In 1991, the poet testified against a proposal to expand Kahului Airport, addressing Maui County councilmembers with savage eloquence. He praised Maui as “a place of rare beauty, with a character and silence,” yet tainted by the smell of the sewage treatment plant “that greets visitors to Kahului as they pass one of the last pathetic nesting grounds of the Hawaiian stilt, and tells them right away what they have come to, and what the place is turning into.” Ouch. He was gentler in his published writings, though no less provocative. In his poem “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field,” he asks:
What do you think was here before the pineapple fields
would you suppose that the fields represent an improvement
do you feel hurried on your vacation
are you getting your money’s worth
The poem’s genius lies in its tender probing of the intersection between tourism and colonialism. Yes, islanders are obliged to be hospitable, but that doesn’t erase centuries of muted resentment, regret, and rage.
In his gorgeous epic The Folding Cliffs, Merwin tackled an acutely painful episode in Hawai‘i’s history: the exile of leprosy patients to Kalaupapa. He spent a decade polishing the story of Ko‘olau, the famous Hawaiian outlaw who hid from Territorial sheriffs rather than be banished. In chapter three, Merwin wove in couplets clearly inspired by the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant.
Born in a dark wave the fragrance of red seaweed
born on the land the shore grass hissing while the night slips
through a narrow place a man is born for the narrows
a woman is born for where the waters open