Dorine Jennette Reviews Corpse Whale, Poems by dg nanouk okpik
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:”  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”:
Over glacier salmon-pink spires, she/I feel/s old and young both like a lost mother or found earth girl child salvaged 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 tasting room 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.