And if the sun had not erased the tracks upon the ice, they would tell us of […] polar bears and the man who had the luck to catch bears.
– Obituary for Simon Simonsen, called ‘Simon Bear Hunter’ of Upernavik¹
Mornings at Upernavik Museum: an endless round of kaffe and conversation as local hunters dropped by to discuss ice conditions. Wishing to make progress in my research into Greenlandic literature, I’d asked Grethe, the museum director, whether she knew of any poetry books. But the bibliographic collections held mainly old black-and-white photographic records of the settlements, and kayaking manuals.
‘Illilli!’ Grethe called an hour or so later, ‘There you are!’ She emerged from a doorway almost obscured behind a stack of narwhal tusks and proudly presented me with a 1974 hymnbook, its homemade dust-wrapper culled from an offcut of pink wallpaper.
Upernavik is a small, rocky island on the west coast of Greenland. At 72º north, it is well within the Arctic Circle, and the museum claims to be the most northern in the world. The region’s coastline is described as ‘an open-air museum’. That is to say, people suspect there are interesting artefacts lying, undiscovered, everywhere under the ice. No matter that they cannot be seen. They exist, and the empty museum building awaits their arrival patiently. One of the museum’s prize possessions is an old motorboat in which, during the short summer, Grethe visits people in distant coastal settlements who claim to have found an interesting specimen, perhaps a carved flinthead or an unidentified bone. As these visits are often combined with trips to distant family members and rarely seem to result in artefacts being brought back to the museum, the institution evidently fulfils a social function, knitting together isolated communities along the shores of Baffin Bay.
During my stay on Upernavik as writer-in-residence at the museum, I wanted to discover more about my peers, the contemporary poets of the Arctic. The local people I met denied any knowledge of such activity. Research doesn’t always lead in the direction you expect: instead of books, it was my conversations with the islanders and observation of their interaction with the landscape that gave me a new perspective on the practice, and the endurance, of poetry in Greenland.
Grethe’s hymnbook was a perfectly logical offering. In Arctic tradition, elevated verbal expression took the form of songs rather than poems. These songs have been roughly categorised as charms, hunting songs, songs of mood and songs of derision. The ‘charms’ were used in shamanic rituals to cast spells or cure illnesses, and were closely guarded secrets; they could be used, for example, to stop bleeding, make heavy things light, or call on spirit helpers. The other categories were public, being performed at feasts and flyting matches, accompanied by drumming and dancing. When the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen began to transcribe the songs, he declared that his ‘neat written language and […] sober orthography […] couldn’t bestow sufficient form or force to the cries of joy or fear of these unlettered people’.²
The measure of ‘poetic’ success was that a song was worth listening to, as Tom Lowenstein demonstrates (in his translation of Rasmussen’s transcription of a song by Piuvkaq):
I recognise what I want to put into words,
but it does not come well-arranged,
it does not become worth listening to.
Lowenstein describes the intense performance anxiety the poet might suffer: ‘Forgetting the words, in a culture without paper, would be like losing the song. No-one would be there to prompt. It would be as if the words no longer existed at all.’ This fear of forgetting is resonant, considering the losses faced by Inuit culture today, now that many traditional practices have fallen out of common use.
For a long time the Inuit ‘did not know how to store their words in little black marks’.³ They had no inclination to. Had they felt a need to apply their technical ingenuity to the problem of recording language, the course of bibliographic history might have been altered. As it is, publishing technology was introduced to Greenland by Danish missionaries during the late 19th century. The printing press preserved some legends, but the songs – because of their strong shamanic connections, not to mention occasional explicit content – were suppressed. The drums used in shamanic rituals were burnt in an attempt to oust ‘heathen’ beliefs, an act as sacrilegious as a book-burning in Europe.
Hushed and drumless, the Danish colonists tried to locate the rich sounds of Kalaallisut, the Greenlandic language, within their known orthography. The Roman alphabet was introduced to facilitate printing with conventional metal type imported from Europe. Kalaallisut, the standard dialect, is caught between cultures, one of the few Eskimo-Aleut languages to use an alphabetic rather than syllabic orthography (compare its close relative, Inuktitut or ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ, found in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, Canada). Yet what impact has two hundred years of printing made? In 2009 the Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger designated Kalaallisut as being ‘vulnerable’ and predicted that the North and East Greenlandic dialects will disappear within a century.
When I began to learn Kalaallisut I had to ask my teachers to write the words down. They were bemused that I should find this more useful than hearing them spoken. Each time a word was written it would be spelt differently, and so the bemusement was passed on to me. Grethe told me that schools are not overly concerned about spelling: little children are bamboozled by the long words, and surely it is understandable that they get lost in the middle and miss out a few syllables? Teachers are more inclined to indulge the children than instil superficial spelling conventions.
Many of the islanders found expressing themselves in writing challenging. Speech is still the touchstone for communication: mobile phones and Skype are just as popular in Greenland as they are in the UK, whereas emails are approached with even more dread. It seems inevitable that future Arctic archives will be as sparsely furnished as those of the past.
Kalaallisut is more densely woven than English, with its smaller alphabet … When it is spoken, the suffixes are uttered so softly that an untrained ear cannot hear them. Sentences seem to trail off into silence.
I began to find English finicky and prim in contrast with Kalaallisut. As though they were knucklebones used in a game of dice, I shook up my tiny words and scattered them before my audience, having little influence on the score. Kalaallisut is more densely woven than English, with its smaller alphabet (18 letters) and polysynthetic words. When it is spoken, the suffixes are uttered so softly that an untrained ear cannot hear them. Sentences seem to trail off into silence.
Kalaallisut will use a single word to express a concept that English tiptoes around with a phrase. I was delighted to find signifiers for ‘the sea rises and falls slowly at the foot of the iceberg’ (iimisaarpoq) and ‘the air is clear, so sounds can be heard from afar’ (imingnarpoq). The language is famous for its many words for snow. This wide vocabulary for environmental conditions is of fundamental importance in understanding the Arctic ecology. As Barry Lopez points out in his book Arctic Dreams, contemporary scientists who arrive in the Arctic to assess climate change without a grasp of Kalaallisut risk being as crude as the early explorers who rushed to make their conquests of the North Pole without using established Inuit techniques for transportation and survival on the ice.
A map by the cartographer R.T. Gould in the National Maritime Museum in London delineates the last known steps of one such expedition led by Sir John Franklin, an ambitious Victorian quest to find the North-West Passage (1845–8). Gould’s map depicts a land marked not by geographical features but by ominous ‘x’s: caches of letters, pemmican and bones found by search parties. These clues to Franklin’s disappearance, linked by a red dotted line, eventually peter out in a question mark surrounded by blank paper.
The North-West Passage can be located by satellite these days, and few uncharted regions remain for those wishing to make their reputation as explorers. Yet despite advances in knowledge, Arctic geography still challenges the complacency of the modern traveller. Much of the visible environment is characterised by transience. The Pole is a shifting entity rather than a fixed point. Icebergs drift along the horizon, an ever-changing mountain range. The shore-fast ice forms an increasingly unpredictable border between land and sea; it disappears almost as fast as the tracks that pass across it. The geographer Nicole Gombay writes that these conditions ‘require an awareness that the future cannot be predicted. As a result, people must focus on the present. Inuit have often told me, “Today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow. Don’t bring today into tomorrow, and don’t bring tomorrow into today.”’4 People’s distrust of fixing future plans is balanced by ‘an ability to let go of the past’. As Heraclitus might have said, it is impossible to step on the same ice floe twice.
Some mornings when I sat down to write at my desk overlooking the harbour, the sea outside my window seemed like a ‘black cauldron covered with dark frost smoke’ (as Robert Scott once described the phenomenon in his Antarctic journals). Other days, it was hidden by ice, and I watched the hunters make their way across the perilous expanse until they were just little black marks in the distance. The shadowy figures stepped carefully, pausing often, and tested the ice with their chisels before putting any weight on it. They were adept at interpreting patterns and sounds in the ice, which told them where to step to avoid falling into the freezing water. Each man’s understanding of the ice was essential to his survival. (Once upon a time, the intense dangers faced during such expeditions had inspired the composition of songs, and even provided a metaphor for the process of composition: in a common trope, ‘the right words’ are as elusive to the singer as a seal or a caribou.)
The hunters’ ramshackle workstations awaited their return. These illukasik had no walls, no roofs and no doors. There was nothing to obscure a hunter’s view of his terrain, and nowhere to hide a secret. Domestic objects were left to rust under the open sky. The snow was a part of these skeletal structures as well as their backdrop; deep drifts were conscripted as tool racks. Ladders were lashed to the upright timbers but rather than providing a means of ascent they held struts together or secured them to the ground. Green twine wound about the cornices in endless orbits that stood in for more sturdy knots. The whole island appeared to be held together by an armature of twine and chicken wire beneath the snow.
Illukasik evolve. Beams are nailed to the joists, clothes racks tied to the beams. Sealskins are sewn to stretching frames and fish are hung up to dry out of reach of ravenous dogs. An accumulation of clothes pegs, knives and beer bottles adds a distinct signature to each hunter’s creation. Between snowfalls, the outer boundaries of the illukasik are pitted with holes cast by phlegm, drops of oil and cigarette butts. Fresh lines of blood are traced across the island nightly as seal carcasses are hauled from the successful hunters’ plots to waiting kitchens.
The culture is strongly influenced by the belief that an inue or soul imbues every material thing, from a rock to a harpoon head, informing its purpose
Sometimes, silhouetted in twilight, the illukasik looked like creatures rising from the sea. In these manmade objects I sensed something more than functional architecture. Folk tales describe hunters who created living monsters, tupilak, from sticks and stones and breath. The traditional Inuit religion is animist, and the culture is strongly influenced by the belief that an inue or soul imbues every material thing, from a rock to a harpoon head, informing its purpose. And so, as the wind howled around the illukasik, I thought of them as expressive marks on the landscape, almost akin to song. While Inuit songs were intensely personal, and singing another’s composition without crediting the original author was frowned upon, the singers employed respectful variations on traditional themes. The ikiaqtagaq or ‘split song’ was a conversation over time, its lyrics added to, and developed, by successive singers. Likewise, the design and materials of these improvised buildings diverged little from those I had seen in old photographs in the museum. Here was the continuation of a creative tradition that I sought.
When you store something away in a safe place, there’s always the danger you won’t find it again. Perhaps it is simpler to accept loss at the outset. The absence of printed language in the Arctic seems to hold more poetic resonance, more potency than the more tangible literature I had grown up with. I wondered whether a poet writing in English today could be active without publishing, and even whether there might not be a case for silence as a poetic stance in a culture so unremittingly orientated towards self-preservation and self-promotion?
With these thoughts I turned from the museum’s bookcase (or, as I had learnt, illisivit – the root word of ilissiverupunga) to the gallery vitrines. There I found evidence left by earlier visitors: barometers and log books from explorers’ vessels, and the highlight of the collection – the Kingittorsuaq Runestone, engraved with a short text by three Norsemen around 800 years ago and left in a cairn on a nearby island. Only the men’s names could be read; the second half of their message is lost, written in mysterious characters that can’t be deciphered, even by experts. The truncated story of these Viking travellers is emblematic of the history of the Norse in Greenland. None of these settlers would survive the 15th century, in part because they were unable to withstand the cooling climate of the Little Ice Age. The Runestone also demonstrates that giving a message material form does not necessarily guarantee communication.
With the media saturated by images of the Arctic, it seems no longer necessary to convey its appearance, but rather the timbre of its many voices. The anthropologist Edmund Carpenter suggests that in cultures where transience is more evident, process is valued over preservation: ‘Art and poetry are verbs, not nouns. Poems are improvised, not memorised; carvings are carved, not saved. The forms of art are familiar to all; examples need not be preserved. When spring comes and igloos melt, old habitation sites are littered with waste, including beautifully designed tools and tiny carvings, not deliberately thrown away, but, with even greater indifference, just lost.’5
It is increasingly apparent that our planet, including all its museums and libraries, is facing a devastation even more extreme than that of the great Alexandrian repository. Gombay addresses Western society as well as that of the Inuit, saying, ‘In the face of knowledge that ultimately we are at the mercy of forces over which we have no control, how are we to react? We can choose to ignore such awareness – dig in our heels and do all that we can to find a means of establishing supremacy over the essential instability of existence, or, we can give in to it and accept that our experience is ephemeral.6 ’ When the last of the ice has melted, the vanished tracks upon it will be the least of our concerns. No-one will be there to prompt. It will be as if words never existed.
1 Quoted in Hansen, K. Nuussuarmiut: Hunting Families on the Big Headland, Meddelelser om Grønland, vol. 345: Man & Society, vol. 35, 2008, p. 146
2 Rasmussen, Eskimo Folk Tales, Kessinger Publishing, 2010
4 Gombay, N. ‘“Today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow”: Reflections on Inuit Understanding of Time and Place’ in Collignon B. & Therrien M. (eds), Orality in the 21st century: Inuit discourse and practices. Proceedings of the 15th Inuit Studies Conference, INALCO, 2009
5 Carpenter, E.S. Eskimo Realities, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1973, p. 57
6 Gombay, op.cit
Dark Mountain: Issue 10 – Uncivilised Poetics (PDF)
The Autumn 2016 edition is a special issue that explores the importance of poetry and the poetic.Read more