From Ancestors and Species

This extract evokes first days at Point Hope, Alaska, August 1973.

A mist had come in and sunlight ran
in shafts and pieces through it.

Then rising on the Point ahead
was an arch of whale’s jaw-bones,

two mandibles curving
againstgrey, half-hidden tundra.

The bones faced one another,
and their broad ellipse narrowed

at the high point without touching,
but stood open, enclosing in their tension

a long framed view,
through which, as I circled,

the village, sea and tundra,
were rotated: the tips of the uprights

vanishing in mist as though,
where it drifted in the sky between them,

the dead whale’s vapour hung suspended:
breathed out to the faces of past hunters and women.

At the jaws’ root in the long pale grasses
were three sets of tripods fixed waist-high:

whale ribs lashed in a ritual grouping,
where the skin-toss game

to celebrate successful whale hunts
was held in the spring time.

Then as I stood, I saw blow in
the flock of whimbrel.

There were eight, perhaps ten.
Streaked, mottled and lean-legged,

arched beaks drawing them
from somewhere they’d been feeding,

bills airily balanced
with the whale bone archways,

and cumbrously perched in calm
on their migration, they lifted and fell

slowly, in exchange of places
between jaws and tripods.

I counted again. There were eight birds –
nine, then twelve, now eleven –

enlarged and then shrouded
by fog in their plumage.

The wind dropped
and I heard them whistle,

gauntly piping, one to another,
a bleak call, but not scolding

as gulls and terns do, nor like
kittiwakes’ incesssant weeping.

So they shuffled, fluttered,
appearing to flounder,

air to whale bone,
dropping

one, and then another,
shuttling their pattern,

and jumping across,
they wavered – idle slightly –

restless, in some exercise
of voyaging or ritual,

the purpose
of their long migration

and this point of repose here
inexplicit.

*

‘I’ve broken my tooth’ said Uqpik later that day
as we met in the morning at the Co-op checkout.
‘Are you going outside to see a dentist?’
‘No, I mean the polar bear.’

‘On frozen meat? I didn’t know you ate it quaq [1].
‘The bear. She broke it. Maybe Asatchaq heard me.
He was sitting on a pressure ridge, and he listened to that nanuq.
She was talking to herself because her tooth was busted.

Didn’t you know I am a polar bear?’
‘I didn’t. And you’re not a woman are you?’
‘No. But I had one last week. It was my birthday.
Piece of ass from Silavik!’

The kinks snarled sharply and then came unknotted.
He emerged from the story.
Asatchaq’s cassette, scrolled crisply in its spindle
froze and went silent.

‘That uqaluktuaq [2],’ I started, ‘of the hunter and the polar bear
with tooth-ache…’ ‘We don’t listen much to those now,’
he reported, as if forwarding a message
from his middle generation who had known them from their elders,
then disburdened themselves from the stress of too much ownership.
‘Let the old man tell you. I won’t tell you.
By the way,’ he continued, ‘how many poems have you written?’
And then: ‘Here’s one of mine. It’s for you and about you.’

Tom Lowenstein came to Point Hope.
He went down to the beach.
He looked up at the sky.
Sea gull shit in his eye.

No sooner had Uqpik tuned his lyric,
to thus garland the honky [3]
with ironic laurel,
than his rebus became public.
The bird shit in my eye
was on everybody’s tongue,
and was shaking their tonsils:
the old folks most severely,
they were heaving,
and the smokers had the worst of it,
bent in the P.O or the Co-op
far as their arthritic joints would let them,
crippled to the thorax,
sputum erupting, desisting at last
with low weak tee hee-s
as Uqpik applied to his latest consumer.

Years later I saw the man’s mercury still running
when for Piquk’s dog-team,
on a nasty, darkening March afternoon,
they cut together snowblocks,
and piled them in a semi-circle for a windbreak:
and suddenly, the construction done,
he grabbed some antlers.
They were lying in the general clutter,
and he raised them to crown his hat and hood-ruff.

I was sorting ropes and harness
and glanced up through the snow drift
to see his hat and thick black glasses,
horns raised above them,
cheek-bones queerly twisted,
and under the antlers, the Inupiaq laughter.

Then he started to dance
among the dogs there –
dug now well into their cover –
hands cupped on ears,
antlers branching from the deer-skull,
the rack swaying vertically
as Uqpik slanted.

It was simply a gag and didn’t go on.
He chucked off the horns
in a heap of rubbish.
Nor might I have noticed some other joker.
And yet here,
in allusion, his geste, a footnote merely,
was spirit life as sketched at Trois Freres or at Mas d’Azil [4]:

the strutting biform – mixtumque genus [5]
in joking shamanistic evocation,
casually abandoned for tea and seal meat
and something dry, in Piquk’s cabin,
to de-mist his glasses with.

It was this Inupiaq, but perhaps not him only,
in the cycle of lives he picked up and discarded,
who slotted in and then disordered
the shifting selves of surface and sub-surface persons:
where otherwise the continuity?
It was atiq on atiq [6]
juggling of future and past portrait dance-masks,
cached into packs of infinitely branching series –
a deep, violently cold larder –
shells of their faces stacked together,
foreheads of life ‘One’ pleated in the next version’s fissure:
weren’t they brittle and transparent?
Or was this spirit-skin more pliant
down here that they nourished,
each face fitted into strictly knitted kinship links,
and not free to disaffiliate,
or drift to resorts of their own volition,
improvised bearings and upside-downness [7]?
‘Can I borrow your cheeks?’ Uqpik went off joking.
‘Mine are frozen.’

Those were rigid constellations
And the spaces between were ordained, unmoving.
Come and go you did not.
There was time in it there, with its limits and anxieties:
The forebears at large within the system:

An anterior medium, collective nekuia,
Down where finite populations travelled:
Webbed strings lit, intermittent,
And where meat, work, games
And procreation drove originating passages.

Rebirth came. It was repeated.
The reprises were foreseen: enchanted advents
Taken care of by habituation. All were
Involved always, and the involution spiraled
In a circle of repeated faces, softly figured,

Coalescent one with another,
As though features – colluding
In the long exchange of plane and angle,
The measure of a jaw, the set of cheek-bones
Or the clear range of a forehead –

Might shift and return, transform at the touch
Of sudden but predictable extra-consanguinity,
Wither in old age, go out, and then return
As though previously uncompounded,
And new semblances wrest, recalling

Patterns long forgotten,
Yet recurrently familiar
As collaborative life forms:
Past and future compassed in the present,
Circling each generation.

‘Those polar bears know me,’ Uqpik went on, later.
I’m not afraid of them. But they all know me.
Once I went out with Agniin, my sister.
We were on the sea ice – straight out there,’
pointing to the north side, towards Cape Lisburne.
‘Where’s your rifle?’ asked my sister.
‘I don’t need a rifle. Those polar bears know me.’
So we went out further. Came to an ice pile.
‘There’s a polar bear behind that ice,’ I told her.
She believed me. She knew hunting.
Then I shouted to it. Called out loudly.
Polar bear was sleeping maybe.
Then we heard its feet on the snow. And grunting, breathing.’
‘Come on,’ said my sister. She wanted to go home now.
‘It won’t eat you. I’ll tell it not to eat you.’
Then that nanuq came round. It was quite a big one.
Mean and skinny. Sick, I guess. Hungry.
It’d been in a fight. Got hurt by a walrus,
maybe in its belly. That’s when I started.
‘Don’t eat her!’ I shouted.
‘Come and eat me!’ ‘Arii!’ said my sister. She was scared by this time.
‘When it’s eaten me, it’ll have you for its supper.’
She turned her back and started to walk home.
‘All right,’ I told the nanuq. It could understand my language.
‘That’s my sister. I will follow.
She doesn’t like you. But I’ll come back later.’
Damn’ if that nanuq didn’t walk back behind me.
I stopped a while and tried to help it.
‘Go and get yourself some seal meat.
Then I’ll come and find you.’


[1] Raw frozen.

[2] Ancestor story.

[3] Black American term for white man used in the village.

[4] Palaeolithic cave sites. The allusion, at Trois Freres, is to a horned male dancer, sometimes known as ‘the sorcerer’.

[5] Said of the minotaur’s ‘mixed species’, Aeneid 6.25. I’ve kept the here non-grammatical suffix
-que to keep the phrase intact.

[6] Literally ‘name’, but here also ‘namesake’. Atiq was a soul component which was reborn into a child of the same name.

[7] Upside-downness was a symbol of primordial chaos.


 

A drawing by Joe Omnik, aged 10, of Tom Lowenstein playing Bach on viola, Point Hope 1975.

A drawing by Joe Omnik, aged 10, of Tom Lowenstein playing Bach on viola, Point Hope 1975.

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