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The award-winning poet behind powerful words at Fa’anānā Efeso Collins’ funeral

Mary Afemata

An emotional and powerful poem opened the public memorial service for prominent Pacific leader and Greens MP Fa’anānā Efeso Collins.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Award-winning poet Dr Karlo Mila says she was asked to share her poem at Fa’anānā's public memorial service - a poem she had written on a flight from Auckland to Wellington for the late MP’s wife, Vasa Fia Collins.

“I wasn’t writing it to be read at the funeral,” she said.

Mila and Fa’anānā's friendship goes back to 2005 when she interviewed him for her doctorate on New Zealand-born Pacific people.

Fa’anānā was subject to death threats during his political career in 2021 and late 2023. Mila had written a poem about her friends who had received death threats from white supremacists.

“It’s quite a lot of my friends, actually, particularly my Māori friends. Lots of people have received death threats in my world and so I wrote this poem and it was stimulated by Efeso.”

On the plane, Mila looked at that poem and started to re-write it.

The end result was performed while she and a group of colleagues paid their respects to the late MP and his family and was subsequently asked to read it at the special service on Thursday.

“I was just speaking the truth of a generation of us that have tried to show leadership in different ways and have experienced what he’s experienced at different levels.”

Mila says she was not worried if the audience missed the thought-provoking subtext.

“I feel like it lands where it lands and it may fall on deaf ears. That doesn’t bother me…poems travel the way that they do and they’re often misunderstood.

“It’s art. What I love about poetry is that you can say what needs to be said. Poetry, even though it’s fiction, often speaks the truth.”

Her voice broke with emotion when she said: “Pakeke of Parliament, you deserved to stand upright there.”

Mila was there when Fa’anānā delivered his maiden speech in Parliament less than a week before he collapsed and died at a ChildFund charity event in downtown Auckland.

“It was just so painful to be there and then learn…days later that he had died.

“We were filled with hope that he was in there and he was so eloquent and beautiful and I felt that Parliament needed him.”

She remembered asking Fa’anānā if there was anything or any compromises that he regretted and he told her he would never compromise his principles.

“You become the ancestor we always knew you were,” is the final powerful line in her poem.

Mila deliberately uses the word “whetūrangitia” (stars that adorn the sky) just before that.

“Whetūrangitia, for me, is such a beautiful concept of becoming a star or turning to the stars and kind of accurately, we are made of stardust.

“This idea of return and that metamorphosis of transformation back into a star is just something that I find very comforting.”

The poem mentions a “dreaming fono” - a reference to the Dream Fono camp created by Fa’anānā where she spoke as a guest years ago.

“He was like a fale. He sheltered all these dreams and he encouraged them and created them.”

“He’s always dreaming for us. I think there’s just a network of us who believe in change for the Pacific community. And he was...such an icon and a beacon amongst that.”

Beyond The Reef, by Karlo Mila:

Son of the Southside, infant of Ōtara, there will be churches heaving with hymns, despair in the corner dairies, tears in the eyes of teachers, disappointed blessings in the mouths of preachers, school children singing laments, community boards crying, I hear the haka of Tangaroa College a stampede stamping with anger and pride, teenagers looking up from their devices, learning your name for the first time, a whole community reeling, united in a singular feeling: grief.

Tuakana of the Pasifika Community: Every Facebook friend has a selfie with you, because you were not a selfie, you were community, collective, in the village of the migrant dream.

Presidential among your peers, the next wave…And among unprecedented upward mobility, you pulled with all your might, the ones we might leave behind.

Reading the pedagogy of the liberated, leading a dreaming fono. Mentoring many: connecting us, repping us, collectivity in your bones, justice in your stride. By us, with us, for us. Without compromise.

Pakeke of Parliament, you deserved to stand upright there, voice of the voiceless, heralding the hushed into hallowed halls. You dared to Maya Angelou “rise”.

Taking that Moana Jackson deep breath, before you exercised so many acts of courage. You reached beyond the boundaries that racism set for us.

You swam beyond the safe, blessing the sharks that circled around you, death threats, race bait, white supremacist hate.

For us, it is a dangerous democracy, but still you pursued that perilous pathway to power, facing powerful push-back, racist resistance, old-boys clubs-clubbing, the back-stab of our own machetes, a hair’s breadth away. Too close for comfort.

A heart would break, to walk up that steep city street so distressed with stress.

A heart would break. And yet you found the channel that would take you past the reef, where others fear to go, you found flow.

With your beloveds, braved the waves, entered the open sea, in which we find ourselves free, where we remember the ocean in us, ancient mariners, expert navigators, sailing our salty pathways to each other, expansive as the largest body of water in the world.

I wish for our children to meet each other there, and never know, how small they wanted us to be.

All of us called to be more, voyage further, pursue ambitious service, in your wake.

Son of Sāmoa, child of Aotearoa, there will be a karanga called in exuberant welcome.

An unwavering voice called to calling those who’ve passed, to the other side, past the Pōhutukawa, from the jumping off place across ancient ocean roads, the journey to Pulotu, Hawaaiki, heaven, entering the multidimensional lagi where your people sing with fragrant flowers and festive lei, celebrating.

Man of faith, a true servant of Christ, devout Christian, a soul of salvation, returning home.

Whetūrangitia. You become the ancestor we always knew you were.

Hero Image: Dr Karlo Mila (far right) with Greens MP Fa’anānā Efeso Collins and friends pictured after his maiden speech in Parliament on Thursday, February 15.

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