On Robert Sullivan’s Cassino: City of Martyrs/Città Martire

Craig Santos Perez

Huia Publishers, 2010. 84 pages. $15.95.

Cassino: City of Martyrs/Città MartireThe 28th Māori Batallion of the New Zealand Army served in Greece, North Africa, and Italy during World War II. They were highly decorated, respected, and feared. In 1944, the Māori Battalion fought around Monte Cassino, Italy, which is dominated by an historic Benedictine monastery. During the battle at Cassino, more than half of the Māori battalion was killed. One of the most important depictions of the Māori Batallion in Pacific literature is Patricia Grace’s novel, Tu (2004). The main character, Te Hokowhitu-a-Tu (also known as Tuboy), and his two brothers volunteer for the 28th. During the war, Tuboy keeps a notebook to document their lives and, sadly, his brothers’ deaths. Years later, he gives his notebooks to his brothers’ children and tells them: “You are your fathers’ memorials, the likeness being so strong that I thought I was being visited by ghosts” (13).

Ghosts of the Māori Battalion also haunt Cassino: City of Martyrs/Città Martire, the seventh collection of poems by acclaimed Māori writer Robert Sullivan. The poet’s grandfather, like so many others, fought with the battalion. Through a series of sixty-seven interweaving poems, Sullivan poignantly captures his travels to Cassino and other parts of Europe with his son in search of these ghosts. On this intergenerational journey, Sullivan traces the inter-spiraling of memory, history, geography, family, and culture. His guides on this journey include well-known Western poets (Dante Alighieri, Ezra Pound, Rainer Maria Rilke) alongside well-known Pacific writers (Hone Tuwhare and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell).

The titles of the book’s first set of poems contain the word, “Waiata.” In “Waiata x. Otters,” the speaker explains: “The Bible in Māori translates ‘psalm’ as ‘waiata’; / while it generally doesn’t work to split a Māori word / into its parts when you do it means ‘reflecting water’” (15). By reflecting (and refracting) the currents of history and memory, Sullivan suggests that poetry can be psalm, prayer, and song if we creatively translate the poetic journey. The first poem, titled “Waiata/Canto i,” inaugurates the journey: “He takes me this far, but I’m still in my body / and cannot climb shocked air / Grandfather turns and we spiral” (1). It’s not entirely clear whether the speaker’s grandfather is alive or dead, but he is definitely present as a guide (Virgil and Dante are referenced several times). The poem continues:

Memory sings Tuīni Ngāwai’s heart song
‘Arohaina Mai’ and her blessings
for Te Hokowhitu a Tū Toa
farewelling the men      Her words carrying
the ancestors encourage them as they cross
the river, ‘tihei mauri ora!’ but their
orders from higher-ups carry fear and death
The men only want to live      Orders spiral off the radio:
Two companies’ tanks have to cross a non-existent
Bailey bridge? The men crossing the field
are scratched out by machine-guns and mortars
fresh from striking the 36th Texas Division
that January, ‘every man who made it across
the Rapido was killed, wounded or captured’ (Ken Burns),
so the guns in February had murderous rhythms: not for psalms,
not for extraordinary poems where love
falls hot and wet      Thank God and all the Saints
Grandad wasn’t there      Mum gave me
a photo of him in Firenze      He was in Trieste later (2)

The spiral is an important image in Sullivan’s critical and creative work. In the essay “The English moko: Exploring a Spiral” (Figuring the Pacific: Aotearoa & Pacific Cultural Studies, 2005), Sullivan employs the takarangi—one embodiment of the spiral—to interpret concepts and values within Māori and Polynesian literature. As a form and symbol, the takarangi is both physical and metaphysical, weaving through multiple times and spaces and embodying non-linear knowledge. The takarangi can also represent genealogy. So to write with a “spiral dynamic” is to write the past, present, and future into the poem, to write one’s ancestors into being, to interconnect separate geographies onto the page, to write across languages, and to think beyond beginnings and endings. In Sullivan’s poetry, thoughts, memories, and histories spiral within the line and across stanzas. The spiral becomes externalized in “Waiata iii. Praising the Taonga in Europe,” in which the speaker visits the British Museum:

            Here are the spirals to praise:
heavily spiral-decorated plate showing
Menelaos and Hector fighting over
the body of Euphorbos

                  Wine jar
with a partridge big on feather coils

Praise the spiral right ear
on a Miletos statue (6-7)

The poem continues to praise treasures from various cultures and histories. Several poems in the collection guide us through different museums, such as the Imperial War Museum (London), the Waiouru Military Museum (New Zealand), Getty Museum (Los Angeles), and Museo Casa di Dante (Firenze). Museums are often places where indigenous culture is frozen, imprisoned, and dead; however, Sullivan subverts this possible expectation by placing an indigenous viewer within the museum. By showing that the spiral is also an important symbol in many other cultures, perhaps Sullivan is suggesting that all peoples are connected—if we can acknowledge and praise our shared humanity, perhaps we can avoid the tragedy and trauma of war.

Through acts of praise, Sullivan centers the reader within the spiral and expands space in the poem “Waiata xxiv. Calling”: “I call to my relations whose blood is in the soil here // I call to their wairua and praise them // I sing and greet them in singing as they would have sung in return // I sing to my grandfather and his brothers // I sing to the Allied bombs and the German gunners // I sing to the city of martyrs . . . ” (30). This Whitmanesque moment roots the self within a spiral of song, calling out to the poet’s relations and to all the ghosts that traverse the city of martyrs. To accentuate this haunting, some poems are accompanied by black and white archival photographs of the “snapped knee of the abbey,” as well as of soldiers climbing Montecassino. This interweaving of text and image emphasizes the spiraling relationship between textuality and visuality. Through delving into the meaning and history of these photographs (and within the museum space), Sullivan also displays his desire to do more than collect souvenirs.

Despite the pleasures of being a tourist in Italy (the wine, the art, the literature) the speaker finds his deepest connections with the site and city of the battle. The title poem, “xxxiii. Cassino Città Martire,” takes us right up to the stones:

Yet all I find are stones marking bones; stones
draped in paper poppies; stones shaped like men
in uniform; stones like broken graves stacked
into the abbey’s holy renewal
with abbots’ piety, vineyards and views
of the huddled city of martyrs’ bones . . . (40)

I admire Sullivan’s intimate tone (the above poem ends: “our bones belong to stories of love / and in our loving we draw on their life”). Much of his work is conversational, confessional, personal, and/or familial; shorter free verse poems complement the denser Cassino poems. My favorite, “xxxxv. Hongi,” reads in its entirety: “My breath joins with your breath / my nose presses yours” (54). Another, “xxxxxxii. Mounds 1” reads: “Too many names / too many crosses, / eyes on the shovels, / the earth briefly closed” (72). I love how these brief, powerful lyrics add air and ha—breath and life—to the heaviness of stones and bones. Throughout the collection, Sullivan dances between narrative and lyric voices. This is an effective strategy for a serial-poem collection. If all the poems sounded and looked the same, it would create a linear horizon. However, by interweaving various poetic textures, Sullivan creates an interweaving poetic spiral.

In his book’s memorial for those whose lives were changed by their involvement with the Māori Battalion, Sullivan asks: “So who will sound sweet conches at home? / Why leave their names on a stone? / How to care for national cemeteries / far from burial caves, and family memories / nearer home?” (75). The answer for those of us in the Pacific whose families were affected by World War II is that all of us must sound the sweet conches of our voices, we must carve their names into stone and paper, we must find ways that are neither touristic nor militaristic (nor militouristic) to memorialize, to carry the mounds of memory in our spiraling hearts. As Sullivan suggests, the most powerful memorials are not simply about death; they are about praising life and ha.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter