Book Review

In the title poem of Āina Hānau / Birth Land, Brandy Nālani McDougall asks, “na wai kēia mo‘olelo hānau?”—“Whose birth story is this?” The book answers: these poems are the story of all of Hawai‘i: land, plants, animals, every ancestor, every child. This expansive collection stretches across Hawai‘i’s history while McDougall, the Hawai‘i Poet Laureate for 2023-2025, shows how all living things are interconnected.

“Ho‘i Hou I Ka Iwi Kuamo‘o” opens the book by offering gifts of the earth—“coral, / bleached empty of color”; “the coarse sand, still / resembling shells”—as an invitation “to remind you / we have always been / part ocean, part land.” This invitation sets the book’s tone: calling Hawaiians to recognize they are of the islands and those of us outside Hawai‘i to recognize how the islands and their people have been treated.

McDougall’s poems illustrate how all the earth’s components are living entities with agency. In “Āina Hānau,” McDougall tells her daughters, “Like you, these islands were born” and describes the islands as children, exploring the world as they grow:

Rooting, digging, hill-building

children. Hiding, peeping, nesting

children. Brindled, speckled, tentacled


Woven through these human-earth connections are stories of caregiving: of pregnancies, births, motherhood, and of generations of ancestors celebrating one another.

In “The Map,” McDougall’s story of her relationship with her grandfather, we meet the grandfather when McDougall is a child:

Here is where you made                   me

butterfish and poi

The two practice Hawaiian, read stories, and share meals. Later, his health declines:

I called

the hospice nurse because                   you were

                        sleeping too long.

Through this fierce familial love, McDougall composes a beautiful homage to all Hawaiian ancestors.

In illustrations by Allison Leialoha Milham, maps of the islands show rivers and elevation contours in white against gray backgrounds layered over text. These collages echo McDougall’s insistence that every origin has many stories while showing the living land: rivulets of water become capillaries and nervous systems, islands become hearts and livers. Other illustrations stack ocean, mountain, and sky on top of each other, indistinguishable.

McDougall calls us to witness colonialist destruction while teaching modern Hawaiian history. We learn about the illegal US annexation of Hawai‘i in 1898, military occupation leaving “700 documented areas of contamination at Pearl Harbor,” and international poets calling to end maritime warfare exercises so there might be “breath enough / to salve these / and so many wounds” inflicted on people and sea life.

McDougall laments that Native Hawaiians have spent generations fighting for their islands only to have the land taken, leaving environments damaged and residents impoverished. In “Real (G)estate,” she adopts a patois to describe economic precarity:

as in Hawai‘i’s

numbah 1 and 2

economic industreez—

tourism and da U.S.


inflation, housing

prices, and da overall

cost of living

Laws restricting land rights mean families routinely don’t know “who was left what / and who should have / been left what.” Native Hawaiians traditionally bury a child’s ‘iewe, or afterbirth, to locate each person within their homeland. McDougall teaches us that “‘iewe are sacred, / must be / treated as sacred” but being unable to afford to buy a home means she must constantly move her daughters’ ‘iewe, “from freezer to freezer / from rental to rental.”

Further, Native Hawaiians are gatekept from their heritage. In “Kūka‘ō‘ō Heiau on Google Maps (Satellite View),” we learn that at the Mānoa Heritage Center, “Tours / run for $7 by / appointment only.” In “Haleakalā on Google Maps (Satellite View),” visiting the volcano’s summit requires a fee and a reservation: “Go online and schedule / this trip several days / in advance.” I followed online, learning to navigate “makai,” toward the ocean, and “mauka,” toward the mountains, but this digital accessibility demonstrates McDougall’s point that outside influences make lands inaccessible to their ancestors.

McDougall celebrates language by weaving Hawaiian and English in many poems and, in “Āina Hānau,” composing dictionary definitions to build a metaphor of giving birth as home building, with each being inextricable from the land. “Piko,” for example, is “navel, navel string, umbilical / cord” and also “small wauke root- / lets from an old plant.”

She is also playful with poem forms. “Poi-ku” is a series of haiku about poi, the Hawaiian dish of cooked and mashed taro. Sarcasm abounds in “College Prep Test for Those Who Will Leave Hawai‘i,” with a series of questions Americans will ask, such as, “Why don’t you people just get / over it already?” and interchangeable answers Hawaiians can give, such as, “‘American’ just means you’re / blissfully ignorant of profiting off of / stolen people and stolen lands, right?” In “Nā Pu‘u One O Waihe‘e,” lengthening and shrinking lines mimic waves. And in “Āina Hānau,” lines pile on breathless lines during childbirth:

I had to breathe islands

I had to rise mothers I had to

fall water I had to turn dark I had

to float islands I had mothers to breathe

water darkly I had to sink islands I had mothers

to lose water my body darker I had islands to breathe

The mother’s thoughts become circular, focused centrally on the health of her child.

This book is a reckoning: colonialist destruction is happening today, robbing people of land and rights. In “Kūpikipiki‘ō, O‘ahu,” McDougall lists nations negatively affected by US military presence and condemns those who view such places as theirs for the taking. She writes:

                                                                                    “This is not

paradise. Not virgin land. Not real estate. Not wasteland.

. . .

Not your vacation.

This is stolen land and ocean.”

McDougall shows that, as with colonialist impact, our connection with the earth and our ancestors is not a piece of history but an important part of our lives today.

About the Reviewer

Ann Amicucci teaches writing at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. You can connect with her on Twitter at @AnnNAmicucci