SHE HAS THE most recognisable face in contemporary Western history and she’s almost within my reach. The longest-reigning British monarch and I share a few things: we are both seated in Westminster Abbey (founded in 960); we share the same birthday (on 21 April 2016, I turn forty-five and will be exactly half her age, a quirky fact I thought to share but then my Samoan discretion got the better of me); and we are both wearing blue in a sea of black and beige, as observed by many an attendee afterwards.
‘My dear, how politic of you to wear the royal blue.’
‘The blue of majestic te moana nui a kiwa, the Pacific Ocean? Why, thank you!’
Her peeps also colonised my peeps. Our shared colonial histories put a controversial spin on my acceptance of this commission. I’d been approached in November 2015 by the head of the Commonwealth Education Foundation about writing and performing a poem for Her Majesty on behalf of fifty-three nations for Commonwealth Day. It had a few parameters: it had to be less than three minutes long (fine); it had to address the theme of unity; it had to be appeal to over a thousand school children, royalty, dignitaries, heads of state and the common assembly (difficult but do-able); it had to represent all fifty-three nations of the Commonwealth (in less than three minutes?); and it was not allowed to be political (oookay). Challenging, but not impossible.
Commonwealth Day is the Queen’s gig. Has been since the inception of the Commonwealth in 1947. Celebrated in Westminster Abbey on the second Monday in March every year for the past fifty-two years, this will be Queen Elizabeth II’s fifty-third attendance.
SINCE THE END of World War II, when German rule was replaced by a paternalistic New Zealand colonial administration, until independence in 1962, Samoa has had a complex relationship with New Zealand and, by extension, the British Empire. For a ‘PI’ (Pacific Islander) with networks across ‘postcolonial’ Oceania, the relationships are problematic at best. Nevertheless, my Samoan-Tuvalu mother, after marrying my Kiwi-European father in Samoa and moving to the suburb of milk and honey (Avondale, west Auckland), gave place of pride to a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth on horseback (acquired at the Avondale Salvation Army). For half of my life the Queen was forever twenty-one, straight backed, and going places (on a horse!). I was even given the middle name ‘Anne’ – as in, ‘Princess’. If Mum hadn’t passed away in 2009, she would’ve had a heart attack knowing that her daughter was seated across from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, Wills, Kate, Harry and Andrew.
While no bullets were directly fired, there was an off-hand remark from a Pasifika scholar about being a ‘sell-out’, to which I publicly responded. I suppose those who don’t know me may have felt I was suckling at the very bosom of the British Empire. My political stance as a Pasifika poet has always been one of inclusion – I’m a bridge not a wall. Some might see that as giving others permission to walk all over me; I see it as granting access to what Tongans call talanoa, open dialogue. The night before the biggest performance of my life, I received an email from the fierce and formidable Maori activist Ngāhuia Te Awekotuku. I hesitated before opening it, reluctant to jeopardise the head and heart space I needed to cultivate for the delivery of the poem. But that’s the thing about being a bridge – you stand under sun and storm. I opened it: ‘It is not selling out. It is BEING THERE. Where the fuckers need to see, and hear, and watch, and learn from us, on our terms.’
Ngāhuia was moved to pen her first poem in three years, which ended with the lines:
not Kiri of decades nuptially lost
but you: our very own
Fast Talkin’ PI
These lines are now carved into my bridge.
BEFORE THE SERVICE began, before the trumpets heralded in the royal procession, before the parade of fifty-three flag bearers, all invitees were seated and waiting. To my left: Kofi Annan, British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Prime Minister of Malta, the Commonwealth Secretary-General and numerous other heads of state, official dignitaries, lords, ladies and barons. Across the aisle, four rows deep, I glimpse the gold hair of Lady Alexandra Smith, tucked beneath her feathery fancery (my latest new word). She is seated next to her husband, Sir Lockwood Smith, aka New Zealand’s W Three Show host cum parliamentary speaker cum opera singer cum High Commissioner. They are my London aiga (family). Lady A winks at me.
I am wearing an electric-blue tapa-inspired puletasi (traditional Samoan dress) bought at MENA in Apia, Samoa, just across from the Savalalo Markets (which recently burnt down). The trendy fashion house is named after Mena Loheni and operated by her four daughters. I am wearing an orb paua shell necklace bought on my Solomon Islands honeymoon in 1996. It is a blue-green moon, luminescent in the light. I am wearing my hair – as is my custom – out. Ironically, what used to be the bane of my existence at Avondale Primary (‘Mop head!’, ‘Toilet brush!’) is now my trademark, my obsidian crown of power. I am seated in the transept. The throng of school children and the remainder of invited guests are seated in the longer, lower part of the architectural cross. I thought I’d be performing there, closer to the public where British pop star Ellie Goulding and the Queen’s youth representative were being miked. But no, the girl from Avondale and Apia, the fast-talking, dark-sparring PI was to perform on the sacrarium steps, standing on the lip of the Cosmati pavement, west of the high altar where queens and kings have knelt, been crowned, married and committed to the afterlife.
I wink back at Lady A. An elderly gentleman and his wife are escorted to the empty seats next to me. After they settle, I do the Kiwi thing, hold out my hand and introduce myself.
‘Hello, I’m Selina, the poet from New Zealand.’
The man in his three-piece suit looks at me, then down at my hand, then averts his gaze. ‘Yes.’
His hands remain knotted on his lap. His fingers look like stubby, orange tubers of turmeric, lined and uneven. My outstretched palm is frigate bird flying, fingers soaring and suspended. The bird realises landfall is further away than first thought. His wife peeks self-consciously around his shoulder, the wispy yellow feather of her fancery quivering: ‘Oh, yes, hello? Hello.’
I lower my hand, but not my gaze. Hopefully no one saw. I have twenty minutes before the performance and refuse to let a stranger ruin the moment. I stare ahead and into the raging blue eyes of Lady A. Her mouth is open, brows furrowed. Later at the royal reception in Marlborough House, she is in full flight: ‘I can’t believe he did that to you! I’m so offended! Lockwood, did you see Baron what’s-his-face? How rude!’
She’s such a sweetheart, in full equitable-justice-for-all, school-councillor mode.
‘Do you think he was racist?’
‘Maybe more classist?’ I reply, wondering who could possibly outrank the hand-shaking Queen.
Back at the Abbey and fifteen minutes to go. My unshaken hand is going to make excellent poetry fodder. Wait till Snobby-Suit-Face sees me rise! Should I have worn my gold jandals? What if I forget my lines, trip up the holy steps, or accidentally step back onto the sacred Cosmati pavement (like I did during rehearsal), causing the Abbey ministers to cry out? The choir is almost bursting. Through the soaring sopranos of pre-adolescent angels (they get kicked out once they hit thirteen), a verger (second new word) comes and stands before me, holding his staff and bowing low. This is my signal. I stand and bow, and follow closely behind him, past Her Majesty and up the four sacrarium steps. Together we stand facing the high altar and rood/rude screen (my second in the past twenty minutes), and we bow again. Multi-faith church representatives sit either side. The verger exits stage left. I turn, face the congregation and wait. Two minutes later, the last amen is sung.
Lady A would later prod me: ‘Why did they take you up so early? You had nothing to do! We had nothing to do but look at you. Oh, but you did look splendid. And so calm and composed. I’d be as nervous as anything!’
But I needed those two minutes to fully absorb where I was, to whom I was performing, and who I was representing. Earlier, in the semi-empty Abbey, I had wandered through the brass gates and up the stairs to the Henry VII Lady Chapel, sky-gazed at the pendant fan-vault ceiling – the orbis miraculum – milled round Poets’ Corner fingering Chaucer’s name (interred in 1556), tracing the Bronte sisters’ plaque, accidentally stepping on CS Lewis (it’s okay, his bones aren’t there). I needed to exit for a quick slice of sun after hours of being inside this most magnificent mausoleum of princes and poets. I remembered the passageway to the cloisters.
During the ‘familiarisation rehearsal’ (a new phrase) two nights earlier, one of the Abbey ministers had shown me the Thomas A Crapper room. I thought he was joking, but there, framed on the wall, was Crapper’s certification for inventing the loo, accompanied by a wooden toilet seat with his name carved on it. I was waiting in line for the holy crapper when joined by a man wearing glasses and a generous side-swept fringe. He walked in with the aid of a cane. I smiled. He smiled. He looked familiar – that British comedian perhaps? I was about to say, ‘Love your work, great comic timing’, when three Bluetooth-rigged suits spotted him and whisked him away. I’d meet him later that evening at the reception. He asked to see me before leaving. Making my way through a parting crowd I was introduced to a lovely Sir John Major. ‘Just wanted to meet you and say what a marvellous poem.’ And what a marvellous thing that I’d held my fast-talking tongue outside the holy crapper!
I FOUND MY way outside to the inner sanctum of Westminster School, as old as the Abbey and attended by Ben Jonson, John Dryden, AA Milne and no less than seven British prime ministers. Its motto, Dat Deus Incrementum (God Gives the Increase), no doubt also applies to its fees. But here, the sun was free and so was I. Excitement and dread were rising in equal proportion so I reminded myself that I was here by free will.
This was my opportunity to share my poetry, my place and my people on the global stage.
I spoke the poem to the trees, their boney fingers scraping the blank page of sky, lazily writing the beginning of a London spring. Feeling lighter, warmer and more me, I wound my way back inside the Abbey.
Rehearsing to inanimate objects as part of one’s prep is normal for poets. When informed that there would be no podium or mic stand, that the Queen would be within metres of me, I knew I couldn’t read off the page. The poem, titled ‘Unity’, required the unity of mind and body. During rehearsal I was given free reign of the Abbey while media set up mega screens, and mechanical booms that scraped the hundred-and-five-foot ceilings; while florists lightened the Abbey’s corners with yellows, purples and whites. I had wandered into the Lady Chapel and come across the marble effigy of Queen Elizabeth I and her half-sister, Mary. To the bones of these formidable women, I recited ‘Unity’, thinking that within forty-eight hours – four hundred and thirteen years after her burial in 1603 – Elizabeth I will have heard the same poem as her descendant.
Poets love synchronicity. We also love to rehearse in front of flesh and blood. The day before, during my run from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace, I returned through St James’s Park. After cutting across the Horse Guards Parade, over its large circular dirt field and under its central archway (the official entrance way to St James’s and where only monarchs are permitted to drive), I spotted two Horse Guards stationed on either side of the gate. I stopped at a babble of bobbies near the entrance way.
‘Excuse me. Is it true that the guards can’t move or respond to the public?’
‘Oh yes. Tourists try, they do. Turn it into a bit of a game. But they can’t, you see. They’re on duty… Guarding. Strict protocol.’
‘So I could talk to him and he can’t do anything?’
‘You could try Ma’am. Many have.’
Rejogging my steps, I choose the smaller, younger guard on the left. In his red uniform, brass buttons and spiked gold helmet covering the bridge of his nose, he still looked like something out of Spartacus. Nevertheless:
‘Hi. I’m Selina, a poet from New Zealand. Tomorrow I perform for the Queen. Um, I need to rehearse, if possible, in front of a live audience.’
He stared straight ahead.
‘So, apologies in advance, but since you can’t move, I’m thinking you’ll do? Is that okay?’
The young man’s left eyelid slowly descended then rose. Not a wink per se, but its as if he was saying, Do your thing, weird, tall, brown, Kiwi woman; this job can get unspeakably boring and no poet’s ever come up to me before, so this should be diverting, even slightly entertaining. For Queen and Country!
In sweaty running gear I performed ‘Unity’ with gusto, arms raised, hands fluttering, pacing up and down the dirt stage. After my final line I looked him in the eye.
‘Sorry again to impose on you, but thank you.’
The left side of his mouth twitched up. Blink and you would’ve missed it. But it’s as if he was saying: Struth! That was fantastic. Good luck for tomorrow and thanks for breaking the monotony. For Queen and Country!
I took a selfie with the guard and posted it on Facebook. My sister messaged me within the hour:
‘Is that Nutella on your mouth?’
It was – they had make-your-own waffles at the hotel in Trafalgar Square.
‘For Mum’s sake, wash your face before you see the Queen!’
BACK ON THE sacrarium steps I focus on breathing. The first person on my left is Her Majesty, in a powder-blue jacket, skirt and hat with white gloves. It is a deja vu moment. The scene before me could have been set in a frame of serrated ivory-paper edges – like many royal-portrait stamps I’ve licked over the years. Next to the Queen sits the Duke, staring intently at the Commonwealth Day booklet and the schedule of events. Could ‘they’ be reading about ‘me’? Could royal eyes be perusing my poem?
The final amen echoes through the Abbey. I am strangely serene and let ‘Unity’ fly.
Maluna a’e o nā lāhui apau ke ola ke kanaka
‘Above all nations is humanity’
Let’s talk about unity
here in London’s Westminster Abbey
did you know there’s a London in Kiribati?
Ocean Island: South Pacific Sea.
We’re connected by currents of humanity
alliances, allegiances, colonial histories
for the salt in the sea, like the salt in our blood
like the dust of our bones, our final return to mud
means while fifty-three flags fly for our countries
they’re stitched from the fabric of our unity
it’s called the Va in Samoan philosophy
what you do, affects me
what we do, affects the sea
land, wildlife – take the honeybee
nature’s model of unity
pollinating from flower to seed
bees thrive in hives keeping their queen
unity keeps them alive, keeps them buzzing
they’re key to our fruit and vege supplies
but parasitic attacks and pesticides
threaten the bee, then you and me
it’s all connected – that’s unity.
There’s a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in unity
costs the earth and yet it’s free.
My grandad’s from Tuvalu and to be specific
it’s plop bang in the middle of the South Pacific
the smallest of our fifty-three commonwealth nations
the largest in terms of reading vast constellations
my ancestors were guided by sky and sea trails
and way before Columbus even hoisted his sails!
What we leave behind, matters to those who go before
we face the future with our backs, sailing shore to shore
for we’re earning and saving for our common wealth
a common strong body, a common good health
for the salt in the sea, like the salt in our blood
like the dust of our bones, our return to mud
means saving the ocean, saving the bee
means London’s UK seeing London in the South Seas
and sharing our thoughts over a cup of tea
for there’s a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in unity
costs the earth and yet it’s free.
At the line mentioning bees and their queen, I look directly at Her Majesty. She looks up just at that moment. It is captured on camera by the BBC. The screenshot shows us both, ladies in blue, a line of connection.
There is a pause, then applause from the transept. This is echoed throughout the rest of the Abbey where digital screens were placed. I was later told that it’s not protocol to applaud in the transept so I was doubly pleased.
At the end of the service, the performers are shepherded out and lined up in single file just inside the Abbey entrance. Thinking we are leaving, I take off my silk wrap and put on my black puffer jacket and crimson backpack. But then I see the Dean of the Abbey lead members of the royal family to the beginning of the line, and introduce the Queen, one by one. I’m second-to-last in line. I flash back to a Mr Bean episode – the one where Mr Bean as butler endeavors to groom himself while in line to meet the Queen. He picks a loose thread from his jacket to floss, unravels it and finally gets the end of his white shirt jammed through the zipper of his black trousers. It hangs flaccidly in the air. When the Queen finally reaches him, he bows with such rigid excitement he headbutts her, knocking her out.
I am trying to disengage from my puffer jacket and heavy backpack, and re-knot my transparent ocean shawl to cover my shoulders in front of international press and a slowly progressing line of royals. I end up kicking the bulky pile behind me, concealing them with my skirt. I am now kanohi ki te kanohi – face to face – with the Queen. I am surprised by her youthful demeanor. Her makeup is flawless and she has kind eyes.
‘How do you do?’
‘Hello, Your Majesty. I hope you enjoyed your poem.’
‘Yes, indeed. How did you memorise it all?’
‘I’m a poet, Your Majesty – it’s my job.’
At which she smiles and I laugh, ‘Do give me a call if you want another.’
Yes, yes, just get me out of here? Or yes, yes, what is that tall, hairy woman muttering about in such a colloquial manner? Or yes, yes, you and this performance will come to mind for a future royal event which will surely require a poem!
Then, the longest reigning British monarch moves along the line.
Wills speaks to me about their trip to the Pacific and the brightly-coloured Tuvalu costumes he and Kate danced in.
‘I don’t quite know how I find myself in these situations.’
‘Something to do with your job I think!’
‘Yes, quite right. I’m very much aware of the impact global climate change is having on the islands.’
‘They say Tuvalu will disappear in less than thirty years.’
‘It’s a very serious situation. Lovely to meet you. Lovely poem.’
‘Thank you, Prince’.
Prince? Just Prince? Who calls Will just Prince? Sounds like a diamond-studded Great Dane. His proper title is the Duke of Cambridge – now Duke sounds like a Dane’s name. Kate is all grace and style, surprisingly tall and very petite. Her eyes seem very large on her flawless face and she is perfectly perfunctorily pleasant. Harry, on the other hand, is down to earth.
‘Great poem – really enjoyed it.’
‘I’ve written one for the Rugby World Cup too’
‘Ha! Great stuff!’
We both have our hair fashionably messy.
‘Well, call me if you need one!’
What am I now? Some roving, pushy, door-to-door poetry-peddling Polynesian? Two verses for one? Then comes Prince Andrew, who queries me about composition, having spent the weekend with Ed (Sheeran) discussing such matters.
‘What’s your process for composing then?’
‘Well, poetry is slightly different than song lyrics I think, I journal regularly in order to process…’
He then turns to Ellie Goulding. ‘And how do you compose? Now I think…because Ed says…’ I hadn’t realised the demure, make-up-less blond sitting next to me during rehearsals was the pop star, whose recent break-up had over a million hits online.
But the best royal exchange is with the Duke of Edinburgh later that evening, at Marlborough House. After I meet and greet the Queen for a second time, His Highness follows.
‘Greetings again, Your Highness.’
‘And what do you do?’
‘I’m a poet.’
‘Yeeess. But what do you dooo?’
‘Oh, I teach postcolonial literature at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.’
Prince Phillip cocks his head and, with a glint in his eye, says, ‘Post?’
And with that, he moves on down the line.
This is an edited version of an essay that appeared in Aotearoa Reads by the New Zealand Book Council, 8 June 2016, as ‘NZ poet Selina Tusitala Marsh visits (and sasses) the Queen’, and the Samoan Observer, 14 November 2016, as ‘Fast talking P.I. visits the Queen’.