Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



dg nanouk okpik, Corpse Whale.
The University of Arizona Press: Tucson, 2012


Around 330 B.C., a Greek mathematician and wayfarer named Pytheas of Massalia journeyed to the land of the Midnight Sun, returning with news, hardly believed by his countrymen, of Thule, a land of perpetual darkness, ice and snow. Eighteen centuries later, the quest for a Northwest/Northeast ice free passage over the top of the world sent three lead-plated wooden ships commanded by Sir Hugh Willoughy to the Arctic North. One ship returned to England; the other two, and their sixty-four crew members, plus Willoughby, froze to death during the long polar night. This was the beginning of several hellish expeditions, including the Franklin expedition of 1845, in which 129 crew members vanished amongst the polar ice.

"Most terrifying of all...is the howling rage of the ice flows, their shrieks as they wedge together, pile up in great towers, and threaten to crash the Tegetthoff. When the ice presses like this, the crew waits belowdecks under emergency packs, listening for the warning cry of the watch on deck—Move out! Move out! Life's goal is here!—and then overboard once more, out into the darkness, onto the ice, water boiling up in black surges through the gaping cracks."(1)

In 1941, Jean-Pierre Gontran de Montaigne de Poncins, a French viscount who had lived with the Inuit people of King William Land for about a year, wrote that "The Eskimos do not look upon the country as a harsh land,

and among the variety of reasons for this I should put first the reason that it is their own, their unchallenged kingdom. Not only are they the undisputed owners of this land, but they are alone in it...No marauders burst in to steal their poor possessions and inslave their children, as among certain peoples in Africa. No armies, as in Europe, invade them to deprive them of their dominion over the snows."(2)

He must not have been aware that when Knud Rasmussen made his famous Fifth Thule Expedition (1921-24), looking for the people he called "our contemporary ancestors" in order to record their myths and learn the ways of their shamans, "he heard coming from one of their summer tents the unmistakable sounds of a Caruso recording being played on a powerful gramophone."(3)

I recently read: "An ongoing US Department of Energy-backed research project led by a US Navy scientist predicts that the Arctic could lose its summer sea ice cover as early as 2016 - 84 years ahead of conventional model projections." An that this "could have significant ramifications for global sea level, the ocean thermohaline circulation and heat budget, ecosystems, native communities, natural resource exploration, and commercial transportation."(4) "While this may eventually open the Northwest Passage to sought-after tourism, oil exploration and trade, it also spells trouble as wildfires increase, roads buckle and tribal villages sink into the sea."(5)

Why bother annotating and recreating old myths and lifeways in midst of a civilization that is bent on destroying itself? It is not so much an anthropological project as a platform from which to angle for a more relevant contemporary art and poetics, with the hope that, in light of this, enough people will come to their senses to begin to reverse the damage.


dg nanouk okpik is an Inupiat-Inuit poet raised by an Irish-German family in Anchorage, Alaska. She holds a BFA with honors from the Institute of American Indian Art, in Santa Fe, and has received several distinguished scholarships. She currently works as a Case Manager for 9th grade at-risk Amerindian females at the Santa Fe Indian Boarding School. "Some humans weave themselves / with lime grass / into large orbs. / Others make goosefeet baskets / of seaweed or with narrow leaves, / or collect matches or tobacco."(6)

"There has been a tendency for those writing about Inuit poetry to stress the magical, ritualistic, and musical aspects of the compositions, or to assure the readers that if the poems do not make any narrative or lineal sense that is because they are not intended to. The implication is that for Inuit poets, how a thing is said is more important than what is said..."(7)

                                   In Kuukpik                 she/I become/s                    aware of the evil
                                   Spirits                        let no one be in any doubt

                                   of the remedies from Anatkuq the magician
                                   for the white illness.                                The anatkuq radiates fire.

As many of the poems in Corpse Whale are spread across the page's white expanse, the book presents some difficuties in reading. However, the spaces between words allow us to hear the poet's voice, and sense her breathing, in the tradition of Inuit poetry. Although at first glance okpik's language can be daunting, in a variegated, connected world should not poems be more syntactically complex and philosophically discrete than ordinary, or media-driven, language? Complexity has been written into Jazz for decades: "Ornette Coleman's loving transgressions of (Charlie) Parker's laws ('If you destroy,' says Rene Char, 'let it be with nuptial tools.'); Albert Ayler deforming 'Summertime' to go beyond mere beauty; (Charles) Mingus screaming at the last moment; and finally, (John) Coltrane."(9)

It is okpik's splitting of first person singular into I/her, she/I, her/me, etc., that seems most perplexing, and telling. Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin explains:

"There are events that, in principle, cannot unfold on the plane of a single and unified consciousness, but presuppose two consciousnesses that do not fuse; they are events whose essential and constitutive element is the relation of a consciousness to another consciousness, precisely because it is other. Such are all events that are creatively productive, innovative, unique, and irreversible."(10)

More directly to the point, Tom Lowenstein writes that the Tikigaq cosmos is "multiple and composite."(11) Although presently living in the high desert of northern New Mexico, okpik is committed to her Inuit-Inupiat DNA. Sometimes, it is in exile that we are best able to reflect on ourselves, viewing the depth and distortions of our soul as if in a mirror. This is a dream of sorts, in which we walk, or paddle, back into the world we left behind.

It comes back to the Inuit me:
images     in the mirror are closer        than they appear

on my kayak skin boat.              She/I was forged by sea salt
by snow    hammered                                              into iron ore              red herring.


"Salt Cedar on Kokonee at Susitna River" is a poem that takes its name from a river in South Central Alaska. Kokonee, unlike most salmon, who spend their life in he ocean before returning to the river to spawn, live in fresh water rivers. Salt cedar is an "aggressive colonizer," especially in fresh water ecosystems. In Inuit life there is always water, in many of its forms: fresh and salty, snow, ice, and pudding rain. As okpik is knowledgeable of myths other than those of her own tribe, this poem begins with a passage from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known hero's journey. It is a myth from people who lived in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the second and third millenniums BCE, the land that is present day Iraq.

Several stories from the Hebrew Bible were reworked from the Epic of Gilgamesh. For example, Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god and one-third man, is told the story by Utnapishtim, a mortal to whom the gods had given eternal life, of a world-wide flood caused by the gods, who were tired of human chattering keeping them awake. However, Ea, one of the gods who created Mankind, instructed Utnapishtim to build a boat and 'take up into (it) the seed of all living creatures." The flood lasted six days and nights. On the seventh day, first a dove, then a swallow, were sent in search of land. Both returned, having found nothing. Then a crow was sent. "She saw that the waters had retreated, she ate, she flew around, she cawed, and she did not come back." Here is where okpik's poem begins:

When the mud dried, black spruce culled
at the river's lapse, I slouched over to fill my mouth—
the ice-packed gorge flowed over my fingers...

A therianthropic crow, who asks, "Is this the way to the earth? I've stood still / but the sea and sky kept circling, circling the midnight sun. I did not return."

The poem continues in a loft (or eerie), where "I found one carved wing of yellow cedar / resting at the bottom of the netted cage." A wooden wing trapped in a net, and made from a boreal species of tree dying from the loss of snow cover, due to global warming. Then "Aaka (Mother) called, / I dropped the wooden wing, fled down the ladder / to a black bird in a mask." What I find interesting here is that it is not a human wearing the mask of a bird, such as in some aboriginal ceremonies, but a bird wearing a mask! I am reminded of Northwest Coast Indian "transformation masks" whose center swings open on hinges to reveal another face, a persona within a persona. "In the earliest of times," an Inuit Shaman told Knud Rasmussen, "a person could become an animal and an animal could become a human being. Sometimes they were people, sometimes animals, and there was no difference. All spoke the same language."(13)

The third section:

Ellipse of the moon where the sun is lowest—
harp, timpani, bass, viola, flute,
wavelengths of woodwards.
The nimbus darkened, a gingko fan leaf
measured candela carbon in the expanse,
Genesis at dense blithe. The bell on the mountain
rang beyond the scape: echo, echo.

It is not-understanding that kept me working on these lines. "There can never be 'correct' or 'objective' readings of the text or the tropes of tribal literatures," wrote Indian scholar and novelist, Gerald Vizenor, "only more energetic, interesting and 'pleasurable misreadings.'"(15) With this in mind, I continued on to the poem's final section. okpik has divided her book into months. "Salt Cedar on Kokonee at Susitna River" appears in "Ibeivik: June Birth Time / When animals give birth." Thus, now she takes us to the Sustina River, where there are "Blackfish parr, swimmer of freshwater—," fish recently born from an "urn of eggs pocketed in rocks, / swimmer flow past in this moon—"The poem ends:

So it is, you breathe quantum lux
and return, return, and return.

Lux is light, or a unit of illumination, as is candela, the production of which is putting so much carbon into the atmosphere, causing world temperatures to rise. The poet makes a connection (art is all about connections) between the black crow, symbolic of death, who doesn't return, and the blackfish who breathe quantum units of light—particles and waves, that are multiple and composite like the human/animal relationships we sublimate—and each season return to deposit fresh life.

Unlike poets who adopt cultures into which they weren't born, or raised, okpik, who has fished the waters of which she writes so eloquently, has something rare these days: an authentic voice, one that nets ancient beliefs without disgarding modern science or the daily news. Tracking mythologically, she hunts for what may carry us through the environmental crises that surely lay ahead. What Knud Rasmussen said of traditional Inuit poetry also applies here. "These works don't arrive like fragile orchids from the hot houses of professional poets; they have flowered like rough, weather beaten saxifrage which has taken root on rock. And they ought to matter to us."(15)


References and Notes:

1- Ransmayr, C. (1991) The Terrors of Ice and Darkness. New York.
2- de Poncins, G. (1980) Kabloona. Alexandria, VA.
3- Seidelman, H. & Turner J. ((1994) The Inuit Imagination. New York.
4- N. Ahmed, “US Navy predicts summer ice free Arctic by 2016”. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/dec/09/us-navy-arctic-sea-ice-2016-melt
5- W. Koch, "Alaska sinks as climate change thaws permafrost." USA Today, 10 August 2013.
6- okpik, d.n. From, "The Fate of Inupiaq-like Kingfisher."
7- McGrath, R. "Reassessing Traditional Inuit Poetry." canlit124-Inuit(McGrath).pdf
8- okpik, d.n. From, "Palmed Hands Foist Dice." Using okpik's "Loose Inuit Glossary, Kuukpik is a "river off the Colville river, upriver from Nuiqsat." An anatkuq is a shaman.
9- Marmande, F. (1996) "The Laws of Improvisation, or the Nuptial Destruction of Jazz. Yale French Studies, 89.
10- Bakhtin, M. (1984) In, T. Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle. Minneapolis.
11- Lowenstein, T. (1993) Ancient Land: Sacred Whale. New York. The Tilkgaq are an Inupiat people who live about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle in a village that has been occupied for over two thousand years. Tikgaq means "index finger...the name tells us not what the people do at Tikigaq, but what the land does. It points."
12- okpik, d.n., From, "Her/My Arctic: Corpse Whale." Interestingly, the title poem as published in Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing Pacific Rim (Cambridge, UK, 2009) is left-justified; while in this collection, renamed, "Her/My Arctic," and subtitled, "Corpse Whale," the text is spread over the page.
13- Rasmussen, K. (1945) Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 1921-24. Copenhagen.
14- Vizenor, G. (1993) "A Postmodern Introduction." Narrative Chance. Norman, OK.
15- Rasmussen, K. (1973) In, T. Lowenstein, Editor, Eskimo Poems From Canada and Greenland. London.