“Strict Land” by Renee-Louise Carafice

There was a guy who pointed at another guy and said, “Damn you” at him.
That really doesn’t seem like such a big deal until you realize
The powerful kings / gods / dead sons / traumas
That this whole thing tied into
With our community never having been quite overcome by the total logic
Of Pakeha dumb anti-meaning.

Going back a little bit
There was a big funeral where all the old women were wailing in the big yard in front of the meeting house
And all the kids were silent and not even playing around at all
And the parents were resting their hands on their kids’ shoulders like this
Like they were scared of something.
There was a young man who had died and everyone had known him and liked him a lot.
The Dad of this young man was quietly weeping and sitting and he had a lot of anger on his face and in his fists.
Then a drunk man arrived at the funeral and started horsing around and so the Dad stood up and pointed at the drunk guy (knowing all the gods and ancestors and all the ancient rules that were at play here) and said “Damn you”.

This still doesn’t seem like a very big thing until you realize
That pointing at all is basically sending someone to their grave
Not metaphorically at all
And in a tapu environment
Like the tapu place on which our marae is built by the hands of our ancestors
It really is quite literally damning someone in a way that not many people outside of that set of circumstances could imagine.
The old women cried and begged the Dad to take it back, but he wouldn’t.

Next week there was another funeral
Where the drunk dude had crashed into a light post and died
And everyone was amazed
But the old women were not even slightly amazed.

We all knew even more then
That you never point at anything or anyone,
Even to say, “that guy over there”.
We grew up in the habit of gesturing by nodding our heads at something
Or using your elbow to point
And keeping our unfathomable forces of humanity at bay.

That’s why I just remember that place and think about rules
Because there were so many rules
About the way you moved, and spoke, and looked, and where you went and did various things
And they were very dangerous rules to break
Not cause anyone around you was going to punish you -
I can’t remember seeing a cop until we moved into the city when I was thirteen -
But because the land itself was full of these watchdog rules
Where if you broke them it wasn’t like anyone was going to miss them
It meant you really were going to die soon.
We just saw this over and over
And it was the strictest land
Like a minefield
Of spiritual hair-trigger deathtraps.

Renee-Louise Carafice is a critically acclaimed, New Zealand-born songwriter. She was raised by the sea and forest in a Maori (native New Zealand) community. As a young adult she fought mental illness, kicked its ass, and publicly humiliated it. As a twenty-five year old she moved to the United States permanently with only a suitcase. She is writing a book of prose-poetry about those three things.