive grass as punishment

the thorns ripped her tender flesh
bestowed nettle rash and shame
and droplets of blood destined for her heart
nourished the parched field instead

oh she learned her lesson well
for when I was small she said
the way forward’s English
that’s your father’s lingo
we live in Niu Sila
don’t speak my lingo
I don’t want you to be hurt

but when I was older
and she was stronger
she changed her mind
insisted I learn her lingo

drove me for miles after school
to language and culture classes
but by then my tongue had set
into a concrete kiwi accent

everyone laughed when I spoke her lingo
until the world I was tentatively building
collapsed under layers of well-aimed scorn

now I crouch under the blazing sun
prod sensitive grass with sticks and fingers
blow on it like gentle and harsh winds

estimate how much force it takes for a frond
to fold/unfold in response to the outside world

create strategies for dealing with thorns

calculate the distance I’ll need to travel
in order to retrieve and free my stifled tongue!

Statement for 'Disrupted Narrative' poems
I wrote these poems while I was moving around and living in various villages on the main island of Kanaky (New Caledonia).  I was appalled by the devastation of miles and miles of land due to open cast mining activities and loved the way that the people of the north painted their own stories onto bus stops.  Driving along a long stretch of road was like being immersed in a story that celebrated indigenous myths and contemporary heroes and voiced anger and sadness at the ongoing colonisation process.  I went into some of the hill tribe villages and visited battle and grave sites for fallen indigenous freedom fighters – who were labelled terrorists by the French administration.  In 'Hearts and Sensitive Grass' I draw upon one of my mother’s experiences of colonial rule (New Zealand administered Western Samoa until it became independent in 1962) and how it’s affected my life many decades later.

These poems were performed as part of the Polynation performance at the Brisbane Poetry Festival (BMP) and the  Going West Festival 2008,  and without the troupe as various poetry readings, including the Auckland Fringe Festival 2013 and Pasifika Stars at the Auckland Central Library.

Selections from 'Disrupted Narratives' have been published in Making Settler Colonial Space: Perspectives on Race, Place and Identity (Palgrave Macmillan: 2010), Home & Away 2010 All together Now: A Digital Bridge for Auckland and Sydney.

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