Madeleine Slavick

Tuna, Eel

Your dark body, your dark eyes, and it is
in the dark that you live, slowly
There is so much time under
stone, log, water, under the heavens
and for every year you are
here, you add
a ring in the bone
of your ear, some years
for the river, some years for the sea
and you grow your fleshy body
so firm, so white, so sweet, so slowly
and your scales and skin so slippery
you grow your slanted rows
of crispy teeth and the certain
length of lips
and how many myths
We know you have lived here
for eighty million years, so much
longer than me, than us, and one
year, when it is becoming
colder, you are ready
for the sea, and you make a loop
of blue around the already blue eye
and you shine
the leathery belly more silver
and the inside of the body
changes, rearranges
You stop
eating, but still, how you swim
and you swim and you swim
downriver, and you swim
at night, you swim to the faraway
water where you were born
you swim for one hundred days
to be there
until no more swimming
and you release
one million eggs, or thirty million
and we do not know how
they become complete
but you die, and we do not know how long
the young eels stay in that faraway
warm of the sea, the new bodies
the shape of the willow leaf
growing, floating, becoming
glassy, riding the sea back
to this country in the season
when we are becoming
warmer, and once here
you swim
rivers and lakes, you swim
streams and maybe a dam
and you can swim land
rolling yourselves into a ball, rolling
and you can swim walls, and waterfalls
braiding with other eels, climbing
climbing, until you reach the body
of water where you may live one hundred years
There is so much time
before you make millions
of eels back in the place
where you were born
growing, becoming
dark brown or grey black
golden or white
or maybe a taniwha with stripes.

tuna – a general te reo Māori term for eels, specifically freshwater. Eels are of great significance in Māori culture; the language has about 70 different words for eel.

taniwha – these creatures are terrifying or protective, male or female, usually waterborne, and can command great respect.


Madeleine Slavick (思樂維) is a writer, editor, community arts organizer and photographer living in Aotearoa New Zealand after 24 years in Hong Kong, from 1988–2012.  She has performed her poetry internationally and has authored several books of photography, poetry, and nonfiction: Fifty Stories Fifty Images, Delicate Access / 微妙之途, China Voices and Round. “Tuna, Eel” is a piece from her forthcoming book, Town, which explores rural New Zealand society.