dg nanouk okpik’s Corpse Whale

Reviewed by Dorine Jennette

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Corpse Whale, by dg nanouk okpik
Corpse Whale
Poems by dg nanouk okpik
University of Arizona Press, 2012
112 Pages
ISBN 978-0816526741
Have you ever noticed how many poetry collections labeled experimental or daring or innovative by their jacket blurbers are anything but? Here’s good news for you: surprises abound in Corpse Whale, the new collection by dg nanouk okpik. An Alaskan Native of Inupiat-Inuit descent, okpik sets Corpse Whale in Alaska. The location is one of the reliable excitements of okpik’s poems, which offer lines like “We lying in the onyx rain    by garnet-cloaking icebergs” and “Alders twitch ~ from gales of bellow-winded ice-spray:” [1] Moreover, Alaska forms these poems’s center of gravity, grounding their farther-flung elements—for okpik merges multiple times, persons, and types of beings (human, plant, animal) in speakers whose identities defy usual (Western, English-language) understandings of the possible. As okpik juxtaposes her wildly simultaneous speakers against the constant presence(s) of the landscape, she develops a lyric sensibility that feels constant in its presence, as well, so that Corpse Whale acquires the feel of one voice speaking through many mouths. Okpik overlaps pronouns, times, places, and creatures to build a layered consciousness that delivers an invigorating read.

As a collection, Corpse Whale is organized not only by setting, but by chronology, via a series of poems named for the months of the Inuit year. This is a delightfully paradoxical move, since the book’s individual poems undermine linear chronology: okpik’s pieces invoke events of the distant past, the near past, the present, and the future as though they are occurring simultaneously. For example, “Paniqsiqsiivik: March” begins in the present: “March moon: She is/I am hanging seal ~ and bleaching caribou skins ~ Ugruk: spotted seal lying in a pile.” Yet as the work progresses, eventually the speaker is describing “my mummified face with a bone nose ring ~ ribbon seal bags sewn from flipper to flipper.” In these and subsequent lines, maybe the speaker is describing the feeling of becoming an ancestor hanging seal, or maybe the speaker is describing the seal in human-sounding terms. It’s not entirely clear whether the boundaries between times are collapsing, or whether the boundaries between human and animal are collapsing, or both, but in any case, the boundaries of “normal” daily reality (at least, in the Western industrialized world) are blurring or have disappeared, and linear time becomes irrelevant.

While okpik’s individual poems subvert linear time, the chronological arrangement of the collection as a whole echoes classic pastoral works such as Spenser’s eclogues in The Shepheardes Calender, which offers a poem for each month. Unlike Spenser’s and other eclogues, however, okpik’s book does not stage a dialogue between rustics for purposes of critiquing contemporary society, art, etc.; the poems in Corpse Whale offer visceral experiences, not exercises in persuasion. Yet those visceral experiences are created by okpik relocating the eclogue’s traditional dialogue so that conversations move inside her multivoiced speakers. Thus, in Corpse Whale, the eclogue’s traditional characters—shepherds, nymphs, animals, landscape elements—change shape twice: 1) they transform to their Alaskan equivalents of seal, whale, bear, hunter, gatherer, shaman, and then 2) they go internal, and speak all at once.

From the collection’s first poem, “Siqinq: Sun January,” okpik introduces the speaker “she/I,” neither a third- nor a first-person character, but both at once. In this piece, the “she/I” speaker addresses her/their mother: “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.” Mothers are frequently addressed and referenced in this collection, and adoption is a major theme: the first poem begins, “Earth = Mother = Adopted = Blood = ~ Raven in the midnight sun.” Sometimes “she/I” addresses her/their mother, and sometimes “she/I” seems to be a speaker formed of a mother-daughter pair. Sometimes “she/I” could be either a primary and an alternate self, or a mother-daughter pair, as in “Riding Samna’s Gyrfalcon”:[2]


Over glacier            salmon-pink spires,
                she/I feel/s old and young
                                              both like a lost
 mother or found    earth                        girl child
                chasing tracks of aged caribou
                                              and avalanche rivers.

Other forms of multivoicedness crop up in Corpse Whale when the spirit world and the human world overlap, or when the animal world and the human world overlap. In “Riding Samna’s Gyrfalcon,” for example, the speaker adopts a falcon’s vision: “She/I dream/s in flight with falcon. ~ She/I glide/s in an Inuit ice shelf ~~ through cobalt haze, ~ then down to the beluga’s tail.” Throughout Corpse Whale, often human/animal overlaps and human/spirit overlaps are made to overlap each other, as spirits arrive in animal form. For example, in the prose poem “Spirit World,” the speaker says, “I will settle down to give you this tight bundle of charts and maps to find me not in unnatural shapes, but in bear grease . . . in a seal effigy . . . to thank whale people for oxygen.” And human-animal or spirit-human simultaneities are often presented within overlapping layers of time, such as


Her/my songs call shadows
                                                           to lie sideways
 and shamans to sway
                               in the northern tilt
                                            of ten thousand years of ease.  

The English language’s usual distinctions between zones of space, time, and form-of-being are blurred, elided, or radically compressed again and again in this collection, often via a poem’s narrator speaking by or for multiple beings at once.

Corpse Whale also braids together layers of the indigenous cultural world with layers of the white colonial world, yielding a voice that speaks from both places. Sometimes such moments pass by quickly, as in “us with black hair, braided black like petroleum”: here the bodies of the “us” are synonymous with a sought-after product of the oil-hungry industrial West. Sometimes, such moments of indigenous-industrial overlap are more direct, as in the title poem, “Her/My Arctic: Corpse Whale”:


Her/my flouncing caribou            in dark moonlight are dodging              Bush laws.
Her/my Malamute                         trots in Arctic circles 
 before the midnight                                                 storm. 
 Her/my ringed seal barks             couplets of foreshadows                         in an oval

 with white columns and musty              yellowed law books.
 She/I keep/s paddling.

Throughout these poems, okpik’s speakers articulate multiple personas, sometimes of multiple species, across multiple times, occupying multiple cultural worlds.

In Corpse Whale, okpik has layered old Inuit land knowledge with an old English-language poetic mode to form something wholly new. From her we learn that “[f]amine reaches the stalked    earlier than the stalker.” We learn how to hunt a wolf by wrapping a spring-loaded dart in walrus blubber, then freezing it: “Thawing in the stomach, the dart springs…” In okpik’s hands, the English-language lyric’s usual associative distances are radically compressed, so that persons and animals are one, places are one, times are one. It is difficult to discuss separately time or space or form-of-being in Corpse Whale, as okpik renders all such boundaries fluid. Each poem is a plunge into deep water.


[1] Because the poems quoted in this review frequently include the slash (/) within their lines, line breaks in quoted poems are shown using the tilde (~).

[2] According to okpik’s “Loose Inuit Glossary,” Samna is “also known as Serpent Sedna; it means the one down there, not visible.”


Dorine Jennette is the author of Urchin to Follow. Her poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Verse Daily, The Journal, Puerto del Sol, and The Georgia Review. She is an editor of the American Poetry Journal. Originally from Seattle, she earned her Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. A freelance editor, she lives with her family in the Bay Area.

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