A poem, a story, and a challenge

Out to Sea
Three Lights Shone

An old woman dying
Her breath in rhythm
With the waves

People chanted
Her breath faded
And the women wailed

Through the window
Dolphins leaped

Tomasa wise and free

[Star Beacon Vol. XXXVI August 2, 1989]


Tomasa Metatiraemoh

Tomasa Metatiraemoh
Tobi Island

Photograph Peter W. Black 1972

Peter W. Black, April 2010.
The story of this poem

This poem, let’s call it Tomasa Wise and Free, came out of a talk I gave in 1989 at a conference organized by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.  This weeklong conference was held in an old resort hotel on Star Island, one of the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

One of the special features of this conference was a daily newsletter, the Star Beacon, distributed at breakfast. The title of my talk was
Vernacular Christianity, Folk Psychology and the Maintenance of the Self on a Micronesian Island.  And this untitled and unsigned poem appeared in the Star Beacon the morning after I gave that talk. To this day, I do not know who wrote it.

During the talk I recounted some events surrounding the death of my friend Tomasa Metatiraemoh, who died in 1973 while I was living on Tobi.  I began by telling what happened one early morning when Isauro (a blind man) and I were out trolling for tuna:

It was one of those misty mornings when the sea and sky are almost the same color, the horizon is close and the sounds of the canoe sliding through the waves, the outrigger creaking, and the wind against the sail all seem muffled and far away.  We could barely hear any noises from the other canoes also out trolling although once in a while I could catch a glimpse of one, silently sliding over the waves.  I even think that for once no one was singing.  Then I saw a light flashing out of the mist in the direction of the beach.  When I mentioned this to Isauro, he said “it must be about Tomasa.  We have to go in right now.  Let’s go tell the other canoes.”  Soon we were back at the outer reef edge, where we waited for the moment when we could catch a big wave to surf the canoe across the flats and up onto the beach.  Once ashore we hurried down the path to the dispensary, where we found Tomasa breathing her last, surrounded by all the people on the island.

Tomasa was a dear friend and “mother” to me and to many other people and we all had been saddened when she fell sick and gradually weakened.  Finally she could no longer sit up or talk or even eat.  Johannes, the Palauan nurse aide serving on Tobi at that time, finally moved her into the dispensary and put her on an IV drip. 

When Isauro and I and the other fishermen got there, she was lying on a mat on the floor, near the open door which led down to the beach.  We quietly joined the group crowded around her there. 
Tomasa's breathing was loud and slow but steady. And it was perfectly in time with the Rosary prayer which everyone around her was saying. And underneath the sounds of Tomasa and her people and in that same rhythm was the sound of waves breaking on the beach. I'm not sure how long that sad "song," of prayer, sea, and dying lasted. There came a time when Tomasa simply did not draw her next breath. But since the womenher sisters and daughters and friendsthen began their traditional mournful wail by picking up that same slow steady beat, the song continued.

After the final prayer we looked out and there were dolphins surfacing just outside the reef, gleaming in the sun, which had burnt away the mist.

Many years later this poem appeared one morning at breakfast on another island in a different ocean.

Here is a challenge for you.  Translate this poem into Hatohobei.  Can you do it?