In Abigail Chabitnoy’s second collection, In the Current Where Drowning Is Beautiful, the speaker pulls us under again and again. As we follow her into the waves, we see her unearth the bodies of indigenous women and hear her unleash their voices. In complex, confident lyrics, Chabitnoy also unearths language for her readers, in translations and transformations that happen just under the surface of her lines, in footnotes and parentheticals. And she raises questions—among them, resonant for me as a childless woman in my early thirties, whether having children and potentially raising another generation of women can be a life-sustaining choice under these conditions. Current is a deeply challenging work, whose layers, when peeled back, reveal the intersection of past and present—how oppression and violence are still just as mythic in their proportions now as they have ever been.
A single poetic sequence at Current’s center captures many of the features that were most memorable to me in the rest of the collection. “How It Goes” begins with a mention of the speaker’s future daughter, who is addressed in other places in the book and through whom we learn the speaker is ambivalent about bringing more life into this world, especially feminine life. Still, the first line reads, “I’d want you to be a girl, even now.” In “How It Goes” we also see the recurring figure of a deer, who appears first earlier in the collection and invokes the Deer Woman of Native American mythology: “The first deer had large teeth and no horns and / were not afraid.” Fear and horns, we learn, come later.
“How It Goes” displays the layering techniques that Chabitnoy uses across the collection. In part II, a stanza includes several numbers that stand on their own and are explained only in the footnotes that follow them: the “1 separated. / 2 detained. / 3 buried. / 4 missing. murdered. prone / 5 to be incorrectly labeled.” In the endnotes, we learn that the poem’s title is taken from the words of a white teenage boy in a “red hat” at a Capitol protest. He says in the poem, as he did in Washington, “Yeah, well, [kids]* get stolen. That’s how it goes.” Of course, the brackets and asterisk are Chabitnoy’s; she tells us in a note (just below the line, not in the footer): “he might have said ‘land.’ he might have said ‘women.’ he might have been smiling respectfully to diffuse the situation.” In the endnotes, Chabitnoy reflects on this boy’s motives for such a horrifying statement, concluding he probably truly doesn’t know better: “These histories are not taught. These news stories get buried.” Current uncovers them, just as Chabitnoy has us reveal the many layers of this statement in the act of reading her work.
Chabitnoy’s ancestral language, Alutiiq, appears throughout Current, and though almost always translated, Chabitnoy’s approach to that translation defies the expectations of an English-speaking audience and makes a strong argument against letting language settle or stagnate. Chabitnoy’s work is a reminder that all language is laden with political, cultural, and family baggage. For me, this theme brought up the pain and confusion of not learning my father’s native language from him, of having tried to master it instead in drips and drabs on my own. From what I understand, Chabitnoy did not grow up speaking her ancestral language. In Current, her Alutiiq is unsteady, but in a way that affords it spaciousness and shows evidence of having learned it in relationship. The many meanings she reveals in her translations do not seem to be synonyms found in a dictionary, but variations that feel grounded in speech and conversation.
That being said, I—as a non-Alutiiq-speaking, non-Indigenous reader—am always kept at some distance. I read the Alutiiq bits aloud to try to better connect, and the sound is clearly important, but other devices still reinforce my experience of distance. For instance, in “Kingugturningaitua,” the title is translated immediately in a footnote as “I won’t swallow the worm.” In the final lines, the same word is translated as “ won’t take the worm in my mouth.” Later in the poem we see the repetition of the word iksak in a three-line stanza:
Iqsak una nenermek pilimauq.
These lines are translated again in a footnote as “The fishhook is sharp,” “is bone,” “and barbed.” The syntax we have come to expect basically holds. However, a little inconsistency is still nested here: “iksak” is spelled with two k’s in its first appearance, and then a k and a q in the second two—a shift I completely missed until I typed the stanza out. As in many places in the book, when we look closely, we are forced to engage with the impermanence of language and how it transforms with active use. Chabitnoy makes sure we see all that is lost in translation and in the burying of the people who speak this language and nourish its culture, not to mention the ravaging of the land that holds both the living and the dead.
Sometimes I lose sight of the speaker in Current. Additional voices creep in from the margins and tiny sketches of waves cry out to be interpreted. The sections of the collection are marked, in part, by highly stylized definitions of each part of a wave, through which we follow a swell’s formation and its flow into the next. However, the two poems that close the collection, “Six Lines for Christine” and “Letter to the Daughter I Would Like to Have,” send their own current through the work, doubling down and clarifying the stakes for Chabitnoy’s speaker. In these poems, more clearly than before, we see the speaker’s closest women ancestors and the ways they were denied recognition of their full selves, even by themselves. And we see the speaker try to fix this tragic situation, standing against the swelling of the next wave by refusing to birth more daughters, even as she acknowledges that only in living does she herself stand apart from these earlier women:
The blood stops
in my veins
aware of every other body at rest
and my threat to that state
By the end of the collection, we come to understand that only by disrupting the wave can the speaker and her ancestors escape. But what does it mean to disrupt the wave? The definition of “Wave height” closes with a line pushed to the bottom on the page: “Build safer ships.” Later, at the end of “Sea Change”—a voice in the footer says, “Build safer boats.” In the final poem, “Letter to the Daughter I Would Like to Have,” the speaker says, “I want to build a boat / a body / large enough to carry us all.” The speaker understands that just by living and speaking she is defying the forces that kill and silence others, even as she herself may be—must be—drowning. But is that knowledge enough for children, land, or women to keep living? Does she, or do we, have a choice? Chabitnoy offers no answers, but she succeeds in complicating our understanding of the most basic human responsibility. Perhaps, I think, coming to Current’s close, this responsibility doesn’t lie in the giving of life but in the living of it. And if Chabitnoy does gesture at an answer, it seems to be that we cannot live our lives alone.
About the Reviewer
Krysia Wazny McClain is a poet, writer, and freelance copyeditor from Somerville, Massachusetts. Her poetry has appeared online in Porridge Magazine and the Massachusetts Poetry Festival’s Ekphrastic Gallery. Her critical writing can be found at the Colorado Review. She spends her free time organizing for prison abolition and dancing around her kitchen.