Genevieve Taggard
Hawaiian Hilltop
(Wyckoff & Gelber, 1923)
15 pgs.

A Review by Catherine Daly


Hawaiian Hilltop, a small pamphlet of poems published as first in a series of pamphlets by Wyckoff and Gelber, contains seventeen poems by Genevieve Taggard.  These poems, about her experience as a child and young teenager living in Hawaii with her missionary parents at the turn of the century until the beginning of World War I, contain themes and concerns she would return to again and again over the course of her brief career.  Since her Hawaiian experience was unusual, her poems and memoir pieces about her childhood were very salable.  In addition to this group of poems published a year after her 1922 first book, For Eager Lovers, she included memoir materials regarding Hawaii, Washington State, and Vermont in the preface to her Calling Western Union, her most political work, and in Origin:  Hawaii, one of her last books.

Hawaiian Hilltop begins as problematically as does Genevieve Taggard’s first book, For Eager Lovers:  with a poem with masculine rhyme and very strong iambic.  This first poem is the title poem.  Taggard begins it by referring to classical Greece and Rome.  It is very common to compare the California coast, where Taggard was living during the period this pamphlet was published, to the Mediterranean.  It is not a commonplace to compare Hawaii to Greece and Italy.  Together with its opening reference, the form of the poem (tetrameter quatrains rhyming abab) seems intended to provide a “classic” aura to this poem.  The poem’s content is the expression of the timeless qualities of nature in the tropics:  shadows and hills are the same as in Greece and Rome, leaves and pebbles are the same as in Egypt, dust and insects are the same as in ancient Babylon.  In the closing quatrain of “Hawaiian Hilltop,” she contrasts this timelessness to narrative or history about male authority:

                       Men chipped as messages in stone,
                       The careful stories of their kings –
                       But they were dumb about their own
                       Undying things!

The tropical and eternal cycle of nature is feminized by this opposition.  This is quite unusual:  Taggard does not describe nature using “female” terms; she describes an insufficient and specifically male authority which is in a binary relationship with nature.

Nature also becomes non-narrative through this opposition:  “stories” are “careful”; nature is not.  Stories can only attempt to be lasting, but they are “dumb”:  they ultimately remain silent.  Ironically, then, this poem by one of the founding editors of a journal entitled Measure seems, eighty years later, like nothing so much as an unnatural, careful, and contingent story carved in stone. 

When Taggard wrote a preface to a longer collection of Hawaii poems, Origin:  Hawaii, she compared bees in Hawaii to bees in the Mediterranean again, “the bees in our algaroba trees made the same sound that Virgil imitated in the Latin text.”  As in the title poem of Hawaiian Hilltop, she emphasizes the way in which, despite her early isolation, she has obtained a particularly fine Western education.  She demonstrates that she has understood the tropics of her youth through her readings of canonical literature. 

In the second poem of the sequence, “Bronze Boy,” Taggard clarifies that animals in nature are outside of time.  In a sense, the fish in this poem are not individuals nor “races” in the same way humans are:  “fish” will outlive the boy’s “race”:

                       By these dim fishes, that will dart and glide
                       When you and your flame-bodied race have died.

Yet, for mothers and a “maiden” in poems on the second and third pages, “Tropic Mother’s Melody,” “Kanaka Mother-Goose,” and “Native Daphne,” palms, flamingoes, and fishes are entertainments and ornaments, rather than persistent truths. 

“Native Daphne” continues Taggard’s extended comparison of the world that classical mythology describes with the landscape of the islands.  Daphne is the first love of Apollo in Ovid.  “Native Daphne” is addressed to a boyish “you,” “If you would love a maiden….” This “you” is not a man, since men in this poem are unfavorable, are thieves, “Lest men should spoil her… / (Men … go as guilty thieves).”  “Native Daphne” is followed by “Solar Myth,” which relates a Hawaiian sun myth.  The Maui story is that of a son seeking to please a mother by adjusting the rapidity of the sun’s movement across the sky:  it is much different than the Apollo story.

While poems such as “Native Daphne,” “Child Tropics,” and the final poem in the sequence, “Tourist,” are sensual, and written from a male point of view, other poems, such as “Tropic Mother’s Melody,” are clearly intended to be read aloud to children.  This peculiar combination of modes and intended audience is also found in For Eager Lovers, the book Taggard published a year before this pamphlet.  Both books are intended to serve an audience of Taggard’s peers – young mothers and male poets – who might be reading poetry for pleasure or to give pleasure.  Poems like “Solar Myth” speak to both audiences.  The myth is not retold for adults, as are many contemporary retellings of myths and fairy tales in poetry. 

Each time Taggard would return to her memories of Hawaii that Hawaiian Hilltop represents, she corrected her views and statements to match the political tenor of the time she wrote, and her current place in it.  She continued to filter her experience through relatively approved, and western, ways of seeing it.  While the romanticized “brown” and “bronze” people in the pamphlet become “the reality of racial suffering” in later poems, nature, approved texts, and benevolent governance remained her source of abundance. 


Taggard, Genevieve.  Preface to Origin:  Hawaii at MAPS.  <>. 

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