From Publishers Weekly
Since distinguished poet and translator Merwin (The Lice; The Vixen) moved to Maui almost two decades ago, Hawaiian flora, fauna and history have pervaded his work. His sprawling new novel-in-verse (based on historical facts) unfolds a complicated, suspenseful, true story of natives, colonials, rebels and leprosy in 19th-century Kaua'i, spread over seven chapters of 40 one-page sections. Merwin's cast includes his native Hawaiian heroes, Ko'olau and his wife (later widow), Pi'ilani; their relatives (a crew that's hard to sort out); the authoritative and admirable Judge Kauai; an iconoclastic cleric, George Rowell; Father Valdemar Knudsen, Ko'olau's employer; and a complement of ill-meaning missionaries and colonialists. The plot, when it gets underway, involves resistance to the cruel government policy of forcibly segregrating Hawaiians diagnosed with leprosy. Stricken with "the separating sickness," Ko'olau, Pi'ilani and their son join an Edenic, illegal settlement of lepers in a remote valley. Into Ko'olau's and Pi'ilani's sad adventures, Merwin splices earlier Hawaiian history and legend, from creation myths to the overthrow of the last native rulers. Readers must acclimate themselves to the fluently ongoing, unpunctuated lines and extended sentences in which Merwin casts all his verse. But after a dozen pages, the six- and seven-beat lines seem surprisingly flexible and appropriate. The fast-moving chapters try hard and well to combine the Homeric grandeur of orally transmitted epics, ecological and historical information ("the landed chiefs' sole remaining wealth was the land/ which no one but they could own") and the simpler pleasures of a suspenseful plot. The rapt attention typical of Merwin's short poems mixes comfortably here with the pathos and characterization of a contemporary realist novel: "she stopped and looked back at the valley she had left/ it looked new and shining in an age that never changed/ and farther away than she had ever seen it."
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
A deep sense of place infuses Merwin's sensual poetry, and it, too, is the impetus behind this remarkably dramatic book-length poem. Merwin has rekindled a long-dormant form to present a fictionalized yet fact-based tale of the tragic history of Hawaii, his home, a wondrous scattering of islands calamitously vulnerable to violation. In the opening scenes, Merwin conjures the glistening web of the pristine Hawaiian landscape, naming trees and birds, stones and water, flowers and clouds. His long, lovely lines roll in and out like ocean waves as he slowly adds human beings to the scene and introduces his main characters, Pi'ilani and Ko'olau, who marry and have a son and then witness the diabolical conquest of their beloved island by strange men in huge boats. The men are full of lust and bring iron, cattle, and disease. As Merwin recounts the horrific consequences of their invasion, particularly their treatment of lepers as criminals, his language turns hard, and his lines snap and slash like the lashes of a whip, incising into our collective conscience the painful truth about a place we like to think of as paradise. Donna Seaman