Header image  
Litter Home Page

John Welch

Review: 'Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry' by Tom Lowenstein. (Shearsman Books, £9.95)

"The poems in this volume", writes Tom Lowenstein in his introduction, "have all emerged from ethnographic work in Northwest Alaska and come from three separate periods of writing spread over thirty years". In 1993 Bloomsbury published Lowenstein's "Ancient Land: Sacred Whale". Subtitled "The Inuit Hunt and Its Rituals" this account of Eskimo life on the Peninsula of Tikiraq in Alaska focussing on the traditional whale hunt was narrated largely in verse, interspersed with prose sections giving background material. At the time, it attracted some very favourable reviews, in the London Review of Books and elsewhere. But one is struck by the fact that it was reviewed by critics who by and large, did not otherwise write about poetry, and in the poetry magazines the book went largely unacknowledged. It is not as if Lowenstein didn't have a track record. His first book publication had been a collection of translations of Eskimo poetry, made from the versions of the Danish originally collected by Rassmussen; this appeared from Allison and Busby in 1973 at about the same time as his fieldwork in Alaska was getting under way. The first collection of his own poetry to appear, "The Death of Mrs Owl", came out from Anvil in 1977, and in 1978 The Many Press (and here, as the press's founder perhaps I should declare an interest) brought out "Filibustering in Samsara". It is as if, when the Bloomsbury book appeared, people where not quite sure where to place these texts.

In "Ancestors and Species" Lowenstein has made a collection of material on this theme that combines a generous selection from "Ancient Land: Sacred Whale" and three passages from "Filibustering in Samsara" with a substantial amount of uncollected work.

"My effort", he writes in the Introduction, "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 part of the 'poem' within whose sphere the community lived. Local stories embody their own poetry. My own contribution is simply an attempt to encapsulate or interpret in a Western idiom experience which may lie under or parallel to the narrative genre". There is a significant tradition in America of poets engaging with anthropology. Dorn's involvement with native American traditions for instance, and Olsen's work in Maya hieroglyphs, while the poet Jerome Rothenberg founded Alcheringa to make these links. Writing on Lowenstein in Poets on Writing (MacMillan 1992) Martin Thom, setting his work in this context, writes of "Lowenstein's visionary sense of primordial human culture":

"The complete reconstruction of another society's view of person and thing, order and disorder, is a laborious task, which demands all the local pieties and fastidiousness of the philologist and archivist. Yet the will to reconstruct and the force of the radiating image run up in the mind, give the enquirer second life. This is the particular wonder of this line of work...

There is that sense of sudden and miraculous encounter one finds in Rasmussen, which seems to me to be common both to the texture of the social life and to myth. There is too a constant return to themes of ecstatic dissolution and reconstitution, anchored in the detail of spirit-possession and shamanistic vocation..."

One such "miraculous encounter" is described thus:

Suddenly you realise that the young man standing near to you is a shaman.
"Irigii! Angatkuq ilvin! (You're a shaman. I am frightened!)"
you murmur, speaking in Eskimo,
with its uvular stops and slashed I's
and its long linked polysynchretic organisation
of morphemes,
stringing together, as you continue, the intricate tackle of the language,
like a sequence of bound fish-hooks
to their baleen and sinew leaders:
the beautifully-ordered verb-endings and intransitives
crackle on your tongue, feeding down from their sparks
into you, until the thorax is illuminated by the
contraption of the entire grammar, ablaze with its connective logic.
The young angatkuq tands gazing at the plovers.
"I wonder what it's like, right now," he mutters,
"up there cheeping in the broad heaven?"
And at at once his mind is flocked with the migrants,
dissolving his bones in a wide, airy circle
leaving his skin with us.
"It is they who have come to investigate me",
you realise after a slow interval,
"setting their camp-house in my path
in the knowledge that I would discover them".

The hunter-gatherers of Tikiraq are one of those groups representing the last of the Palaeolithic. It is as hunter-gatherers that homo sapiens evolved and it's worth remarking that it is as a such that we have existed for the larger part of our time on the planet. The Inuit have always engaged people's imaginations in a special way - see for instance Kipling's story Quiqern in the second Jungle Book published in 1895:

"The people of the Southern Ice, they trade with the whaler's crew;
Their women have many ribbons, but their tents are torn and few,
But the people of the Elder Ice, beyond the white man's ken -
their spears are made of the narwhal horn, and they are the last of the Men!"

To grasp at the very last of this before it disappears totally and attempt to reconstitute it is surely an important part of our humanity. In Lowenstein's work this work of rescue and reconstitution is represented above all by the figure of Asatchaq from whom he collected traditional stories. In a prose section Lowenstein describes his opening encounter with the old man, now living in an old people's home in Fairbanks:

"Inupiaq, Yup'ik, Gwitchin, Koyukuk, Tlingit, Ingalik, Aleutic. Most of Alaska's natives, Eskimo and Indian, are represented here, living out their final days in virtual silence. Stranded in their rooms and in front of the TV, the old folk sit, in thrift-store shirts and trousers, like a patchwork map of tribes from a country the size of France and Scandinavia, and whose people, in their far-flung river and coastal villages, seldom meet each other except when they come to be cured of white men's diseases, or to die in comfort and isolation."

I call his name and Asatchaq half-rises, casts around for his slippers and adjusts his watch-strap. Then, straight-backed and in quizzical anticipation, he recruits his awareness and extends a muscular right hand which grips mine softly. I think later of the work this hand has accomplished. The tons of meat, blood and fat it has harpooned, lifted, hauled, skinned and butchered. the nets and rifles, slings, snares, lashings, dogs and skin boats it has engaged with. The drummings, dances, rituals, sexual escapades it has engaged with. Now yielding and domesticated, this Inupiaq hand meets its would-be ethnographer."

At the outset, fraught with difficulty:

"All this is obscure and untidy. What Inupiaq I've learned comes quickly unravelled. Asatchaq's talk is involuted. I shift, sweat, stammer questions. Asatchaq is very disappointed. He knows how little I understand. He withdraws with a mean-looking sneer, returns half-heartedly, then drifts into silence. 'You should listen', he growls, 'then you'll learn the story'."

The language of the Inuit is fiendishly difficult - notoriously, the early researchers, unable to grasp its complex structures, decided it had no structure but was simply a collection of unrelated idioms. The poet Christopher Middleton, commenting previously on Lowenstein's work, has written 'Even the massing of multi-syllable words doesn't impede its extraordinary momentum' and Lowenstein writes of his aims thus:

"My attempt in this regard was to make lines that spoke and enacted the construction of artefacts which in themselves were composite. A harpoon, for example, the most complicated of the Inuit hand-held weapons, consisted of a variable selection of animal parts (bone, antler, sinew, ivory, skin line, baleen) with a stone point at one extreme and a driftwood pole at the other. The connective/disconnective process of deploying this (it disassembled on impact) was an aspect of what all hunting weapons were built to achieve. Propelled through space, it brought, through a process of extension and contraction, the animal body towards people, who then consumed it, in part to repeat the process."

Evoking the ritual complexity and crowdedness of these lives, what is particularly exciting is the physicality of the writing. Local flora and fauna are vividly described, with a sense of their abundance. Food, its preparation and consumption, figure largely, appropriate to a hunter-gatherer people and a counterbalance to woolly notions of 'spirituality' that sometimes accompany such accounts. Passages of detailed description alternative with fast-moving narrative often using shorter lines and simpler language, as in the account of the actual whale hunt:

'Put on your mask then', the umialik mutters.
The shaman's face spins.
The mask-holes eat at his eyes and cheekbones.
The harpooner turns away. 'We need that man's paddle.
I'll kill him if he stays out shamanising.
Kinnaq una! Fool! he whispers. 'Your family is hungry.'
Then 'Come back!' he shouts, and lifts his weapon.
The flukes on the whale-maske flap and go under.
Yai! from the stern umialik counters.
'All right!' he agrees. 'Seven paddles might do it.'"

The position of the anthropologist as objective observer has been widely contested; in terms of cultural studies the encounter with the 'other' is fraught with ambiguities and a particular kind of anxiousness. A major aspect of Lowenstein's achievement is to show how the outsider, the anthropologist investigator, both acts and is acted on, how the observer is part of the process and how a piece of research can be embodied in poetic form. More than once Lowenstein turns the thing round, as in this description of a visit to an elderly couple:

'Then we have been wondering', the woman said - she'd watched me as I'd stumped
against the wind, flew back against the current and struggled at my door
with cardboard matches dying in the wind to thaw the padlock -
'We have wondered what sort of man you are, or might be?'

'What sort?' I considered. Not personal history, character, motivation.
She means 'kind' or 'species': my range, behaviour, patterns of feeding.
How I would mate. My migratory habits.

It gets more alarming, as in his account of a long period of harassment he experiences from inquisitive local children - they have come to investigate him:

The children's visits went on through the six weeks before whaling.
They came most days, and when I was out,
or wouldn't answer, they threw gravel in snowballs
at the downstairs window and one day broke it.
There were about ten, and sometimes
a girl would amaaq (carry) a baby niece or sister in her parka,
and we'd have nappy crises.

Today, an interest in native peoples is bound up with a quest for authenticity, and with that special kind of purity, the notion of an untouched quality. To quote Martin Thom again: "In 'The Shoshoneans', Edward Dorn sings with great longing of the origin, as of the geological and archaeological records were a healing truth... The slow drifting of languages across the terrain... made a mockery of such recent events as Idaho or Nevada, so that the Shoshonean seemed as lovely as birdsong beside some Palaeolithic lakeside...". In terms of contemporary tourism what all this too often involves is visits to 'primitive tribes' who are put through their paces. Meanwhile, the history of contact is a history of disease, exploitation and in some cases, virtual extermination. Lowenstein invokes the first sightings like this:

                                                      but now on the skyline
there came cross-hatched structures, masted then also funalled,
the scaffolding a-bristle, sketched in comlicated silhouette
a though each rig were bird bone and sinew dried and lifted,
or disjointed from the meat part
in some planally disorganised arrangement,
a great wing flexing erect its exo-skeleton,
and then, as the ships closed, the saw marvelous
hypertrophes of skinboat fantastication,
alive, aloof, and curiously peopled.
heavy with stuff indefinable desirable,
but then abruptly gone in atmospheric summer shimmer.

Interestingly, Lowenstein's tone is not predominantly elegiac, or guilt-ridden, and this may actually contribute to a greater sense of equality between observer and observed. He doesn't turn aside from the chaos arising out of the frontier situation but evokes it with brio, even a kind of relish, and at times he is very funny. 'It was helpful to learn this early in my work' he writes in the introduction 'how casually the solemn and the comic co-exist with each other'. There is cultural confusion evoked in this paragraph:

"An ice-cream van painted with flaring utopian iconography stand in the car-port outside the nursing home. Planets, UFOs and Third Eyes float in a pradise of Himalayan temple-gardens. Wise-man and female nature-spirits sprawl in the foliage round the driver's window where a bearded young man in army fatigues sits reading Zap Comix and smoking a Camel. Lured to the scen by Schuman's Traumerei, a girl limps through the swing doors, buys and ice, requests a cigarette, lights up and retreats. The ice-cream music switches to a lullaby by Brahms and the van drifts away towards the river."

'The Bellman's Story', a long, much looser and frequently hilarious narrative which concludes the collection, develops this theme. Lowenstein describes telling stories to a group of Inuit girls about his time spent doing odd-jobs in Fairbanks. There's the pizza-parlour where the other workers are all Jehovah's witnesses and drive him mad with their proselytising. He gets a job at the hotel as a  bell-hop and spends his evenings doing his Inupiaq homework. The woman he works with asks him what he's doing. He tells her:

"'Never heard of it', she said.
'It's the Eskimo's language'.
'I've lived in Alaska these fifteen years,' the woman said,
'and young man, I can assure you, they don't have a language.
...Some smart-assed professor’s made those words up.
You've been taken for a ride son. Go and earn a proper living.'

After a series of more or less surreal events and alarming encounters the poem ends:

"At the end of the telling, the six girls got up and left the cabin.
'Goodbye,' I said.
But Inuit don't say goodbye. They just walked off into the silence."

I'm still not sure how to place 'Ancestors and Species' in the context of contemporary poetry and its processes, or where work such as this might lead with its remarkable fusion of original ethnographic research and poetic powers. But there's nothing else out there quite like it.


Acknowledgement: this review first appeared in Tears in the Fence magazine.


Copyright © John Welch, 2012