"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
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,
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 firstperson
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
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 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
I remember cleaning smeared smelt off my
to catch mirror-back salmon, fins spread, heading
nosing up the river to spawn in eclipse water when
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 earthcentered
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.