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The Literary Offences of W. S. Merwin’s Folding Cliffs

Kapalai‘ula de Silva

The dust jacket of W. S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs, A narrative of 19th-century Hawaii, is full of praise for the latest work of "perhaps our most gifted poet" [1] who, with "one masterstroke . . . restores to American poetry the narrative grandeur, mythic resonance, and sweeping moral scrutiny of an early age’s epic" [2]. Although Folding Cliffs is promoted as a "stunning chronicle of Hawai‘i" [3] that renders "a far flung corner of American geography and history a central event for our national culture" [4], none of its seven glowing, dust jacket blurbs was written by a Hawaiian, nor do Hawaiians appear to have been consulted by Merwin’s dust jacket writers. Instead, Merwin’s "brilliant capturing—inspired by the poet’s respect for the people of these islands—of their life, their history, their gods and goddesses" [5] is wrapped in the confident opinions of those who have no business offering opinions about things Hawaiian. How different, I wondered as I began to read The Folding Cliffs (out loud and in a single sitting that lasted an entire eight hour plane flight from Auckland to Honolulu), is the book from its cover, the content from its package? How real is Merwin’s purported respect for the people of these islands?

As I worked my way through The Folding Cliffs, I kept revisiting, with growing frustration, Ted Hughes’ front-cover promise of "a masterpiece—a truly original masterpiece, on a very big scale." Ultimately, Hughes’ promise struck me as hugely ironic. For this Hawaiian, at least, there is little truth in The Folding Cliffs and way too much originality. If it is a masterpiece, it is a masterpiece of literary colonialism.

In my opinion, Merwin’s critically acclaimed epic poem appropriates, alters, and cashes-in on Mrs. Pi‘ilani Ko‘olau’s critically unknown memoir Kaluaikoolau!, a little book written in the Hawaiian language and "offered and dedicated to native Hawaiians." Pi‘ilani tells the story of her husband’s defiance of the Hawaiian Provisional Government’s efforts to send him, a victim of Hansen’s disease, to the leper colony of Kalawao, Moloka‘i. Ko‘olau vows that he will never allow the break-up of his family, and he escapes with his wife and their young son to the isolated valley of Kalalau on their home island of Kaua‘i. Over the span of three and a half years, they are ambushed by a deputy sheriff (Ko‘olau shoots and kills him in self-defense), they are hunted by artillery-supported government troops (Ko‘olau shoots and kills two soldiers in self-defense), and they are driven completely into solitude and hiding. What guns and cannon cannot do, leprosy finally does. First, Pi‘ilani and Ko‘olau bury their son. A year later, Pi‘ilani buries her husband. She lays both to rest in hidden graves beneath the watchful, toothed cliffs [6] of Kalalau; both are taken from her by ka ma‘i ka‘awale, the separating sickness. When all is done, Pi‘ilani cannot bring herself to return to the world. It is only after several weeks of fear and indecision that she finds the motivation to leave the valley for her mother-in-law’s home in Kekaha. Her motivation is the desire for truth:

My great love and longing . . . was to be united with my relatives and tell them all the things I had witnessed . . . to tell them all the true things concerning this pathetic story, so that they would understand what they had mistaken and only guessed. (Frazier, 35)

When, after recuperating in seclusion at her Kekaha home, she finds the courage to "meet [people] face to face," answer rumors about her husband’s deeds, and deal with the chance of her own arrest, it is the desire for truth that strengthens her. She resolves to:

stand without doubt and fearlessly before my own people of my own race and indeed before the whole world, and tell the true story and only the truth, from beginning to end, of everything concerning the deeds of my husband, Kaluaikoolau . . . (Frazier, 39)

And when she finally decides to meet with William Sheldon, put her story on paper, and publish it for all to see, it is again the desire for truth that motivates her.

I affirm to the world that this is the correct, true, and one and only story of Kaluaikoolau from beginning to end. I humbly pray that this book will be a memorial for Kaluaikoolau, that we all may forever keep our love for him and our child unforgotten in our hearts. (Frazier, 41)

Merwin’s epic, however grand in scope and language, fails to honor Pi‘ilani’s simple, bottom-line intent: the truth. Merwin’s commitment to truth is so weak that Folding Cliffs contains no accurate statement of his primary sources [7]: 1) Pi‘ilani Ko‘olau’s Kaluaikoolau!, published in Honolulu in 1906 by John G. M. Sheldon and available in the Archives of Hawaiʻi; 2) Helen N. Frazier’s translation of Pi‘ilani’s memoir, The True Story of Kaluaikoolau, or Ko‘olau the Leper, published in the Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 21 (1987) and available in libraries everywhere. Merwin, in fact, seems intent on masking the existence of these publications. He maintains, in the opening sentence of his introduction to The Folding Cliffs, that: "The central events of the story all happened and the principal characters existed but the evidence for both is fragmentary and most of it second or third hand, refracted and remote [my emphasis]." In truth, undeniable evidence for the central events and characters of Merwin’s narrative can be found in the complete, first hand, richly detailed, beautifully written, and expertly translated Kaluaikoolau!

The motivation for Merwin’s truth-dodging suggests itself in the second sentence of his introduction: "This is a fiction but it was not my purpose to belie such facts as have come down to us [my emphasis]." Apparently, Merwin means to have his cake and eat it too: he expects to be recognized for his authenticity, but he doesn’t want to be held accountable for the accuracy of his work. He tries to accomplish this slippery-mouthed goal by trivializing the number and quality of "the facts that have come down to us" while striking the pose of honest loyalty to those "few" facts.

A basic, side-by-side comparison of the "Climbing" section of The Folding Cliffs [8] and Kaluaikoolau! gives us considerable evidence of Merwin’s disregard for Pi‘ilani’s commitment to truth. At first, his "belying" of her facts appears to result from simple carelessness. Merwin, for example, has Pi‘ilani describe for Anne Knudsen her first visit to Knudsen’s home: "it was this time of year it was the same night / and there was nobody here then and the children were half asleep / we tied the horses out of the rain and we ate something" (Cliffs, 11). In fact, Pi‘ilani describes the same scene in the original as:

Our horses moved easily on this journey, and our trail was good, nor did we suffer from the pinching cold of the mountain. And at the break of day we arrived at Halemanu, at the mountain home of the beloved elder one Kanuka. There we rested a while to relieve the stiffness, and after resting sufficiently, we continued to trudge up the ascent. And when the sun rose at Kumukahi, our feet stepped on the heights of Kilohana . . . (Frazier, 8–9)

In Merwin, it is night, not daybreak, and it is raining, not sunny. The differences seem harmless, but as Merwin’s retelling continues, I begin to sense a careful manipulation of details, one meant to paint a more portentous and meaning-laden picture than what actually presented itself. At Kilohana, Merwin has Pi‘ilani catch her breath at "the high edge . . . where the trail climbs on but the whole / world falls away" (Cliffs, 22). There, he has her think: "I was hearing nothing / the wind kept rushing at us along the cliff face / hitting us and shaking the trees and the voices / of the birds must have been still calling around us / but it seemed cold with silence" (Cliffs, 23). There, too, he inserts a long and completely invented conversation between father, son, and guide involving the legends of Lahi and Naiwi, both of which seem to foretell the deaths of deputy sheriff, P.G. soldiers, boy, and father [9]. Pi‘ilani’s actual account, in contrast, is almost too pleasant.

. . . our eyes saw Kalalau spread out [below] with its bosom beautified by the luxuriant growth of the high wildernesses. On our arrival at Kilohana we rested, again enjoying the pleasant touch of the breeze and enjoying the beauty of the valley and the ridges and the clustered houses of the Kamaainas of this celebrated nook. (Frazier, 9)

Merwin’s manipulation of Pi‘ilani’s story can also be seen in his account of the P. G. siege on the Ko‘olau family. He has Pi‘ilani gaze at the timbers of Knudsen’s house, imagine faces, eyes, and shadows, and then remember a "stone overhang in a steep valley" where she lay on her back, looking up, waiting out the cannon fire that pinned them down in their secret shelter. Merwin’s Pi‘ilani remembers:

waiting feeling the rock tremble under her
hearing the rolling explosions echoing circling
around the valley and the hollow crack of the cannon
starting the echoes rolling again wave after wave
just as they began falling away and she could tell
down her back when a shell from the cannon struck the cliff face
sending huge stones leaping and smashing down through the trees
(Cliffs, 13)

I have no problem here with the quality of Merwin’s poetry and his ability to convey, in sound and image, the effects of cannon fire on an outlaw family. My problem is with the fact that Merwin’s scene is not real; it did not happen. He constructs his poetic non-event from two completely separate incidents and locations in Pi‘ilani’s actual account. His "stone overhang in a steep valley" belongs to Pi‘ilani’s "certain high place . . . called Waimakemake . . . a promontory where we could sit with our feet swinging, a high steep pali at our back and a steep descent in front" (Frazier, 21). This is where the Ko‘olau family is attacked by red-shirted, rifle-wielding P.G. soldiers; this is where the cliffs reverberate with the crack of rifle fire and where those rifle bullets, striking the cliff face above, bring down a shower of dirt and stone:

Then we were startled again by the firing of guns and the bullets began to strike . . . Some of them struck above us and showered dirt and stones, but not one harmed us . . . After a short time we heard the shouting voices of the people far below, and . . . we began again to be fired upon and the bullets struck all around except the place where we sat . . . That night the firing continued . . . [and] on the second day it began again with the bullets striking on every side, and there was powder smoke everywhere . . . The firing continued without rest for four full days, and then hunger and thirst began to trouble us. There remained no leaves close by for us to quench our thirst by sucking. We wept to see our child suffer . . . (Frazier, 23–24.)

On the fourth night of the siege, the Ko‘olau family manages to slip past the P.G. camp, "climb up steeply, and down, and up again on that side of the valley," and hide in "a little nook, which was called Limamuku, perched above the waterfall" (Frazier, 25). The next morning, Pi‘ilani wakes to the distant sound of cannon fire at Waimakemake, their former hiding place. The P.G., under the impression that Ko‘olau is still holed up in those cliffs, has begun bombardment that Merwin describes as raining directly down on the Pi‘ilani’s rocky shelter. In fact, Pi‘ilani is quite safe:

The smoke rose up from a place called Punee and the cannonball struck above Waimakemake, the place we had formerly been. [From] this place, my friends, the goodness of God . . . led us to the heights of Limamuku, our place of refuge where we rested quietly and watched the actions of the enemy with their dark thoughts of raiding. The P.G. soldiers continued to fire above Punee, and the earth and rocks of our [former] little home flew about, and love welled up in us for that nest in which we had sheltered, because of its being needlessly harmed. The birds had sprouted wings and flown elsewhere. (Frazier, 26)

In addition to playing cut-and-paste with the times, locations, weapons, and emotions of the P. G. attacks, Merwin commits a deeper offense to the truth of Pi‘ilani’s account. As his Pi‘ilani lies in her shelter listening to cannon shells striking the cliff face, she stares into the darkness "pray[ing] up into the stone / . . . starting with the prayers in white English / the Reverend Rowell had taught them in Sunday School" and continuing with other prayers "that Kawaluna had said / were secret the ones that Keiwi kept warning her / had to be spoken perfectly names to be said only / from the soles of the feet words to the sleep of no return . . ." (13).

Merwin implies that Pi‘ilani is only superficially Christian and that desperation causes her to reveal a more deeply held set of native beliefs. This is nonsense. There is no mention in any of Kaluaikoolau! of Pi‘ilani’s faith in anything other than the Christian God. Her first day at Waimakemake begins with a family prayer "of praise to the Heavenly Power because of his care of us" (Frazier, 21). When the soldiers first appear below, she gives thanks to the "Holy spirit" for guarding her family (21). When the siege begins, she accuses the P.G. army of actions "despised by those born with consciences in Christianity" (22). When death seems so near at hand that her family changes into its "dying" clothes, she reaffirms her belief, "without doubt, that God was with us" (24). And when she wakes at Limamuku to the sound of shelling at Waimakemake, she gives thanks "to the goodness of God in leading my husband’s thoughts for us to leave that place the night before" (26).

Merwin’s campaign against Pi‘ilani’s Christianity reaches well beyond the artillery scene of Folding Cliffs. In fact, he manages to strip his work completely of the intense expressions of Christian faith that define Pi‘ilani’s memoir. When, for example, Pi‘ilani’s family makes its journey from Kekaha to Kalalau, she describes their mental state as:

absorbed in prayer, asking with humbleness and hearts truly repenting, that Three Heavenly Spirits regard us with love and sprinkle their Holy Spirit over us and spread their wings as a refuge for us. Therefore, on our arrival at our refuge, our first action was to bend our knees and give praise to the Heavenly One and thanks for our care and guidance. We always remembered the Lord with the voice of prayer and in our hearts, never missing during the entire time of our wanderings, troubles and sorrows. (Frazier, 9)

Merwin’s version of the journey, on the other hand, is taken up with their son’s interest in the legends of Lahi and Naiwi (Cliffs, 21–23, 31–33), with Pi‘ilani’s wonder over their ability to make the dangerous descent (Cliffs, 34, 35), and with the chilling wind and rain that accompany them (Cliffs, 34, 35, 199). When they arrive at the settlement below, they are greeted, given water, and fed (Cliffs, 200). Never once does prayer intrude upon Merwin’s pristine native scene.

The same discrepancy is obvious in the two versions of Ko‘olau’s response to deputy Stolz and the Provisional Government’s order to go alone to the Kalawao colony. In Kaluaikoolau!, Ko‘olau expresses his defiance in impassioned Christian terms:

I am denied the helping hand of my wife, and the cord of my love for her is to be cut, and I am commanded to break my sacred promise before God and live alone in a strange land; the power of the man has severed the blameless ones whom the power of God has joined as one. The consecrated law of marriage has come to us, and we swore by the holy book to live together in the time of food and of famine, in sickness and in health . . . until death should part us, and now, the power of the government wants to break the law of man and of God and make the oath before Almighty God as nothing. We swore to become one, never to leave one another, and now it is commanded that we be parted. The love that is implanted in my heart for my wife shall never be extinguished and the oath I swore before God shall continue until I die. (Frazier, 13.)

None of this appears in Merwin’s version. When Merwin’s Ko‘olau informs Kawaluna[10] of the decision to flee, this Ko‘olau merely says: "I will not let them take me to the settlement / . . . I am going over into Kalalau . . . / . . . Pi‘ilani is coming with me and we will / take Kaleimanu with us" (Cliffs, 198). And when Merwin’s Ko‘olau defies Stolz and the P.G. order, this Ko‘olau merely says "in a low voice that when they married / they had promised they would never be separated / and that no man would separate them now . . ." (Cliffs, 221).

The same is true for Merwin’s account of Ko‘olau’s burial. In the original, Pi‘ilani rests her eyes on her husband’s face and is overwhelmed by the flood of memories that his presence inspires:

how, my reader friends, can I tell you the strength of the pouring out of grief which tore at my breast. Love most profound, for the empty-handed journeying after our child was gone, the two of us on the path together, and then myself, the third of the journeyers, beating my breast and wailing alone on the pathway of loneliness, with only the disembodied touch of the wind, with the aching feeling that this was the spirit of my husband moving noiselessly. Who could deny the loneliness, the eyes had closed, the voice had ceased, the breath had flown, the torch was out, leaving the body to be returned dust unto dust – intense love, my husband, the telling has been fulfilled . . ." (Frazier 32–33)

She finds a suitable nook "deeply sheltered by the palis" and spends two days digging a grave. Then she spreads fragrant leaves on its bottom and sides, kneels by her husband’s body, and sends her "prayers to the feet of the God in the high heavens" (Frazier, 33). Then she lowers Ko‘olau to his final resting place, and

Giving praise to the Heavenly Father, I covered him over with leaf tips, and the earth swallowed up and hid him, returning dust to dust, ashes to ashes, in the name of Almighty God. (Frazier, 34)

Merwin’s Pi‘ilani displays none of the original’s piety, passion, or poetry. This Pi‘ilani rests her head on her husband’s chest and listens to the sounds of the "darkness below her and the darkness above her" (Cliffs, 37). Then she picks up a shell and starts to pat it, first "chanting under her breath / first she chanted to him by name" and later with the words "Ko‘olau Ko‘olau you are going / you are going now you are still here you are going . . ."(Cliffs, 37). When she finds a suitable burial spot, she kneels, again "chanting her husband’s full name – Kalua / i Ko‘olau Kalua i Ko‘olau," and as she chants she begins to dig, chanting all the while. When the grave is ready, she "haul[s] Ko‘olau’s body to it and settle[s] his gun / on his chest and then fill[s] the grave and roll[s] stones / onto it and close[s] the bushes back over it" (Cliffs, 38). This done, she offers him a final chant:

Ko‘olau now it is night for me and it is night for you
now we are in the night Ko‘olau there is only night where we are
(Cliffs, 39)

This is Merwin at his manipulative worst. He robs Pi‘ilani of Christian faith but lacks sufficient knowledge of Hawaiian grief, kanikau (chants expressive of grief) and ‘uwē (the gut-wrenching wailing with which grieving chants are expressed) to create a believable non-Christian replacement. Instead, he gives us a shell-patting, name-and-nonsense-mumbling, darkness-listening husk of the original. Hawaiian grief, say Pūku‘i, Haertig, and Lee, is characterized by "uninhibited mourning;" it requires:

that the bereaved person emotionally acknowledges the reality of death and fully expresses his sorrow...Hawai‘i’s culture carried the message, "Go ahead. It’s all right to grieve." Everybody excused the pupule behavior of excessive sorrow. Uwes were loud. The very muscles expressed grief in pa‘i a uma [kneeling, arm-flinging, chest-beating] . . . a person would go to the grave and throw himself over it and wail and cry with abandon." [11]

Kanikau, chants addressed to the dead, were delivered in wailing style (not Merwin’s "under the breath") without accompanying instrument (without drum, gourd, or—in Merwin’s case—shell). They were usually filled with fond memories of beloved places and activities, and were sprinkled with references to loss, cold, and journeys without return. The primary requirement of Hawaiian poetry, the richness of imagery and detail, was not relaxed in the kanikau, and expressions of the following sort are much more representative of Hawaiian grief than Merwin’s round of names, his bewildered "going, going, gone," and his two-line invocation of the night:

Oh, my brother, my companion of childhood days, companion with whom I shared my troubles, companion who shared my woes. Ah, you have deserted me! Beloved are the fishing places we have gone to; the sandy stretches where we sat. Oh [we who remain] shall never more see your face. Oh . . . my companion has gone on the hidden pathway of Kane. [12]

Ku‘u makua i ka hale uluna kanaka
- My parent from this house where the head was pillowed
Hale malumalu komo po‘o o māua
- The house that sheltered our heads
E ho‘omaha ai ka wela ke hele
- The house in which we rested after traveling in the heat,
Hele ku‘u makuahine me ke aloha,
- My mother departs with love
‘Auana wale iho ka au i kuahea,
- I wander about the dreary mountainside
‘Ope ka wahine ‘ai makani
- The woman opens her mouth in grief toward the wind
‘Ai makani Malanai e—,
- Wailing her woe to the Malanai wind
A ‘ai-e-‘ai-e . . . 
- Grieving, grieving . . . [13]

Merwin’s final literary offence rests in his distorted portrayal of Pi‘ilani’s mental state in the months that follow her return to Kekaha. We first meet Merwin’s Pi‘ilani as she climbs Wai‘ale‘ale alone, in the cold night rain, to the trail at Kilohana that will take her down the cliff-face and back to her husband’s grave. At Anne Knudsen’s place, she stares silently "into the fire until Anne was wondering whether / she had forgotten where she was” (Cliffs, 16), and when Pi‘ilani finally explains herself, Anne wonders at "how utterly still she was saying it all" (Cliffs, 18). The words Merwin puts into Pi‘ilani’s mouth are as disturbing as her distracted manner: she is obsessed with talk about the discovery of Ko‘olau’s remains. She can’t get that talk out of her mind. It drives her to revisit him—and this is not the first time:

They are telling me again three times now someone has said to me
that he has been found that the grave has been discovered
and they have dug him up and have taken his bones and his gun . . .
Kekaha people [told me] . . .
One of them whispered to my mother but said not to tell me . . .
one said he heard it in town from somebody he had not seen there for
a long time . . . He told me it was
nobody from here but they know all about how to
sell things like that and who will give money for them . . .
I have been there several times once Kua went with me into the valley
and came out with me and I have gone in with others
at different times but I am going by myself this time
(Cliffs, 16–17.)

Merwin’s Pi‘ilani is also obsessed with thoughts of these grave robbers and artifact hunters. She rambles on about having known, all her life, stories about "them trying to find where the chiefs were buried, about "what had been found with the bones and taken away," and about "gold and canoes and carvings and spears thieves have been taking them / for a long time." Although she has seen for herself, on several occasions, that Ko‘olau’s grave is untouched, terror eats away at her when she thinks of those who "might crawl in over the rocks like crabs to steal the dead" (Cliffs,17).

Merwin further amplifies his Pi‘ilani’s distress by pumping her full of resentment for the gossipers and rumormongers of Kekaha. Her head, already near to bursting with talk of the discovery of Ko‘olau’s grave and with images of its desecration, has to contend, as well, with waves of vicious chatter:

When I came out of the valley
back to Kekaha the first time they had been talking
ever since we had left and they believed themselves
each of them telling something that meant nothing
playing cards with their own stories that they said were us
so the bets got big and they asked me one thing or another
and I would not know what they had inside their heads
that had been growing there while they knew nothing about us
when we were in Kalalau talking to nobody
(Cliffs, 19)

What Merwin creates for us, then, is a Viet-vet of a Pi‘ilani. Deep in post-traumatic shock, stripped by her maker of Christian faith and the full, Hawaiian expression of her grief, this husk of a Pi‘ilani is led through a manufactured sequence of zombie-like returns to the site of her deepest trauma. Something is wrong with me, she confides to Anne Knudsen:

they tell me now that I never talk to a soul
they tell my mother I never say anything any more
and it may be true but see how I have been talking
up here . . .
At first I would not go out at all
Only the family in the house knew I was there
I was still hiding but everyone let me alone
Now they do not ask me anything they move farther away
from asking anything
(Cliffs, 24)

This shadow-woman has little in common with the powerfully rooted, enormously resilient Pi‘ilani of Kaluikoolau! There is no mention of grave-robbers in Pi‘ilani’s memoir, no mention of rumors surrounding the discovery of her husband’s grave. Pi‘ilani assures us, in fact, that both husband and child sleep undisturbed "in the bosom of Kalalau," and it is to the Kalalau cliffs that she consigns them, once and for all, with overwhelming love and trust, and without any thought of her own return to that place:

And, O, the succoring hospitable valley of Kalalau! You are surrounded by love, you are the recipient of all my desires, until my end. I am going on the road that leaves you behind, leaving in the intense fragrance of your wilderness, the bones of our beloved ones. I leave them to sleep gently in your peace – yours is the hiding, the secret hiding, the secret hiding that is taken forever – overwhelming love to you. You will be hidden from my sight – yet always in my heart. (Frazier, 37–38.)

The paranoia of Merwin’s Pi‘ilani—her conviction that she and Ko‘olau were the victims of a continuous, high-stakes game of vicious gossip—is also contradicted by the original account. Instead of firing bitter accusations at endless talkers who "played cards with their stories," Pi‘ilani’s memoir describes concerned friends who, after two years of hearing absolutely nothing about her family, arrived at one of two grim conclusions, "the first being that we were all dead, that Koolau had shot us all, or else we had been killed by the bullets of the soldiers" (Frazier, 27). Pi‘ilani also explains that her family’s disappearance caused "no lack of conjecture by our friends," but because "we had disappeared so completely and for so long a time," this speculation faded, and "they became indifferent" (Frazier, 30).

This even-tempered description of her friends’ reactions to her disappearance bears little resemblance to the twisted accusations that Merwin places in her mouth. The same emotional discrepancies appear in Pi‘ilani’s actual relationship with her friends and family when she returns to Kekaha. Where Merwin shapes her into a recluse with whom no one is able to talk and from whom everyone pulls farther and farther away, her own account emphasizes her faith in these people ("There was no doubt at all concerning my friends, they would be unanimous concerning me" [14]) and their faith in her ("I was pelted with the outpouring of love of my kin and friends and companions [who] have embraced me and truly shown their good will" [15]). It emphasizes, as well, her anything-but-reticent relationship with her mother-in-law ("We wailed together in anguish and lamentation when I recounted everything concerning Kaluaikoolau and Kaleimanu" [16]) and the gradual return of the courage necessary to deal with her fears of P.G. reprisal:

. . . since I had been a long time in the midst of people, my disturbed and fearful thoughts had disappeared, and I dared to meet them face to face . . . and on a certain day an employee of the government came to our home, and we met pleasantly . . . They questioned me concerning Kaluaikoolau and Kaleimanu, and I told them the truth from beginning to end, and at the end of my testimony, they affirmed their complete belief in what I had told them, and they announced at this time that I was completely absolved and released from the power of the government. (Frazier, 40)

My Tūtū, an iron-willed woman of enormous faith and strength, made a habit of teaching her children that "pau is pau;" she taught them to get things right the first time through, to not whine over spilt milk, to let her own death go, to persist. My Tūtū and Pi‘ilani are cut from the same cloth; Merwin’s conflicted heroine is not. Pi‘ilani ends her memoir in "triumph over my doubts" (Frazier, 40), in solemn affirmation "that this is the correct, true, and one and only story of Kaluaikoolau from beginning to end" (Frazier, 40–41), and in humble prayer "that we all may forever keep our love for him and our child unforgotten in our hearts" (Frazier, 41). Merwin, on the other hand, decides against closure for his Pi‘ilani; his story leaves her tangled in "pau is not pau," clinging to pain, and wallowing in distraction and doubt. One of his last scenes describes a publication party for Pi‘ilani’s book. When the food is blessed and a psalm read ("He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty"—clearly an allusion to Ko‘olau), Merwin’s Pi‘ilani is still only half-present: "Kukui cried and Mrs. Sheldon / cried but Pi‘ilani seemed to be looking at something / out past them" (Cliffs, 318). When asked, a little later, whether she is glad that the book was written, "Pi‘ilani /did not answer for a long time they waited / and finally she said – Yes" (Cliffs, 319). She hesitates because her telling of the story for publication "seemed to have drawn a shadow across it blurring / and fading it . . . / she did not want it to slip through her fingers . . . / . . . she wanted / to keep even the pain of it" (Cliffs, 316). In Merwin’s very last scene, after Pi‘ilani has been visited by a Waimea storekeeper to whom she repeats her well-practiced "I-would-do-it-all-again-without-regrets" speech, she questions his motivations and her own honesty. Her final words are far from reassuring:

Why do you think that man came
to see me Did he think I would tell him something else
after all the others he has listened to
what does he know now about what I remember
maybe he only wanted to see for himself
whether I was the one in the book he had been reading
where he told me that some of the words were too crooked for him—
(Cliffs, 324–325)

Merwin was interviewed by the Honolulu Weekly in December 1999. At one point in his conversation with John Whythe White, he chastises America for failing to come to terms with its history of colonization:

We came from somewhere else and displaced cultures, peoples, languages, and much of the natural world. It’s the same story as in Hawai‘i; we’re interlopers. I don’t know what we should do about that, since you can’t reverse history. But you can own up to it, and recognize what you're implicated in. And realize that there are responsibilities that come with it [17].

The colonization that Merwin describes is the colonization that Merwin commits. Despite all his efforts to disguise The Folding Cliffs as a fictional piece made necessary by the "huge gaps" in what "we positively know about these people’s lives," Merwin is guilty of manipulating for his own artistic ends, the facts, characters, purpose, and spirit of a very complete and powerful account. He distorts and recombines incidents in Pi‘ilani’s memoir to improve on their symbolic weight. He ascribes to Pi‘ilani a set of native beliefs to which Pi‘ilani gives no evidence of adhering and about which Merwin is not equipped to write. Worse, he strips from Pi‘ilani the Christian faith that she gives every indication of following, and he robs her—permanently—of confidence, triumph, and closure. Where Pi‘ilani’s clear intent was to tell the truth, Merwin indulges all too artistically in its echoes, reverberations, and permutations. The essence of Pi‘ilani’s account rests in Pi‘ilani’s indomitable spirit. Her absolute refusal to give up is, for this Hawaiian, a precious gift of inspiration and validation. Merwin displaces that essence in favor of an overwrought psychodrama. When his interviewer asked if anyone had approached him about movie rights to The Folding Cliffs, he discouraged the idea because "I think a very melodramatic, probably quite bad movie could be made of it." He would know.

© Kapalai‘ula de Silva, 2001



[1] Terry Tempest Williams.

[2] J. D. McClatchy.

[3] Peter Mathiessen.

[4] John Hollander.

[5] Abby Weintraub.

[6] "Toothed cliffs"—along with marching cliffs, ridged cliffs, rowed cliffs, sheltering cliffs, and ridge-pole cliffs—is one of Piʻilani’s own expressions. "Folding cliffs" is not.

[7] Merwin also neglects to document the smaller “startling treasures” and “invaluable details” (Cliffs, vii) that his background investigation disclosed. I find it extremely frustrating to read his narrative without being able to separate research from invention, fact from fiction.

[8] Merwin’s 40 page "Climbing" is roughly equal to Pi‘ilani’s entire account. Merwin chooses, however, to tell Pi‘ilani’s story in the context of her "return visit" (actually, one of several) to Ko‘olau’s grave. If there is any historical evidence for these visits, Merwin does not provide it. His undocumented revision of Kaluikoolau! is not the work of a man pledged to honor his sources.

[9] Both legends appear in Frederick B. Wichman’s Kaua‘i Tales, Bamboo Ridge Press, Honolulu 1985. Merwin’s Lahi is Wichman’s "Lauhaka;" Merwin’s Naiwi is Wichman’s "Na Keiki o Na Iwi." Merwin neither credits his source nor explains the variations in his own retelling of Wichman’s tales.

[10] Kawaluna is Ko‘olau’s grandmother. In Kaluaikoolau! her name appears only in the opening genealogy. In Merwin, however, she becomes a powerful background presence: she is the night-namer, the seer, and the keeper of ancient knowledge.

[11] Mary Kawena Pūku‘i, E. W. Haertig, Catherine Lee, Nānā i ke Kumu, v.1, Honolulu, 1972, pps. 140, 142.

[12] Nānā i ke Kumu, v.1, p. 135.

[13] Mary Kawena Pūkuʻi (translator), Nā Welo Makua, Honolulu, 1995, p. 60.

[14] Frazier, 35.

[15] Frazier, 40.

[16] Frazier, 39.

[17] John Whythe White, "A Whole New Thing," Honolulu Weekly, December 22–28, 1999.