On 23 September 2014, the UN held a Climate Summit in New York City, in which heads of government met to discuss initiatives and proposals in view of the forthcoming COP21 in Paris, a yearly conference aimed at assessing and tackling climate change. The Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner was invited to represent her islands. During the ceremony, she performed a poem titled Dear Matafele Peinem, dedicated to her seven-month old daughter. 

The poem deals with the climate crisis and with the need for collective action. The legacy of nuclearisation which she discusses in poems such as History Project intertwines with the present threat posed by rising sea levels, which could soon lead to the disappearance of thousands of islands. 

Like Rise, her 2018 poem co-authored with Aka Niviâna, Dear Matafele Peinem is worth listening to. It opens with “Dear Matafele Peinam”, words that are reiterated several times, as if the author was directly addressing her daughter.

The power of mothers

The mother-daughter bond creates an intimate and joyful atmosphere which is however threatened by a gloomy and looming presence, that is, climate change:

men say that one day
that lagoon will devour you
they say it will gnaw at the shoreline
chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees
gulp down rows of your seawalls
and crunch your island’s shattered bones

Jetñil-Kijiner plays with the idea of motherhood as associated with that of a safe living space. The mother-children bond is thus mirrored in the landscape-inhabitants relationship. However, as Xavier Dolan shows in his movie Mommy, this bond can also be ferocious and contradictory. Hence, in this poem, the mother-land becomes a monster-land, devouring, gnawing, chewing, gulping, and crushing. This force emerges from the lagoon, as a sea creature would do, to destroy everything it finds on its path.

When mothers become monsters, children feel abandoned and lost; similarly, when lands turn against their inhabitants, people become stateless. The phenomenon the poet is referring to is that of climate refugees, that is, people forced to migrate because of climate change. Rising sea levels are exacerbating this crisis in the Pacific Ocean. This is the reason why Tuvalu’s foreign minister, during COP26, decided to address his audience standing in knee-deep water.

We are spreading the word

Not everything looks grim. The last section of Jetñil-Kijiner’s poem is entirely committed to celebrating hope, resilience, and international cooperation.

there are those
who see us
hands reaching out
fists raising up
banners unfurling
megaphones booming
and we are
canoes blocking coal ships
we are
the radiance of solar villages
we are
the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past
we are
petitions blooming from teenage fingertips
we are
families biking, recycling, reusing,
engineers dreaming, designing, building,
artists painting, dancing, writing
and we are spreading the word

The above lines share with Jon Batiste‘s album WE ARE not only these two words, but also a celebration of connection and cooperation. Above all, they show that there is still room for action. The author suggests here that individual commitment plays an essential role in saving our planet, but also that joining forces can make the burden less heavy to carry. Peaceful demonstrations and rallies, solar villages, and sustainable farming are just a few examples among many: talking about them and spreading the word are ways of raising awareness. Jetñil-Kijiner concludes her poem by addressing her daughter one last time:

so just close those eyes, baby
and sleep in peace
because we won’t let you down
you’ll see

There will come a time when Matafele Peinem will have to worry about climate change and its effects on her native island. For now, the baby can rest, because her future is being taken care of by millions of people around the world who are working to develop sustainable ways of living. Dear Matafele Peinem is an invocation and an open letter addressed not to posterity but to every person living in the here and now.