THE NONHUMAN WORLD doesn’t speak our language. At least not here, not now. Thus poetry can be an act of translation, and reading poetry an act of immersion. In every poem, language — and the world — is further illuminated. We’re taught how to listen, how to see. In Effigies, four voices emerge to shatter our perceptions about the world. Cathy Tagnak Rexford, dg nanouk okpik, Brandy Nalani McDougall, and Mahealani Perez-Wendt bring us alchemical dispatches from the far reaches of America: Hawaii and Alaska.
Here are poems of everyday world and dream world, of grief and wonder, of creation story and talk story, of whalebone and oil rig, of chant and gunshot, of snowy owl egg and processing barge. Imagery like this arises out of incessant and accelerating change — upon landscape, culture, language.
The world is not what you think, these poems say. What’s at stake in the far north, in the islands, is greater than you can imagine. It’s not just villages disappearing, languages dying, polar bears drowning, monk seals starving, pack ice melting — as if that weren’t enough. Imagination itself is endangered. And only imagination can save us.
Ultimately, these poets teach us about survival. The basis of both shamanism and poetry is transformation. Through juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, the generative and the destructive, the human and nonhuman, they ask us to consider the world we’ve imagined, and the world that’s imagined us. Ultimately, these poems ask us to reimagine our world. Cathy Rexford, in “When Ivory Changes Color from the Oils in Your Skin,” juxtaposes two objects of power, one ancient, one industrial: “a whalebone mask in a shadow of an oilrig.” In “Corpse Whale,” dg okpik describes a speaker engaged, by sheer imaginative will, in an act of cultural and environmental reintegration, “pushing, pushing, / shoving the sinew back into the threaded bones of the land.” In the few lines that constitute “Po,” Brandy Nalani McDougall revisions creation in the language of myth and physics, describing a god “pressing the entirety of a universe into a shell / the size of an atomic nucleus, waiting.” In “Papahanaumoku,” Mahealani Perez-Wendt tells us the devastating truth about what it’s like to feel a stranger in one’s own homeland. The speaker of the poem, a native Hawaiian, asserts, “We are strangers here / not welcome.” Yet this poem ends, “We would sing again.” And she does.
The word effigy is rooted in action: “to form, to shape.” Out of change, heartbreak, and destruction, four voices sing themselves — and the world — into being.
Our country’s most ancient stories say there was a time when humans and animals spoke the same language. Everything had spirit: the rocks, the trees, the ice, the wind, the waves. Everything communicated. The poets in this volume, in their cellular memory, recall that time. There’s no way to go back, to return to the distant past. But the common language is all around us, and, ultimately, it’s in us. Poetry (and its precursor, chant) brings us closer to it. The voices of Effigies remind us that the world is alive and it’s endangered, it’s wise and it’s beautiful, it’s silent and it’s storied, it’s spirit-filled and it’s dangerous. They speak out of the whirlwind of history and change. There’s only one thing to say on their behalf: listen.