dg nanouk okpik’s Corpse Whale

corpse whaleIn Corpse Whale, dg nanouk okpik adopts hybrid pronouns and verb forms that operate stereoscopically, that is to say, as

A device by which two

photographs

                                                            of the same object takes

slightly

                                                            different angles are viewed

together

                                                            giving an impression of depth

slightly wide

                                               

                                                            as in ordinary human vision.

By which I mean, this book is concerned with a multiplicity of identities that encompasses and expands beyond the case of mixed cultural origins (okpik is an Alaskan Native, Inupiat–Inuit, and raised by an Irish and German family), and insists on keeping us from comfortably settling in to either the single dimension of either a first- or third-person person perspective. What the hybrid forms I refer to look like is this:

When morning comes, she/succumb/s to the bare, blue ice, raise

her/my hands to my eyes with her/my legs crimped in a mock casket.

At times I found this double pronoun-form frustrating: how to read it? I stumbled over its typography, all those backlashes sticking up, and my internal ear stuttered as it tried to pronounce the simultaneous verb forms. Sometimes I tried to avoid it entirely by reading each poem aloud twice, once with only the first person pronouns, once with only the third. Yet I hesitated to write off her method because I suspected my discomfort may also have arisen from a resistance to the stereoscopic perspective itself, that is to say, I found the simultaneity of first-and-third- person experience in this book surprisingly unsettling, and suspected that this was a good thing – a indication of a gap in my own vocabulary. I am still not quite sure I have made friends with okpik’s technique for expressing this perspective (because of how the backslashes disrupt the reading), but I am glad nonetheless to have had to grapple with it.

In any case, as we grow accustomed to the hybrid pronoun, it ceases to be so jarring. It does not appear to signify a first person accompanied by a third, rather it portrays a perspective in which the self is the third person, and identity, self, is not grammatically separate from the other. In this regard, it maps out one of the book’s most visible themes, a sense of displacement of self experienced by the adopted and the colonized, which is expressed lexically as well as grammatically:

If you hex and confuse

            the ill form of a ten-legged                bear with a thousand toenails

you smother Eskimo                                      children with no marrow

                                    or earthen ligaments.

okpik’s heritage and personal history are thus evident in the text, and her writing depicts the work to retain origins done by those whose cultures and livelihoods have been appropriated. Origins – not just as they are embodied in relics and language of the past but as they survive now and are revived in the telling and singing of stories. Poems for each month mark the progress of the book. As a literary device, her poetic calendar reminds us that time is both linear and cyclical, that an epoch may begin and end like a book but its song is on repeat:

Siqing: Sun January

Sun Itqaaq: to recall and re-tell events

from long ago when cormorants flew on

the ice surfaces of sand blown landed

on point in a sound wave bearing a

peninsula. Mother, know she is / I am here

inside – just as your liver, as the coming

sun, or cold stark snow or when you touch me

briefly after birth.

Recalling and re-telling events, though, is not just the domain of ritual. It is by the maintenance of not only ceremony and mythology, but of quotidian tasks, that a society may retain its roots. It is towards the end of the book, when okpik’s highly-indented, widely-spaced and mythologically-themed poems begin consolidate into more compact cycles of prose-poetry, that we are reminded of this fact:

Every year or two, I prepare to sod my roof, so I can make do another winter. I make a hole in the ceiling for smoke and prayers to rise together in song. I remember cleaning smeared smelt off my hooks sharpening them to catch mirror-back salmon its fins spread, heading the opposite way, nosing up the river to spawn in eclipse water when the sun moves around the earth and all days are ebony backward.

“To adopt” and “to adapt”. The adopted must adapt, yes, they change or are changed from what they were or might have been, but here they do not become their adopter. So okpik’s writing deals with being Inuit, yes, and also with being an animal, which is the final identity of every human.  In the book’s closing cycle, she takes on the identities of various animals. Sitting in a heated apartment and living on mints and canned chick peas, I might on first reading have bitten a fingernail and shrugged at that – if it weren’t for her startlingly graphic diction:

You bit on the 7th cervical      in her/my neck;

 

you prod at the nerve                                    cord in her/my back

 

your heavy      splayfoot         death pierces her/my

spinal column.

But at this point in my reading, I pause between bites of chick peas and remember that this is actually what most of life looks like, outside of my heated apartment: animals eating animals.

It is difficult to read literature couched in the imagery and mythology of a culture strange to us. The question always lurks: is this what I think it is? Or is it something else, something I do not even know about?  okpik’s book asks much of a reader who is unfamiliar with her culture; she does not shirk her own language or mythology simply because some readers of hers may not recognize them. But that, I think, is just. I do not ask that everything I read be situated on my own grounds, and my sojourn in her strange and startling animal-world gave me plenty to think about on the subject of translation, both literary and cultural. Read this book while traveling.

Buy it from The University of Arizona Press: $15.95

Sally McCallum is from Tucson. She majors in French, English and Creative Writing at the University of Arizona and is currently an exchange student at the University of Paris 7 – Diderot. Her reviews of poetry and science fiction can be found at nonsunblog.

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