Sometime back in the early 1990s I started a poem based on an off-hand remark. I was walking through London with my old friend Mike Harris when, between pubs, we passed a statue of Churchill, the head of which was covered in bird shit. ‘I like the guano toupee’, I said, or something like that, and Mike laughed, prompting me to note it down on a beer-mat as he went to the bar to buy a round. Years later, Mike told me that the statue had been electrified to stop the birds from landing on it and taking a shit on the eminent prime minister’s head.
I sent the poem to the Hawai’i Review along with five other haiku, and they wrote back saying they’d like to publish it, but only if I gave it a title. So I came up with ‘Tory Wig’, which I thought of as nothing more than a silly pun.
Recently while I was looking for a visual poem of mine online I noticed something unusual at the bottom of the screen: ‘mark rutter caustic poem hawaii’. I clicked on it and, to my surprise, found this very poem quoted on page 117 of a book about the history of the Pacific: Reimagining the American Pacific, by Rob Wilson:
The 1993 “sovereignty issue” of Hawai’i Review commemorating – and by diverse voices and genres, contesting – the disposal of queen Lili’uoka-lani by the missionary-sugar oligarchy in 1893, ends with Mark Rutter’s caustic poem “Tory Wig”.
Queen who? Wilson goes on to explain that the poem is ‘a haiku to the Euro-American will to possession across a native-emptied Pacific, for purposes of monumentality’, and then quotes it in full:
the firm, determined chin,
the guano toupee.
‘The guano toupee’, explains Wilson, ‘may be a souvenir of the American presence as it took possession of the Pacific,’ and then outlines the poem’s reference to an act of Congress:
In 1856, Congress enacted the so-called Guano Law that empowered the U.S. president to take over bird-shit-rich islands in the Northern Pacific and absorb them as “appertaining to the United States” with its interests in fertilizers and high explosives during the Civil War. One of these guano-rich islands was Johnson-Atoll, called Kalama Islands by Hawai’ians, which is being used as a nuclear weapons incineration site by the USA, dumping ground for a kind of cold war bird shit.
By now I was amazed at the historical and cultural reach of my ‘caustic poem’, the sheer density of historical reference I’d managed to pack into it without having the faintest idea I’d done it.
Yet Rob Wilson has enormously extended the meaning of the poem by his misinterpretation – if that is what it is – and in an odd way, it seems to fit. I like the idea that, without intending to, I had satirised a whole era of the western imperialist project, referring in the process to the Guano Law, a law so ludicrously named it could itself be part of a satire. And it makes me wonder if writers are like mediums, channelling meanings they are unaware of, out of the ether of language.
Poet Dr Mark Rutter teaches on the MA Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester. His poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Other Poetry, Magma, Interpreter’s House and London Magazine. He has had two collections published in the US, where he lived from 1990-2002: The Farmhouse Voices (Puckerbrush), and water fir rook hand (Tatlin).
He has recently published Basho in Acadia (Flarestack Poets). Rooted in naturalism, these poems share an imagistic power and present a complex vision of the wild landscape of the Maine coast along with the creatures that inhabit it. A verbal-visual work, Homage to Andrei Tarkovksy, is due from Tatlin Books (Maine) this year.