E Waka!
for 1990

The esplanade became a fun fair
Crammed end to end with white
Elephants, second-hands, beach
Umbrellas, food stalls, side
Shows, hurdy-gurdies, kids
Running loose like the dogs
Getting in the way or getting lost,
The young ones lounging real cool man
In shades and tight gear mainly black,
Oldies in summer cottons and sandals
Smiling under floppy brims and bowling hats.

The tāngata whenua sat on the sand
Facing the sea kept apart from us
By ropes and wardens. Some of them
Looked like tūpuna in fancy dress.
The VIPs stood behind fidgeting,
Too important to sit on the ground.
The rest of us, several hundred at least
Jostled good humouredly for positions,
Laughed at the wardens getting hot
And bothered because of us,
Glanced seaward now and again
For sight of a sail, a paddle or both
Depending on what you were.

The hot dog stands sold out first
Then the waffles, tea and scones
With Devonshire cream.
Ice blocks
Were dripping in the heat like us.
Parents were getting grumpy
With the kids. We started abusing
The wardens and each other, when suddenly
Some one saw something
On the horizon, somebody pushed
Forward and before you could call out
E Waka!
Three times, the ropes were down
The wardens, VIPs, tāngata whenua
Completely overrun and we were
In the water clothes and all, some of us
Up to our armpits, and not caring, a few
Swimming around in circles like
They were looking for something.

And there they were, floating so lightly
On the sea like sea birds resting
Not even that, just long dark feathers,
Till raised paddles flashed down
And they were myth become reality,
Legendary craft straight out of history
Darting toward white sails billowing
On our everyday harbour.

I could hardly believe what I saw
And wanted to weep. The pākehā
Man beside me, hairy and turning pink
Cried out, my god, aren’t they beautiful
Aren’t they wonderful, look at them go!
And straightened up, standing tall
As an admiral taking the salute.
I felt browner and stronger
Than I’d ever felt before
And so beautiful, so wonderful
I didn’t know what to do
With myself. I was flushed too
But it didn’t show on me
Like it showed on him. Suddenly
He looked at me, startled, like
He’d just noticed what I was.
What do you think, he demanded
Come on, say something.
They are rather wonderful, I agreed
Trying to sound modest and looking down.
But I was really looking at
The beautiful brown of my hands
And standing as straight and tall
As I could, just like him.