Book Review

In Blood Snow (Wave Books, 2022), dg nanouk okpik’s visionary pastorals mourn the melt, illness, and loss occasioned by the Anthropocene, while at the same time thrumming with mystical insight and heart-stopping beauty.

okpik uses the split pronoun “she/I” to expand and complicate individual subjecthood. In her first book, Corpse Whale (The University of Arizona Press, 2012), okpik immediately contextualizes this split pronoun within the Inupiaq storytelling tradition by quoting as her epigraph the words of Pudlo Pudlat, Inuit elder: “In the time of origin, in the formation of inuk, she/I watch/es while the living awaits relatives to come from around the bend.” Temporalities and subjectivities meld together. The living wait for the dead; the first person and third person become simultaneous.

In Corpse Whale, the grammar opens to accommodate the split pronoun: “watch/es” makes both “I watch” and “she watches” available within a fully reconciled grammatical structure. In contrast, the split pronoun in Blood Snow is accompanied by a singular verb. From “Foregrass,” the first poem of the collection:

A toil of one inside me:
She/I cast a thick,
time out of mind,
out of sync, off course.

Here the pronoun fractures one of the available readings. The first person fits, while the third person is skewed. This “toil of one inside me” dramatizes in brilliantly compressed form an impulse toward capaciousness which is met with struggle. okpik breaks open the grammar and the construct of the individual, Western, bourgeois subject. The out of sync time and grammar spiral disjointedly.

Whereas (white, cis, male) avant-garde poetry can sometimes orient itself competitively against what’s come before—claiming individual creativity or so-called originality at the expense of the collective or collaborative—okpik’s “I” is never simply singular, but instead embraces the self as “I” and “she,” self and other, individual and community member, at once. okpik’s experimental poetics are grounded in Inupiaq wisdom, continuous with tradition rather than marking an individualist break from shared culture.

The speaker’s perspective within these poems moves from the singular “me” out to the expanded “she/I,” from waking consciousness to dreaming, from human orientation to mosquito to polar bear to the hybrid “Mosquito man.” okpik’s vision is trans species, radically inclusive, a swarm thought.

“Her heedless gaze dilates,” okpik writes of the mosquito, but she could be describing the speaker’s dilations as well. The mosquito is—perhaps surprisingly—a charismatic hero in these lines and other poems in the collection. The mosquito’s “choosing inflorescence,” also the title of the poem, is a figure for okpik’s interest in multiplicity within singularity, many flowers on one stem.

            Her heedless gaze dilates,
pinpointing her name kiktugiak, mosquito.

What does heedless mean in this context? The mosquito does see—and expansively, mystically, pinpointing her own name across the divisions of species and language. Her heedlessness, rather than suggesting sightlessness, indicates instead an ability to move through and between the boundaries that might separate body from body.

            It took all the blood in her belly
to fly around the sick white pine, with blister
swelling on twigs and bark of rust season.

            Her itch-poked legs gingerly stepping
on roots and pinecones, it seemed like a flashpoint,
she felt sick alighting on the yellow ash.

            But it was her choosing inflorescence,
of the spiked crown lopseed, her shaking abdomen,
and instinct for white nectar, she knew once before
above a rainstorm puddle breeding, then laying eggs.

The word “sick” recurs in connection to the “sick white pine” and the mosquito herself, who “felt sick alighting on the yellow ash.” Almost as though the word “sick” itself swarms, dis-ease flies about dis-attached in these lines. Does the mosquito feel sick because she alights on the yellow ash and comes to share its illness? Or was she already sick, which made her sit? Illness is impossible to limit within one body—another heedlessness, dilating.

In a similar blurring of perspective, the mosquito’s legs are “itch-poked,” which collapses the biter with the bitten; it is the mammal’s warm-blooded legs, not the insect’s, which itch. Then again, who is to say that the mosquito’s legs don’t itch too? Maybe all the legs itch and it is impossible to demarcate this itching from that.

okpik challenges the logic that would render the subject an individual who is separate from the press and melt of other bodies. The perspectival blurring, the “brilliant colors of pollution,” the many poems of thaw and melting snow, the shared illness, the recurrence of the chemo IV drip, are each, in different ways, characteristics of the Anthropocene. In the introduction to Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Heather Swanson, Anna Tsing, Nils Bubandt, and Elaine Gan write, “Suffering from the ills of another species: this is the condition of the Anthropocene, for humans and nonhumans alike. This suffering is a matter not just of empathy but also of material interdependence.” In the thaw, solidities and boundaries melt into the air. okpik’s speaker draws direct links between global and individual illness in the right-justified lines of “Physical Thaw”:

I taste
Berries and roots
Polar cap            ice melt,
Swamp algae,
moose tracks,
covered dripping,
chartreuse moss,
it reminds me of,
my collapsed veins,
IV        drip drip drip

Here an associative leap of the lyric imagination (“it reminds me of”) draws together melting polar ice caps and cancer. Climate change causes the imagination to collapse back on itself; rather than prompting some moment of transcendence or flight of fancy, symptoms of the Anthropocene surround the speaker with tastes and sights that amplify and reiterate the illness she’s already caught within, the cancer which itself may stem from environmental causes. In this way, okpik literalizes the metaphor. The thawing world reminds the speaker of chemotherapy, and the degradation of the environment literally leads to cancer. There is a mysticism within this simultaneity between the literal and the figurative. Within this complex network of insight and pain, the speaker does not and cannot untangle what is ill from the radical connections that suffering makes possible.

In an interview with Olga Mexina in the Southeast Review, okpik describes the significance of the title, Blood Snow:

I remember seeing blood pool in the snow after my uncles were hunting. How the blood saturated and made the snow go from crimson red to watermelon colored. The watermelon-colored snow, though found in the Arctic, is caused by climate change. Whether it be from oil extraction or fallout from a natural gas pipeline eroding, the climate is at risk. I feel specialized, concise, clear, intoxicating language is much more effective and appealing than prose at conveying this.

Blood represents vitality and woundedness, IV chains and climate change. The mosquito transgresses the boundaries of blood and demonstrates blood’s capacity to be shared and to sustain. In one of the most moving moments in this collection, the mosquito turns to the speaker in a dream and addresses her directly:

Listen by hearing with your inua
for I want you to hear with no ego.
I need you to know what you need
and need what you know. Sing to others
in sacredness & grace. You may call on
me to be your helper mosquito, in Utqiagvik.
Maybe you will help others deal or cope
with historical grief or loss. Sister believe
me & pay attention for yourself, sing this song
always, it is yours now. When needed for
yourself to heal & heal many, sing hard.

Despite being occasioned by trauma, “historical grief or loss,” this moment gives rise to mystical connection, interspecies communication, and healing. As elsewhere in this collection, the speaker powerfully and profoundly mourns a melting world, but also accesses abundant insight and beauty, “sacredness & grace.” The poem concludes, “Her new song in my throat it vibrates, for she is feeding her eggs while drinking blood, giving life a chance.”

About the Reviewer

Claire Marie Stancek is the author of several collections of poetry, including wyrd] bird (Omnidawn, 2020), Oil Spell (Omnidawn, 2018), and MOUTHS (Noemi Press, 2017). With Daniel Benjamin, she co-edited Active Aesthetics: Contemporary Australian Poetry (Tuumba/Giramondo, 2016). With Lyn Hejinian and Jane Gregory, she is co-editor and co-founder of Nion Editions, a chapbook press. Claire Marie has a Ph.D. in English Literature from UC Berkeley. She lives in Philadelphia.