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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Edmund Hardy reviews

Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry
by Tom Lowenstein

152pp. Shearsman Books. £9.95 / $16. 10 0907562744 / 13 9780907562740. Paperback

This review is about 4 printed pages long.

Jigsaw and Dialogue

Lowenstein’s ethnographic work was conducted among Inuit in Tikigaq, Point Hope, Alaska, beginning in 1973. Lowenstein was a non-scholar who arrived “with the mildly confused intention both of recording traditional stories and writing a long poem in the open field idiom.” A mild confusion with immediate precedents: Dorn among Shoshoneans; Olson from Maya fisheries to Gloucester. The one long poem did not emerge. Instead, Lowenstein pursued a variety of ethnographic writing: prose essays on subsistence, the vitality of myth, and topographical detail, mixed with different forms of ethnographic poem. One idea which recurs throughout Lowenstein’s work is that of “lying under”: layers of accretions, the archaic and ancient shuttling through the contemporary, “accelerated, / concentrated bundles”. It is an idea of time as embodied, “joints and ligatures”, shackled together, disassembling in the present moment but conceived of as a composite social world.

Ancestors and Species is in three sections, the first of which presents three poems from Filibustering in Samsara (1987). ‘Labrys’ dreams out across “the spaces of prehistory”, a “quasi-Palaeolithic dream-time”, a labrys being a double-headed axe, symbol of feminine power, but with an echo of labyrinths. We know a labyrinth is a form of ear and is made for listening: this one listens back, forty thousand years, to when the Bering land-bridge facilitated the spread of humans into the Americas, Lowenstein’s imagination cast into a paleoanthropological mode, a “quasi-Palaeolithic dream-time” which has absorbed the contemporary woman who speaks the poem:

Alternately we worshipped
    One and Many,
        following the great herds of species

until numbers with the ultimate
    were mingled,
        and we mated them

in round-dance, singing

Another way back to “archaic time” is presented in ‘La Tempesta’s X-ray’, prompted by the revelation of pentimento in Giorgione’s painting ‘La Tempesta’ – revealed by x-ray, a nude woman beneath the soldier, rectilinear forms behind the pastoral landscape, “an austere rectilinearity of conduits, / leading one / into another nowhere”. A non-historical time held between consciousness and “no no-consciousness”, and at one point an ethnographic pentimento of earlier human life: “the village of Tikigaq in a stubble of / nineteenth-century whalebone”. The poem’s long lines, broken into two or three steps, seem to show horizon behind horizon, or “vertebrae / of chiaroscuro”.

Whereas ‘Labrys’ and ‘La Tempesta’s X-ray’ were written looking back to Alaska from Europe, ‘Episode with Hawk and Shaman’ was written in situ. It presents a feverish encounter, a giddiness of finding that you, in this place, stand nowhere, or have no feet. Speaking Inupiaq is described in physical terms:

      the beautifully ordered verb-endings and intransitives
crackle on your tongue, feeding themselves down from their sparks
      into you, until the thorax is illuminated by the
contraption of the entire grammar, ablaze with its connective logic

These three poems form an ethnology of jump-cuts which allow us to track the stations of different speculative or research gazes.

A prelude, then, to the large central selection from Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (1993), Lowenstein’s book which is an assemblage – ethnography in the manner of drawing an ensemble or field of synecdoches from the immediately discursive or performative situation of fieldwork.

My effort has been to reconstruct an old [sacred] drama and to show how people lived within the structure of its poetic idea. Every ritual or subsistence act is a part of the ‘poem’ within whose sphere the community lived.

It is thick description attentive to its own mode of rendering “a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit”, in Geertz’ formulation of Ryle’s “thick” idea as it applies to anthropology. Lowenstein writes this thickness most clearly in ‘Spring: The Whale Hunt’, the longest of three selections from ‘The Ritual Year’, the latter half of Ancient Land: Sacred Whale. Of ‘The Whale Hunt’, Lowenstein writes:

This narrative poem [… ] contains a new kind of writing. Based partly on experience of the whale hunt and uqaluktuaq (ancestor histories), this poem contains a fictionalised story, a new uqaluktuaq which is infused with some of the folkloric ideas introduced earlier in the book.

Beginning with a call for the skinboat to wake up, this is the last piece in Ancient Land: Sacred Whale but it becomes the centrepiece of Ancestors and Species, one event in which the poet-ethnographer turns and turns, fittingly as the residence stability of the whale crews is the factor which creates the stability of the coastal village as a unit, a role not played by the caribou hunts inland. As with the other sections from ‘The Ritual Year’, prose description is interspersed with a dialogue between two fictional Inuit commentators, Asatchaq and Samaruna, and then a section of long-lined poetry breaks into this to form a third element, and the drama continues, taking its chorus forwards.

Sunk to its handle, the helmsman’s long blade stirs the current.
      They labour. They travel. Mush clouds in the water thicken.
The pack is moving. Their wake tumbles between ice-blocks.
      The inutuq breaches. ‘Ahead. There. By the mush-ice!’
The water heaps, then plunges the skinboat back and downward.
      Up-current, the whale emerges and rolls.
The men on the far side drive their blades through the torrent,
      the near three men, where the inutuq can hear them,
flatten their paddles to the skinboat’s belly.

As the whale breathes out, they slacken their paddles.
      The skin shuffles and drags. The beak grinds into ice-mush.
‘Young ice!’ Aana’s going to beat you!
      The men back-paddle. The harpooner reaches forward.

The long and “often artefactually packed lines” are “intended as verbal equivalents of Inuit tools, in particular multiply articulated objects such as harpoons, traps, fishing tackle and the elaborately reticulated different kinds of net used for catching fish, belukha dolphin and seal.” The long line can incorporate different pieces of rhythm, hooked, overlapping, disjointed, a parallel to subsistence tools, material ways in which a world is shaped and a human population can form a niche, “From passive places his imagination sprang a harpoon.” (Charles Olson, ‘Call me Ishmael’). For Lowenstein, the line speaks and enacts, the poem’s construction embodying a moving beyond language to the ‘poem’ of a human community, the trace of a step similar to Derrida’s remark, “The passage beyond language requires language or rather a text as a place for the trace of a step that is not (present) elsewhere.”

Section three of the book provides the title, ‘Ancestors and Species’, and is the new work here. It consists of passages from a narrative poem-in-progress drawn from the experiences of the original fieldwork but written three decades on. This supplements the work of Ancient Land: Sacred Whale by stepping back from the dramatic frame, deepening the previous work in the process, just as the earlier thought from ‘Episode with Hawk and Shaman’, “It is they who have come to investigate me”, becomes painful comedy in ‘The Children Call Across’ in which Lowenstein’s role among the local children is related:

I quite enjoyed my station as their wizard,
      dozing serenely in an acquiescence mesmerised
with the collective blank we shared together.
      At first everyone whispered; moved round with discretion,
guessed with each other where, like them, I was a native.
      They quizzed me of trees. If Eskimos could live in London.
Whether we had taaqsipak-s.Which animals ‘my people’ hunted.
      If you got qaaq, and how much it was.
They wanted to know about my mother: name and function.
      If I had a girl friend. And what kind, then?

Footnotes: taaqsipak-s — black people; literally ‘those who have become dark’' qaaq — marijuana; literally: the verb explode.

As the ethnographer appears, the traveller’s body is located as this final section of the book begins to approach a poetics in line with Victor Segalen’s “aesthetic of the diverse”, Segalen being an earlier intercultural-poet who also developed, for his final poems, a long-lined style. When James Clifford writes, “Segalen encounters doubles and reflections, but the mirrors are never perfect. A displacement occurs. By the end of his career the self, not the other, has become exotic”, this is also the trajectory Lowenstein follows in the work of this third section, as the drama of Ancient Land: Sacred Whale – part reconstruction, ethnography and retelling – is given a research context: sources, people, anecdotes. What shuttles back and forth in these encounters? When the poem is finished, what failures will cohere in its jig-saw and dialogue? These are open questions in this attempt at poetry written by one real person among others:

‘Now that you’ve eaten, aren’t you going to tell a story?
      I was sleepy from meat and I’d dozed at the table.
The shirt I’d bought in Fairbanks was abrasive.
      They were testing me now there was real meat inside me.
Did niqipiaq (‘real meat’) in certain doses, convert one to Inupiaq (‘a real person’).

Works Cited

Clifford, James. “A Poetics  of Displacement” in The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Derrida, Jacques. “At This Very Moment In This Work Here I am” trans. R. Berezdivin, in Re-Reading Levinas, ed. Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991

Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” in The Interpretation of Cultures. London: Fontana, 1993

Edmund Hardy curates the continually unrolling poetry magazine Intercapillary Space at