On dg nanouk okpik

This article was originally published in issue 3.16 (Winter 2012)

I’ve just been reading dg nanouk okpik’s first manuscript, Corpse Whale, which will soon become a book. I first met dg (who is Inupiaq, Inuit) maybe six or seven years ago, when she took my summer workshop at Naropa. She was studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts (where I have had the good fortune of teaching a couple of times), and up for a summer scholarship at Naropa. I’ve met a number of super talented young Native poets this way (many of them mentored by Arthur Sze and Jon Davis), including Orlando White, Layli Long Soldier, and Jennifer Foerster.

In workshop, dg’s work reminded me of Niedecker’s, in its connection to a landscape and its condensation. But this manuscript is like nothing I’ve ever read before. There is the sheer surprise of the content, as in this passage detailing how to kill and carve a whale:

Here, brother watches and waits for
the correct time to strike,
right above the blowhole.
Here, it is a clean kill. Blood water all around us.
Here, a woman far away crying for the whale’s soul.

But, the men still heave to the beach

another day and a half. Pulling, winching,

pulling, dragging.

She/I cut opaque flesh and black meat with a jagged ulu,
carve muktuk, tie dark and  white ribbons on each

gunnysack to mark the body parts. She/I slice the dorsal
fin, give it to my brother for ceremony, barter a bag of
whalebones for fuel to heat the aged and chilled cement
There is something in that gesture of tying ribbons to gunnysacks to mark the body parts that is so specific in its knowledge, and unlike any knowledge I’ve encountered before, that completely rivets me.

The speaker of these poems is most often “she/I” — a multiplied self that is able to inhabit the contemporary (Quonset huts, DEW line, OPEC) moment, while casting forward and back in its stories, straddling various worlds.

she and I carry bird darts for the future stalk of okpik

dg’s poems don’t collapse time, they further Pound’s notion that “all times are contemporaneous in the mind,” so that all worlds and selves (the mythic self, the contemporary self, etc.) are coexistent. She somehow manages not to sequester time, but to reinvest the stories, animals and speaker(s) of her poems with it, as if it were an essence with its proper homes, not located in our notions of temporal locators, but in animate and inanimate things.

From “Salt Cedar on Kokonee at Susitna River”:

When the mud dried, black spruce culled
at the river’s lapse, I slouched over to fill my mouth-
the ice packed gorge flowed over my fingers.
I cupped then drank. Right hand first, left followed.
Is this the way to the earth?

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