4

The poem "No Ordinary Sun" by the Maori poet Hone Tuwhare is about a tree's reaction to some kind of deadly threat, the titular "no ordinary sun". Addressing the tree in the second person, the poem warns that it will no longer live happily as before and that there's no point in resisting its fate.

You can read the poem in full e.g. here; it's only five verses long.

Can we tell for sure what is the catastrophe threatening the tree? My immediate thought when reading the poem was that it could be a nuclear weapon, but is this the only sensible interpretation? Could it also be a more conventional bomb or explosion? Could it even be the actual sun itself, just having become much hotter and more uncomfortable due to climate change?

2
  • (I wanted to tag this maori-literature, but as far as I can tell the poem was written in English and not the Maori language, and [X-literature] tags are only used for languages rather than cultures.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 12 '17 at 22:32
  • Thank you for drawing attention to this very beautiful and moving poem; I very much enjoyed reading it. Aug 12 '17 at 22:41
1

I am a NZ poet who knew Hone. Here is the answer you seek from Auckland University, NZ: Elizabeth DeLoughrey, "Solar Metaphors: ‘No Ordinary Sun’", ka mate ka ora: a new zealand journal of poetry and poetics 6 (2008)

Although this poem does not once mention nuclear weaponry, ‘No Ordinary Sun’is universally interpreted as an allegory of atomic apocalypse. [...] Readers have often assumed that the poem reflects Tuwhare’s vision of the destruction caused by the two atomic weapons, ‘Little Boy’and ‘Fat Man,’dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in 1945. This is understandable because barely a year later, Tuwhare was stationed in Japan withthe New Zealand division of the British Commonwealth Occupational Force and travelled through Hiroshima, witnessing first-hand the ongoing devastation of the city (see Hunt 49). [...] In his commentary on ‘No Ordinary Sun’Tuwhare explained that ‘the main theme is[...] the horror and desolation that an H-bomb would bring, something I feel very strongly[ ...] I am aware all the time of the threat that is hanging over our world’(Hunt 49).

The citations to "Hunt 49" refer to the book Janet Hunt, Hone Tuwhare: A biography, Auckland: Godwit, 1998.

4
  • 4
    Hi, this is a link-only answer, which is discouraged. Could you explain your answer? Nov 22 '20 at 4:14
  • 2
    Thank you for the link, but for some reason I'm not able to load that page. Please can you edit your answer to quote the relevant parts of that document here? As it stands, I literally can't get any information from your post: the answer is tantalising close, there but not there :-(
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 22 '20 at 9:36
  • Try the other download links from scholar.google.com/scholar?cluster=8824112138239644425
    – b_jonas
    Nov 23 '20 at 8:14
  • Thanks @b_jonas - having found a version accessible for me, I've added some relevant passages into this answer and upvoted it. Thanks again Jan FitzGerald for the info.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 23 '20 at 10:00
3

I myself believe it was a nuclear weapon:

raise them not sharply in supplication
to the bright enhaloed cloud.

If you think about what a mushroom cloud would look like from the inside in that very instant before it incinerates you, it would look like a halo - one would merely see the ring, not the whole "poof".

resilience for this is no mere axe
to blunt nor fire to smother.

Note that this means that this is no ordinary explosion. Many standard bombs/explosions are sort of "fiery" and are like a figurative axe - they cut things down, crumble things. But an atomic bomb is different - it completely incinerates things close to the blast, leaving only a darker mark that was the object's shadow.

This is no gallant monsoon’s flash,
no dashing trade wind’s blast.

Flashes/blasts are also associated with the atomic bomb. Now, both of these above could probably be construed into thinking of it as a normal bomb, instead of an atomic bomb, but the real clincher for me is

The fading green of your magic
emanations shall not make pure again
these polluted skies . . . for this
is no ordinary sun.

"these polluted skies" - the atomic bomb was unlike other bombs in that instead of just devastation, it pollutes land for many years. Atomic bombs (and their direct descendants hydrogen bombs) have become many, many times more powerful, and therefore that much more polluting, than the only atomic bombs to be dropped.

Also, "for this / is no ordinary sun" - a famous phrase related to the atomic bomb is "a flash brighter than the sun".

O tree
in the shadowless mountains
the white plains and
the drab sea floor
your end at last is written.

Here, there's an interesting point to consider. Even after an explosion, you can come back after a little bit, and see growth, rebirth. After a fire, after natural disasters, you can also see rebirth. A scene I like to think of is in Disney's Fantasia - after the volcano erupts, it all comes back.

With an atomic bomb, it doesn't work like that. If you look at the area of the Chernobyl disaster, lifeforms are still being born with mutations. There is a whole forest whose needles have turned red from the radiation.

I think this all together points fairly clearly towards the poem referencing an atomic bomb.

Another point - "Tree let your arms fall" is repeated in the poem. The symbolism there is that of giving up, giving in. There is nothing resistance can do. There is nothing the tree can do against the power of the atomic bomb. It can resist a fire with thick bark. It can resist a storm with its deep roots. It can resist, even, an explosion. But the sun is no ordinary one, and it must give in. Its end "is at last written".


Interestingly enough, this is not the only time a tree appears in Tuwhare's poetry. In Friend, he writes for the last stanza

Perhaps the tree
will strike fresh roots again:
give soothing shade to a hurt and
troubled world.

That is the most relevant passage involving a tree, but a tree appears in many of his poems.

A tree, in his mind, if you look at that last stanza, gives relief, it soothes. An atomic bomb is almost the exact antithesis of that. It is utter destruction. In this context, when the tree, relief, is told to give up - give in - to the atomic bomb, that says a lot about what he thought.

4
  • Thanks for this answer. The "bright enhaloed cloud" is what first made me think of a nuclear weapon, but conventional explosives would also produce brightness and smoke which could maybe be described this way; so you're right, the "polluted skies" is the most telling clue (+1). However, you've also touched upon something interesting with the words "flash" and "blast" being applied both to natural phenomena and the destructive weapon ...
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 12 '17 at 22:52
  • For extra credit, how about exploring these parallels further? :-) I'm guessing there are more carefully chosen words throughout the poem, and studying these closely would make for an interesting analysis and perhaps extra support for the nuclear interpretation. You could maybe make something like Hamlet's close-reading answer by looking carefully at the wording choices and double meanings and drawing conclusions from them.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 12 '17 at 22:52
  • @Randal'Thor I'm continuing to look at it - I've already noticed some other phrasings I've added into my answer. Aug 12 '17 at 23:09
  • Sorry for the unaccept. I upvoted this answer way back, and it's definitely worth having a nice analysis of the poem itself, but I feel the new answer is more conclusive.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 22 '20 at 11:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.