A journal of art + literature engaging with nature, culture, the environment & ecology

Tanga Tangan

A tribute poem for Maori artists

Aaron Lee, Singapore


He wāhine, he whenua, ka ngaro te tangata.
(Without women and without land, humanity is lost.)
— Maori proverb


It is almost evening. Wind-woven birds call

over the fields, the sky turns a gentle grey--

Mother’s voice a low melody, her footfall

on the chalky steps speaks of the fleeting day…



Sad and barefaced in the moonlight you stand

like the flame-haired tree seen through our window.

Sister, the same hand that last clutched your hand

gave me this letter to place under your pillow.



Woman-Wife-Warrior: stark and unknowing,

my hands still work without rest. All winter long

each fugitive day sees my belly growing.

Here I am planted, here I become strong.



Your tiny hand opens, receives the bright world

of an unknowable future. The earth formed you

my Daughter, and heaven calls you. Our tears unfold

life-breath, blood-pulse, soul-cry, all things made new.



This pantun (a traditional Malay poetic form, originally oral) is respectfully dedicated to the women artists of the Mata Aho Collective, Aotearoa. It is a meditation on the installation art work Kaokao #1. The title of the pantun is a portmanteau of the Maori word tangata and the Malay word tangan, meaning “hand”.


Reprinted with permission.

First published on the Laniakea Culture Collective website (2018).

Aaron Lee is a pilgrim poet, writing mentor, community organiser and ethics lawyer. He is acknowledged to have played a key part in the late 1990s renaissance of Singapore poetry. His three books of poetry (including COASTLANDS published in 2014) are critically acclaimed. He also edited several books including the best-selling anthology No Other City: the Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry. Lee was international writer-in-residence at the Toji Cultural Centre in 2016. He and his wife, the national artist Namiko Chan Takahashi, are co-founders of the Laniakea Collective, an intercultural art practice.


Editor's Preface