“A Living Testament”
dg nanouk okpik is Inupiaq, Inuit, and was raised by an Irish and German family in Anchorage, Alaska. Her family had oceanfaring boats and, growing up, she fished in many rivers, lakes, and seaports. As a poet, dg nanouk okpik wants to incorporate—to embody—Inuit mythology and worldview into finely crafted poems in English. She thus draws on her Inupiat heritage, but she is firmly rooted in the complexities, tensions, and challenges of our contemporary world. She writes with clarity—“she prepares // the poultice in the mortar bowl, / cotton grass, seal liver, rainwater”—and she frequently employs the image of a map as a way of locating oneself in the natural world:
The smell of wormwood,
on beach greens,
like a place name,
from a hand scribed map.
Yet, in locating herself, she often discovers she is in more than one place at the same time, and thus, a duality, or multiplicity, emerges:
Reaching toward sunlight night dusk,
in Icy Strait,
on Beartrack River,
or Rendu Inlet.
I am there and here—
In another poem, she posits the “there” and “here,” or two contrasting elements, more mythically: “This day is made of horned puffins and soothsayers.” This multiplicity of perspectives also involves multiple visions: “I seldom listen to only one voice.” And, ultimately, the multiple voices and visions have the consequence that “no longer can we do / one thing at a time.” Time, then, is not linear but synchronous. Within this time frame, it is possible for past, future, and present to co-exist, and this underlying conception of time strengthens the mythical elements in her work.
The frequent reliance on an “I,” with Whitmanic touches, also gives her poetry a mythic speaker’s vision and point of view. Although she infrequently shifts perspective through the lens of a “you” or “she,” her first-person speaker never feels like an egocentric “I.” Instead, it feels as if “I am just a hollow bone, a vessel through which the images and music blow”:
I roam in a sideslip of clouds,
I paint a sign used in music,
algebra, marking in the direction
of light-shadow, as if for a fossil record.
The idea of a poem as a “fossil record” is an intriguing one; but mere retrieval from the past is insufficient to fulfill the hunger of the speaker. The speaker searches for something ancient yet contemporary to find, in [Wallace] Stevens’s words, “what will suffice.” Here the words as if calibrate the possibility of a poem as a fossil record: the poem may resemble a fossil record, but instead of merely recording, the poem enacts a record of consciousness that leads to revelation. In section three of the sequence “For-The-Spirits-Who-Have-Rounded-The-Bend,” the poem enacts, through memory, a vision of salmon moving upstream in cosmological light:
I remember cleaning smeared smelt off my
hooks sharpening them
to catch mirror-back salmon, 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
Further sections of this poem follow, and I would note IIVAQSAAT refers to the souls of the deceased who are traveling around the bend of the cosmos making their way back to earth. Inuk is Inupiaq for a person, and Tagoona is the name of an old Inuit who was also an ordained Anglican priest.
dg okpik is always in pursuit of origins, but she writes an earth-centered poetry with urgency and with a flair for conflating the natural world with the mythic world of creation. If her poems are lyrical, and laden with evocative, mysterious imagery, they are also nuanced and calibrated with shifting levels of diction. She is a poet just beginning to find the language that can actualize her mythic mapping and search for a living testament of history.