After•Word: Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth (Penguin Canada, 2018)

Lately I’ve been working hard to try and increase the range of my receptivity—to see hear sense and feel. There are sights sounds energies and beings that are trying to communicate with us all of the time, and I have been trying to make myself available. In sitting position I attempt to ascend up my body chakra by chakra inhaling the energies aligned with that chakra. I try to dissolve the back boundary of my body when lying on the earth so as feel myself part of it. Practicing Tai Chi I aspire to feel gravity pulling me down and at the same time to draw energy up from the earth through my feet.

As a writer, I have acquired a set of practices designed to disable the logical linear mind—including writing in a closet to the recital of a dense scientific tract. As a reader, I’ve been inclined lately  toward essays and books in which trees and whales and fungi are protagonists, taking in the entanglement of my life with all other lives. I have eaten magic mushrooms and ingested other plant medicines in the hopes of absorbing more of this knowing of deep mycelial bondedness. I have paid devoted attention to my dreams where human logic and boundaries and borders are never respected.

Still—I am a settler and I live in a settler’s body. This has never been impressed upon me more powerfully than in the course of reading Inuit writer and throatsinger Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth. I was going to write “Tagaq’s memoir” except it’s not a memoir, really. It’s full of poetry and also of events that could never have actually happened. Yet clearly it is her own life she is writing about.

I have been awestruck, humbled, and yes sent into fits of envy by this book. It’s the writing, but in this case the writing is inseparable from how and what the writer is receiving/perceiving/feeling.  Transparent as ice, it seems to be there purely to transmit to us what she knows as a result.  And what she knows is: Underneath the ice there are currents just as surely as there are currents in the wind.

Also: The Ocean Ice can hold so much. Ice prevents decay.

Lichen smells sweet. The green lichen smells different from black. In the spring you smell last falls death and this years growth, as the elder lichen shows the young how to grow.

When flesh is eaten live, you glean the spirit with the energy. That is why wild predators are so strong. The farther away you get from the time of death, the less energy meat carries.

We are the land. Same molecules, same atoms.

Tagaq’s knowing is physical… At times it’s a lesson in physics: Sound is its own currency. Sound is a conductor to a realm we cannot totally comprehend. Sound can heal. Sound can kill.

It is cosmological: The simple truth is we are simply an expression of the energy of the sun. We are the glorious manifestation of the power of the universe.

The knowing in this book is quantum; it’s an embodiment of cosmologist Brian Swimme’s assertion that, “Each child is situated in that very place and is rooted in that very power that brought forth all the matter and energy of the universe.”*

There are secrets hidden in our flesh. Our cells being born and dying with the same force that makes galaxies form and deconstruct.

“In a culture where cosmology is living,” Swimme writes, “children are taught by the Sun and Moon, by the rainfall and starlight, by the salmon run and the periwinkle’s hideout. It has been so long since we moderns have lived in such a world, it is difficult to picture.”* Tanya Tagaq has grown up in such a world. Her teachers have been sun, moon, snow, ice, tundra and Northern Lights.

The Northern lights enter her body so deeply she conceives children. They are born with green saliva. In this realm there are no strict borders between fact and myth and magic. And dream. For all we know the entire book is a dream. It would be no less real for that.

Sun grows strong as Earth turns to face her. She gives you life, and hope. North is in love with Sun. North is in love with the Life she brings. Open your legs and she will give you a birth. Open your mouth and she will pour flowing light down your throat.

At the same time this writer is broken. She has demons. Feels unsalvageable. She was raped by strangers in her own bed as a child. She knows shame. Has felt unworthiness to the hilt. Beat me. I deserve it. Blacken my eyes so they reflect what I see from the inside. Break my ribs. Kick me.

If the Northern sun gives life, and hope, the dark night can breed death and despair. Tagaq comes to know the darkness as intimately as deeply as the light. She is forced to kill what she birthed and loves with all her heart. Still, amazingly, she refuses to go numb. We are the fingertips of the force that drives the stars, so do your job and FEEL…..

In this journal’s “How Do We Know” Part I (issue #10), Lee Maracle writes: “When Native people say ‘I,’  we mean the significant ‘I,’ the I … in communion with lineage (and whose lineage seeks solidarity with the outside world—which includes flora, fauna et al.)…” The “I” of Split Tooth is such an I: one who dreams of a common language with all life on earth, as well as with ancestors and the not-yet-born. Who knows we are shaped by everything around us, that we are so much bigger than we have ever been taught or allowed to imagine. That the great web is no metaphor but radical abiding all-pervading fact. Nothing is linear except the products of our civilized minds.

We are a product of the immense torque that propels this universe. We are not individuals but a great accumulation of all that lived before. They are with us. They lift us. We will lift them later.

I have known my children before. They have always been with me. They are me. Loneliness does not exist.

How do we know. From body from earth from light from dark from longtime intimacy with these realms. To read this book is to understand how estranged we settlers are from the most primary ways of knowing, the most primary sources.

These ways of knowing do not belong to anyone; they are our birthright. We’ve been cheated of them. Our lives are impoverished as a result. We are so much less alone than we think. The universe is speaking to us all the time. We have to learn to listen. Split Tooth is a book that can help us.

About the Author

Lise Weil, editor of Dark Matter, was founder and editor of the US feminist review Trivia: A Journal of Ideas (1982-1991) and co-founder of its online offshoot Trivia: Voices of Feminism, which she edited through 2011 ( Her memoir, In Search of Pure Lust (She Writes Press, U.S., Inanna Press, Canada) was winner of an IPPY award and finalist for an International Book Award. She lives in Montreal and teaches in Goddard College’s Graduate Institute, where she recently helped found a concentration in Embodiment Studies.

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