Clare Rossini

Mai (c.1751-1780), mistakenly known as Omai,  was from Huahine, an island near Tahiti, and was the first Pacific Islander to visit England.  In 1773, he left his native island to travel on the HMS Adventure, which had touched at Tahiti as part of Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific.  Omai arrived in London in 1774.  The naturalist Sir Joseph Banks met Omai at the ship and introduced him to the court.  During his time in England, Omai was something of a phenomenon, known for his charm, wit, and exotic good looks.

(London, 1776)

Right off Cook’s ship, Lord Banks had him taken

To his “tailor,” there to be


Stitched alive into jacket and breeches and fine English shoes.  Onward,

Then, to the King and Queen:


How do King Tosh? Omai sang, making his bow.  The courtiers tittered.

Behold the night speaks!


One Lord said, looking the dark man down.   It’s night, then, that charmed

The women: with “soulful eyes” and "flashing smile",


The Man of the South Seas sent them behind their fans,

Cheeks dull red beneath their powders.  And how Omai


Laughed, seeing

The Duchess of Devonshire’s hair, Piled up, he said, like the nest of a cockatoo!


By year’s end, Banks had made Omai

Into a proper Englishman, wanting only to please. 


Dancing the waltz, cooking fish on the shores of Kew, he sang for Lord Banks,

Hunted, skated ice. 


And each night, looked long on the moon. 

Tis the same as your own, Banks would say.   But higher, this English one,


Said Omai,  So  far beyond the tops of your trees,

Remote as your Christ.  At home, our gods sleep on mountainsides.


 Our bodies, little heavens

For love, and pleasure, our coin.


Hard not to make such a man subject

To every curious eye.  Reynolds, painter of kings, put Omai to canvas--


He was lifted and hung, his tattoos showing, the tapa

Around his dark


Body flowering. 

How then did Omai become


An embarrassment?  The artifact that talked, the specimen found weeping.

Today he leaves on Cook’s ship,


Sent home with muskets, a dog and cat, box of wooden soldiers, fireworks,

Suit of armor, metal pans. 


And a small round earth

Made of pounded tin:


Last night, all night, Omai held the globe in his hand, tracing with his thumb

The spell of bright painted blue


That soon he will have

Crossed twice.

Clare Rossini
Clare Rossini

Clare Rossini is the author of three collections of poetry: Lingo (The University of Akron Press, 2006); Winter Morning with Crow (University of Akron Press 1997), chosen by Donald Justice for the Akron Poetry Prize and one of two finalists for PEN's first Joyce Osterweil Award; and Selections from the Claudia Poems (Minnesota Center for the Book Arts, 1996), an art book edition.  Her poems and essays have appeared in a range of journals and anthologies, including Poetry, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, Poets for a New Century, and the Best American Poetry. At Trinity, she serves as  Director of Trinity's InterArts Program teaches creative writing courses for the Department of English.  Her scholarly interests include English, American, and world poetry; the imagination of place and eco-criticism; the history of science; folklore and folktales; the community cultural development movement; and community-based learning. She is currently working on a fourth book of poetry whose subjects include late-medieval science and global warming.