By dg nanouk okpik; Wave Books, 2022; 79 pages; $18
“In the Current Where Drowning is Beautiful”
By Abigail Chabitnoy; Wesleyan University Press, 2022; 95 pages; $25/$15.95/$12.99
Our former U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo has written, “The literature of the aboriginal people of North America defines America. It is not exotic. The concerns are particular, yet often universal.” New collections from two poets rooted in Inupiaq and Unangan/Sugpiaq cultures bring into the light an America that has too seldom been recognized.
An Inupiaq poet, dg nanouk okpik’s family is from Utqiagvik. She was raised in Anchorage by an Irish-German adoptive family and currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her first poetry book, “Corpse Whale” (2012), won the American Book Award, and her latest, “Blood Snow,” is longlisted for another national award.
In “Blood Snow,” okpik draws heavily from her Inupiaq heritage and experiences in the north. The voice — sometimes a she/I, sometimes I, sometimes inhabiting animals, sometimes speaking from within mythological time or a heightened awareness — references injuries to lives, cultures, and the Earth itself. The poems, often oblique, bear some sitting with, to allow the rich imagery and connections to flow within and between them. Blood and water frequent the pages — both in literal manifestations of the northern world and more metaphorically.
“Physical Thaw,” for example, begins with “I taste/Berries and roots/Polar cap, ice melt,/Swamp algae,/moose tracks” and images of drips through moss and over rocks. Then “it reminds me of,/my collapsed veins,” an IV dripping, bodily frost, and “thaw under sunbaked/paper birch peelings/I peel back the blood loss/of sunbaked leaves above…”
Several poems speak directly to climate warming and its effects. “Anthropocene Years” tours through a number of specific northern locations — Cape Lisburne, Kaktovik, and on around the circumpolar north. The narrator checks her compass: “Wherever it is it’s warm.” Three poems about polar bears, involving open water and floating carcasses, play off one another, alternately positioning the narrator as both “neck snapped” by the bear and the one doing the neck snapping. “Skinny Boned Bear” ends with “Bones on inner ice/Melt water tears reflected/No ice, no seal sharks.”
In okpik’s powerful “When the Mosquitoes Came,” elements of the natural world are brought together with historic and cultural matters. It begins in a time when mosquitoes, previously absent, arrived in the north, “the swarm dark and clouded.” A few lines later we find “Adoption was forced, fought over with words exchanged,/mostly big, large words.” The adopting outsiders (“Military action, do-gooders, the church, the takers of blood-kin”) are called “the mosquito people.” The narrator recalls a time when, being bitten by mosquitoes, she squeezed her own flesh in a way that overfilled the insects with blood and exploded them.
Abigail Chabitnoy’s award-winning previous poetry collection, “How to Dress a Fish,” speaks of her great-grandfather’s experience at an Indian boarding school and the legacy of our country’s boarding school policy. A Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, who grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives and teaches in Massachusetts, Chabitnoy’s new collection centers on violence against Indigenous women and the land.
“In the Current Where Drowning is Beautiful” is divided into five sections all related to ocean waves. The poems depend greatly on their physical arrangements on the page, making use of complex structures and multiple voices. Narratives from the lives and histories of Indigenous people are interwoven with references to endangered, missing, and murdered women of our own time.
As with okpik’s “Blood Snow, Chabitnoy’s poems benefit from multiple readings and from noticing the recurring references and themes. The title poem, for example, is difficult to grasp until it’s seen in context with the rest. It addresses someone named Nikifor, who reappears as a relative elsewhere. Waves, ships, and ghostly deaths surface throughout the title poem and elsewhere as both literal historical references and metaphors for present-day dangers.
“Palinode,” a poem “in conversation with” a painting by Unangan artist Thomas Stream, includes images of dead birds and ghosts, boats in a sea full of fish, and women thrown overboard. Stream’s historical reference, we learn from a note in the back, is an incident in 1762 when Unangan girls were thrown from a Russian ship to drown. The painter had the girls’ spirits becoming birds. Chabitnoy presents something less beautiful — wings lost, bodies sunk.
One of Chabitnoy’s longer poems, “How It Goes,” includes italicized names of women as well as stories of separated immigrant families. Numbers record “the latest counts” of those who have been — in footnotes — separated, detained, missing, and murdered; this is immediately followed by “colonies of birds are already in decline, cite predation” — with another footnote clarifying “massacred.” References to what might be an origin story about deer with “large teeth and no horns” are interwoven with images of girls being thrown from a boat to become witches and the phrase “how it goes.” The long source note at the end sheds light on the poem’s origin, including the “how it goes” statement attributed to the teenager who, in 2019, confronted a Native American elder in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Chabitnoy follows that thread to the theft of land, children, and identities. In an echo of okpik’s personal story of adoption, Chabitnoy, in her note, condemns the adoption of Indigenous children by white families prior to the passage of the Indigenous Child Welfare Act and the ongoing violence against Indigenous and other nonwhite people.
Both poets incorporate words and phrases from their Indigenous languages — okpik without translation and Chabitnoy with. Either way, the musicality and meaning are brightened by this inclusion. These two collections are very welcome additions to Indigenous, American, and global poetry.