After•Word: dg nanouk okpik’s Corpse Whale (The University of Arizona Press, 2012)

A few months ago I found a young coyote dead in the middle of the road. The coyote’s silver fur glistened with beads of mist, the bushy tail spread like a tawny fan on the asphalt. I touched her gray claws. They felt sharp as ice picks. Her jaw and upper palate, rimmed with a row of tiny, even ivory teeth and two incisors, lay askew. Yellow eyes looked up at me expectant—and I hoped she had died unaware of the impact. I lifted one back leg. A female. She was still warm. As I took her in my arms, the bruise from the underside of her shoulder bled onto my hands and the sleeves of my old denim jacket. I drew her close, her slender paws propped on my arms, her eyes gazing at the sky. As I carried her from the roadside and walked with her into the forest, I wept. I felt like I was holding my own child. 

I carried the coyote into the maple forest to find a place for her to rest. When I came to a small stand of hemlocks, I lay her beneath their shade and covered her with loose boughs. I sat with her, stroked her fur, spoke my love to her. As I left the woods, honored to have held her dead body, I was reminded of the corpse my body will become. I was reminded how these unanticipated moments become part of the fabric of a bigger, deeper story. Someone hits a young coyote with a car and leaves her in the road. Someone else lays her beautiful body beneath a tree. Someone is always being struck. Someone is always laying someone to rest. The life we live and the myth we make of it are one. As I got in my truck and turned the key in the ignition, I knew the coyote was me. I knew I was the coyote. We shared place, consciousness, and death. 

On the passenger seat was my backpack, and tucked inside was Inupiak Inuit writer dg nanouk okpik’s hauntingly beautiful poetry collection, Corpse Whale. As I drove with the young coyote’s spirit close at hand, I was comforted by the thought of okpik’s poems set in the Arctic and filled with stories and myths of the humans and animals who simultaneously embody and inhabit deep time and the present day. Inter-relationships with others—ancestral ghosts, narwhal, worms, “the ones in diaspora,” belugas, demons, stinkweed, willow, and raven—come together in the present and in the distant past.Time is not linear. In okpik’s poems, glaciers crack, thaw, and vanish. Snow falls, moons wax, flint sparks, oil spills near Valdez, a hunter freezes walrus blubber for his trap line, a seal speaks in a dream, and “hatching snowy owls claw and peck pink shells.”  The deep time of the Arctic is no less real for melting and slipping through her fingers or for the devastation of resource extraction. It is a place full of mystery, a source of nourishment, the texture of hope, a place of enduring myths. 

In Arthur Sze’s introduction to okpik’s collection, he says, “Past, present, and future co-exist,” as “the speaker of her poems is frequently locating and orienting.” Locating and orienting is the rhythmic dance of our bodies in this time on the planet as we lose places and species daily to extinctions, floods, fires, and wars. We are constantly recalibrating. 

To explore this recalibration, okpik creates multiple narrative consciousnesses to give voice to the people, places, and species who live in the Arctic, coupled with an intriguing use of both first- and third-person person points of view. Images from the Arctic landscape—past and present—create the emotional depth of her poems. Because it is so rich and layered, I love spending time with this collection of poetry. 

In the poem that gives the collection its title, “Her/My Arctic/Corpse Whale,” the voices are in a kayak, paddling through layers of colonial destruction:

                                       She/I was forged by sea salt
by snow  hammered                   into iron ore                 red herring.
While she’s/I’m paddling           another floating corpse,
A spotted human pelt                        a narwhal is passing
                            A turquoise iceberg.
Of plucked                bones of ivory              with spiral blood         stained ribbons
reduced        to a single         tusk.          She/I pass/es,             and keep/s paddling,
In a sea with gray          and choppy           scarlet walls of water. 
Our carnage fuel oil              wicks in lighted igloos
On polar seaboard                       next to washed up
empty              blue-green coke bottle

The she/I construction reminds us that we cannot extricate or separate ourselves from the past— or from those who will live in the future. The body’s way to wholeness necessitates that we ground ourselves in the lives and experiences of others, as well as in the places where we live. The structure for this 100-page collection of continual locating and orienting in the past, present, and future is the wheel of the year and the cycles of the moon. At the beginning of each of the book’s twelve sections, okpik gives us a  poem for the month—with the Inuit name of the month’s moon, and characteristics of that month in the Arctic. As our known landscapes and seascapes shift, the cycles of the moon remain constant, and okpik does well to remind us to anchor ourselves there. 

The poem for January begins with a possible reference to okpik’s origin story as an Inupiak Inuit raised by an Irish and German family in Anchorage:

Raven in the midnight sun…
Siqinyasaq tatqiq: Moon of the Coming
Sun Itqaaq: to recall and re-tell events
From long ago when cormorants flew on
The ice surfaces of sand…

From the very beginning of the collection, we are reminded that our bodies are capable of being simultaneously in the present and in the past, deeply connected with the ancestors, animals, and events that we keep alive in our memories and imaginations. Winter is the time of storytelling, and a fitting place to open the collection. 

The poem continues:

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…  
Sixteen years later, she/is I/
am here cutting her/my thighs, bloodletting
in the mirror, praying to raven for light.

 As is true in all myths, the landscapes in this collection are both literal and emotional. The myths of Inupiak culture, the brokenness of the contemporary world and the human body as the place of cultural pain are all evoked in this opening poem and a quarter of the way through the collection in “Drying Magma Near Illiamna:”

They said, the men in black cloaks will mutilate our known selves
Our bull walrus amulets        snort      and turn placid
as our screams 
of lightning pass.

Okpik’s poems continually remind us that destruction of place is the destruction of ourselves and the grandmothers, kingfishers, belugas, ice bears, ravens, water ouzels, and caribou that live on the planet with us. “Days of Next Yesterday”follows the intensity of “Drying Magma Near Illiamna” and offers lines of solace when the heaviness of the world threatens to overwhelm:

When she/I feel/s the weight    of plastered walls
brick doors closing heavy
               windows slamming
she/I likes/s to crawl into an igloo           chute tunnel to the center 
of snow

I could probably remove the blood stains of the dead young coyote from my denim jacket, and though I have laundered the coat a few times, the stains remain, faded as roses against the worn blue cotton. The truth is, I want the stains to remain, a reminder of the young coyote whose life was cut short on this land where we both live. She walked where I walk, hunted where I collect oyster mushrooms, and was birthed by a mother who was likely hunting in the forest on the late October morning her offspring was killed by a car. The waning moon was setting, the autumnal equinox long past. Winter hovered on the horizon as I felt the breath of the coyote leaving and not leaving, dying and living her real and mythic life. The closing lines from okpik’s poem “Suvluravik Tatqiq: May” capture that feeling perfectly:

Do you feel her in me 
mother? We are one. These are
not peregrine falcon eggs
smeared on a microscope slide;
it is me/him as a creeper
or water worm sharpening 
the ice core.

About the Author

Anne Bergeron is a writer, teacher, and healing arts practitioner  who lives among the trees in eastern Vermont. She tends gardens and raises chickens for eggs and sheep for wool on an off-grid homestead she built with her husband, where they share their lives with two delightful huskies. Her poems and essays appear in previous issues of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, as well as Flyway: A Journal of Writing and Environment, The Hopper, The Dark Mountain Project, and several issues of Blueline Magazine. She views writing, teaching, gardening, and fiber arts as joyful regenerative practices for the earth.

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