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Navigating by Stars

A Husband Lost at Sea

Love for a Stranger

For Three Sons at Sea

Bonito Trolling Song

Lemang’s Lament for A Daughter




Ifaluk (or Ifalik) is part of the Caroline Islands chain—dots of land scattered across 1800 miles of the deep Pacific, just north of the equator. The ring of coral that is Ifaluk Atoll surrounds a lagoon containing four small islands rising to a height of 15 to 25 feet. The following songs were provided by the Micronesians living there to Edwin Burrows in 1947 and 1953, during which period the local population increased from 250 to 260. The island of Yap mentioned in some of the songs is at the western end of the Carolines, some 400 miles from Ifaluk. Truk is about 400 miles to the east.

The Micronesians have physical characteristics and traditions that are distinct from those of the Polynesians populating many of the tropical Pacific Islands, and may represent a separate emigration out of Asia. As there was no written language, poetry and songs handed down in the oral tradition contained much of their history and culture. Included in this were songs about the skills needed for crafting and sailing canoes, for navigation and for fishing.

The seas are hazardous, with a deep drop-off outside the reef. Without keels, the canoes drift badly off course, and may break up in heavy seas. Winds, currents, fish, birds, and stars were the chief guides to navigation. Not surprisingly, many canoes were lost at sea, and family songs, love songs and laments often referred to this. For the most part, these songs were composed by women; but songs concerned with canoe skills, fishing, and navigation were composed by men. (The chant identifying guide stars suggests the origins of astronomy.)

As in other areas of the world, this oral art expressed values and sentiments that are universal—love, pride in skills, anxiety for the future, pride in offspring, laments for lost ones—but couched in terms of local ongoing activities. Parts of the formal aspects of art are also local . In Ifaluk, there is a poetic tradition of including certain set phrases at the beginning and end of songs, including "Flower in my ear" and "My precious ointment". The flower worn in the pierced ear, says Burrows, is something close and precious. The precious ointment may be oil from coconuts made fragrant by flowers, sometimes serving as a metaphor for somebody pressed against the singer.


Navigating by Stars


The star Meleilal

Hangs over the pass at Puluwat

And the beach Pieligore.

The canoe goes through the pass to the beach.

The outrigger lashing is repaired,

Then she turns her prow toward the north

And loads the platform with young coconuts.

People gather to help.

We steer for the star Mwagoliker,

Pointing toward Malrepul at one end,

And Pugulivairi at the other,

Of the crooked reef, the place to open coconuts,

Called Truatali Velatrik.

We steer for the star Alualu,

Then, when nearing Satawan, for Serewalu,

And make the pass Gepitau.

Metaru and Metumuri,

West-northwest, when the sun goes down,

Hang over the pass Faleor e bwaut.



A Husband Lost at Sea


I am lost in grief,

Worn out with sorrow.

I love my husband dearly;

When shall I see him again?

For a long time I have been waiting;

A year passed by,

A new year has begun,

Still he does not appear.

I am always thinking of him.

For a while I forget, then suddenly remember.

I have not put him out of my heart.

It is long since I saw him.

How handsome he was,

With his finely curved eyebrows

And dark glowing eyes.

I cherish his memory;

If he is dead, what shall I do?

Who could ever take his place?

News of his death would be a heavy blow.

I am afraid of the sharks

That gather about canoes at sea.

What if a shark should come,

Seize him and tear him.

Oh, my dear husband!

Everybody admired him,

Tall and straight like a tree.

When he left, I told him: "Be strong,

So the long journey won't tire you;

You can stay in the canoe, and still be fresh.

Be hard as if you had eaten stone!

As if you had stone inside you,

Or were made of iron!

That way you can endure a long voyage!"

I am afraid the canoe has been lost;

That it drifted far beyond its goal,

Out where they cannot see the birds that betoken land.

Where even the birds never fly,

The birds of our islands.

In seas that border on some other land

At the other end of the world,

In the salt spaces where no land is.

If food gives out, he will be near death,

He will lie down, too weak to move.

Oh, is my dear husband dead?

So fine his face was;

So shapely and strong his body.

On what sea does he wander now?

A year has passed without him;

Another comes, and I do not see him.

No other man is my lover.

For a long time I have not known where he is;

For a long time he has not come to the house,

Here where he belongs.

Oh, my sorrow overwhelms me!

I understand now; he will not come back.

I cannot talk about him.

No matter what wind blows, he does not come.



Love for a Stranger


I am happy in my love,

I want to find my beloved.

He is happy too;

I from Elato, he from Ifaluk.

By night he comes to me

Where I lie on the mat,

Pulls aside the wall mats,

Takes off two of them and comes in—

Bold lover, heedless of who may be there.

I call out, "Who is that?"

He is like my sweetheart—

Then I know that it is he.

I know the strong, firm body

Tattooed black like a man-of-war bird,

A bird from far Ifaluk.

He came to Elato to find me.

"That is the woman I want for my love."

"Do you love me? . . .  If you love me I do."

He pulls me to the tattooing on his collarbone

And the tattooing of his arm.

He lays my head on the tattooing of his chest.

I say, "No! I will not stay here!"

(I lie, for I love him well.)

I say, "How much will you give me?

It is money I want; lots of it."

(I am lying; I love him dearly.)

Then he loves me fiercely;

Our bodies melt into one.

At night we go out from the house,

Walk around on the sand,

And find a beautiful place

In the woods on a bed of coconut leaves.

There we lie down together,

Where the fragrant lamul tree grows.

He takes off his loincloth,

He pulls me to him,

He hugs me tight,

He puts me on his thighs

(Strong young thighs they are).

He says to me,

"I want to sleep in your house every night."

I say, "I am afraid. You are too fierce."

He is a fine man in face and body.


At last I say, "I am not afraid.

We two will sleep together."

He sits up. "I am telling you the truth.

I was lying when I said I was afraid."

He is like the black ufa fish,

His thighs are as fresh as sea water.

He looks only at me.

All the women come and dance, but he likes me best.

They all paint their cheeks with turmeric

And put on fine new skirts;

He cannot rest until he finds me.

In the evening he bathes and anoints

himself for me,

Puts on a new loincloth and a wreath,

And comes by night to find me.

We meet in another place now!

He comes into the house. When he sees me:

"I love you.' . . . I have not forgotten,

Black fish of Ifaluk!"

Like the swift perang fish he comes.

His home is far away,

But he covers the distance in a flash.

"Never mind what the people say,

The people of Elato are not gossiping.

They think it is right for us to marry.

Like two trees growing straight together,

Though you come from a distant island,

Tattooed like the black Ifaluk fish."

He has come, and I belong to him;

We love each other well,

Each feels the other as part of himself.



For Three Sons at Sea


I lie down to sleep,

Pulling the bed covering

Up over my head.

I wonder if my boys think of their mother.

I am overcome with heaviness,

For all three went away.

The boys who were the light of my eyes

All went, thinking little of me,

Left alone in the house.

Of my three sons, not one is left.

What a gay house it was, with them here!

Now I am worn with longing,

Nothing is as it used to be;

I never can see my sons,

Sweet as ripe oranges,

Gay as the red geriou flower

Worn proudly on my head.

All the young people gather,

Dance the ur together

Gaily painted; but my boys are not there.

I have no heart for moving about,

Yet if I lie here, I will die.

There is no joy in waking or eating.

I am too weary with missing them.

I hate the flowers that remind me of them,

The red geriou.

If they were here, how they would laugh and talk!

Their heads rose above the crowd;

When the trade wind blew, they sailed before it,

Thinking little of their mother's grief.

I am tired of hearing people talk,

My heart is weak within me.

I sit and think, "When will they come?"

If only I could go to find them;

Walk over the waves to where they are.

When at last I saw them,

I would gather them in my arms,

And keep the rain and waves from them.

In their canoe, they are exposed to wind and sea;

The hot sun beats down on them;

They have no shade or shelter.

The rain falls in torrents,

Beating down upon them

As they sit in their open canoe,

Crowded in with the rest of the crew,

Their bodies overlapping,

My sons I love so!

Now a raging typhoon

Strikes their canoe.

I cannot sit still; I must go and look for them.

As the months go by, I remember,

My heart mourns their absence.

I am afraid they had not enough food with them.

It was a long journey—are my boys starved?

How fine their tattooed bodies were!

Stout thighs they had,

Chests broad and deep,

Well-sculptured bodies,

Covered with tattooing.

Taller than other men,

With great powerful chests—

Everyone admired them.

Didn't the captain understand his craft?

Was he a fool in the lore of the sea?

Did the canoe break apart? —I will stop.

Deep within me . . .

I lie down to sleep.

Deep within me . . .



Bonito Trolling Song


The flower rubbed between the hands,

From the fragrant atiliangu tree . . .

I dearly love my son;

They call his name and sing his praises,

All the people call his name.

He towers high in this land.

His name is like a garland.

He opens the wooden box,

Attaches the pearl-shell lure to the line,

And goes trolling for bonito.

He throws out the lure;

The fish rise, ruffling the water.

He brings in the line,

Drops the fish into the canoe,

Raising the tip of the pole,

Swinging the fish around;

It strikes against his chest.

A sailor sitting before him

Quickly catches the fish.

The canoe runs through the school,

Many canoes flock around,

Slowly he turns his body around.

A quick move, and the fish would escape.

He stands on the gunwales,

Very slowly he lets the line out again.

If he loses a fish, they will curse him.

The outcry would force him to turn back,

Leaving behind him, out at sea,

The curses of the boatmen:

"Go lie with your mother!"

With one hand he splashes the lure,

Unafraid of the big struggling fish

He swings them into the canoe.

Thick and fast the bonito rise,

The canoe runs through the school.

I want to put him in my ear lobe,

This cunning fisherman

Who goes out in the open sea,

Takes delight in his fishing

Outside the reef

Or in some open bay—

A favorite place, the bay.

He goes outside the lagoon,

Brings the canoe to a stop,

Furls the sail, lets out his line;

The fish wriggle their tails,

Swimming beside the canoe.

He is ready to come ashore again,

Guides the canoe back,

Comes in through the pass.

All the people see him coming

When the sun is getting low,

He comes ashore in his own district.

Flower in my ear . .

The flower rubbed between the hands .

My precious ointment.



Lemang’s Lament for A Daughter


She is like the warung flower

And like flame-colored paint from Yap.

I cannot stay in the house and sleep:

Lemang's daughter is dead.

I will lose my mind with missing her.

She was like a flower,

Like the quick-growing turmeric;

She grew fast, but no sooner grown than she died.

To her mother she was like a flower;

I wanted to wear her in my hair;

But she has died and left me.

I am worn with sorrow.

It was only this morning that she died;

All the people are coming with gifts.

Our house is close to the channel between the islets;

The people come and see how lovely she is;

They tell me how they grieve with me.

They know she was my flower.

Her mouth was beautiful when she laughed.

She was radiant when she put on face-paint,

Paint from Truk beside her eyebrows,

And over her body.

Now that she is dead, they are adorning her with paint.

When they put her into the sea I shall not sleep;

I will cry continually in my grief;

I can never forget her.

Because she is a girl from Ievang,

The chiefs are making something for a gift.

I will close the path where she used to walk,

Put a barrier across it,

The path to Palievang

That leads to the taro patch.

I cannot bear to have others tread on her footprints.

If not even those are left, I will go mad.

I cannot live without seeing at least that much of her.

She used to walk about there,

Where the fragrant wut flowers grow;

She would pick the flowers

And make herself a garland.

Flowers of the gabwi, too,

She would put in her hair.

Everyone admired her.

Then she would come here to the house.

Lemang would turn around and see her

Coming in adorned with flowers.

She would say, "Look at me, mother!"

With that beautifully smiling mouth of hers.

How I loved to see her laugh!


Her brother, too—and her sister;

How pleasant it was to have them all together!

Oh, that she should be dead!

Only two come now.

It is not as it was with all three here.

Flower in my ear . . .

She is like the warung flower . . .

My precious ointment.



Flower in My Ear: Arts and Ethos of Ifaluk Atoll, by Edwin Grant Burrows. University of Washington Press, Seattle,1963. Copyright © 1963 by University of Washington Press. Reprinted by permission of the University of Washington Press.