March 2016

Kali Lightfoot


Disko Bay by Nancy Campbell

Fans of folk and Celtic music may know the song, "Greenland Whale Fisheries," written sometime in the early 1700s, and recorded starting in the 1960s by several groups, including Peter, Paul and Mary, The Weavers, and The Pogues. It's a lively tune but also a cautionary tale that ends with this verse:

Oh, Greenland is a dreadful place
It's a land that's never green
Where there's ice and snow and the whale fishes blow
And daylight's seldom seen, brave boys
And daylight's seldom seen.

Greenland is not a well-known destination, in fact Americans are likely to know it only as that white place on the world map, or the location of the US Air Force base at Thule. But in 2010, British poet and printmaker Nancy Campbell was awarded an artist residency at the Upernavik Museum in Greenland, the northernmost open-air museum in the world. Like artist Roni Horn's experience in Iceland, this residency seems to have been a truly life-changing event for Campbell. Arriving from London alone in Upernavik on Disko Bay in January, when the sun had not risen above the horizon there since November, she could have taken the attitude of the whale fishers, but in her words from an essay published in The Huffington Post in 2012:

I looked up from my study of incomprehensibly long Greenlandic words and watched icebergs drifting on the horizons. The peaks and tables looked like arcane writing, a sonograph of the subtle phonemes I was learning.

I had hoped to find poems in the Arctic. I did not expect to return with a whole new language. Greenlandic had become the key to representing the Arctic for me, and I felt I owed it an acknowledgement.

Campbell's first acknowledgement was an art book, How to Say 'I Love You' in Greenlandic, winner of the Birgit Skiöld Trust Memorial Award. Another acknowledgement, Disko Bay, is Campbell's debut collection of poetry. The poems and songs in the first section of the book grew from her experience living among the Greenlanders and learning their language during her stay at Upernavik. Since then she has been awarded four subsequent residencies in northern locations and back home in Britain, where she wrote new poems and completed poems and translations begun in Upernavik. Each of the residencies has also been inspiration for making prints and art books. Campbell is an accomplished writer and artist, an expert letterpress printer, and editor of the magazine Printmaking Today.

David Borthwick called Campbell's collection "bewitching," and indeed it lives up to that description. To read the collection straight through is to find one's head filled with fleeting images from this time or some previous time, of dark moments and moments of silliness, all cast against a harsh landscape and sometimes equally harsh culture. The writing is simple and carries with it thoughts of myth or fable. There is a physicality to her words, and her writing shows her comfort and facility with rhyme and rhythm.

The second poem in the initial "Disko Bay" section of the book is "Aseqquku / Fragment." "Fragment" might refer to the poem itself or to its topic, a bird's wing lying on the snow. It is haunting, and it hints of longing and foreboding, an ambiguity of loss and change:

A raven's wing at rest on the deep snow
remembers sunrise, the slow warm light
that grows behind the crags. Remembers flight
-- plummet, beat and drift -- and the low
confusion of wind in a distant nest.
No cover feathers could be blacker,
and frozen sinews do not fester
once the stained bone they cling to has lost
its body, sliced at the scapular
Never to breed, never to scavenge
on scarlet seal hearts by the ice edge

A number of the poems are written in repetitive forms (pantoum, ballad, or sestina) to echo links to oral performance; but the forms are not always strict, and indeed can have a kind of trickster quality to them, as in these stanzas from the pantoum "Nakuarsuuvoq / The night hunter":

I am a poet. I am writing about Aua, the night hunter
and how his feet compact the snow and leave deep traces
as he passes my door destined for the harbor
where his boat is moored. I never see him. He might be a ghost

but that his feet compact the snow and leave deep traces.
When he is sleeping, as if by agreement I go to the shore
where his boat is moored. He might be a ghost. I never see him
emerge from the long darkness...

There are even a few poems that, whether intentional or not, might in their rhythms remind the reader of British-Canadian poet Robert Service's arctic poems, as in "Malinguartoq / The Dance" with alternating tetrameter (4-beat) and trimester (3-beat) lines:

The hunter is a drunken fool;
he bets, but rarely pays.
To win, he will break every rule
in every game he plays.

The hunter wears a coat of skin
and picks his blistered nose.
He won't remove his thrice-lined boots
or change his underclothes.

From Disko Bay, we move to Ruin Island, which begins with this epigraph:

Our tales are narratives of human experience, and therefore they do not always tell of beautiful things -- Osarqaq.

This section is dominated by tales of Qujaavaarssuk, legendary leader of the people:

The sea turned pale. It heaved and hardened
until there was not a fissure wide enough for the seal
to poke its nose through.

Aujaavaarssuk watched their shadows
moving beneath the ice.

Then they were gone
and he set out to the ice edge to follow them.

And finally we journey with Campbell to the Jutland area of Denmark in the third section with its epigraph: "Siunissaq nalunartorsuuvoq -- the future is full of riddles." Here we find riddles from the present and riddles translated by Campbell from the tenth-century Book of Exeter, conversations, and proverbs of water and changing conditions:

The coast is new as a foetus and old as a fossil. The bedrock rebounds from the glacier's weight. Sea bewilders it.

Here is a final thought from Campbell about Greenland, its land and language, from her Huffington Post essay:

Greenlandic has become infamous for its many words for snow. Yet snow is just the beginning -- it has a wide vocabulary for most environmental conditions and is now acknowledged to be of fundamental importance in understanding Arctic ecology. Each works like a time capsule, contains precise inherited knowledge that can help climate scientist to char the nuances of the ice. But the Greenlandic language is as vulnerable as the environment it describes. What hope has the landscape, if the language that describes it disappears?

Although the poems in Disko Bay were written in and about the "land of the midnight sun," there is overall an ineffable feeling of twilight, a grayness belied by the bright blue and white of sky and icebergs, the colorful characters, and painted buildings. For all of our sophisticated human languages, cultures, mass communication, and built communities, we live within a few degrees of tolerance in temperature and civility beyond which lie chaos and profound loss. While these small poems cannot prevent climate change, they can perhaps help to underline the need to preserve the Greenlandic language and culture, a treasure trove of vocabulary and knowledge important to understanding Arctic ecology and its place in our global climate. 

Disko Bay by Nancy Campbell
Enitharmon Press
ISBN: 978-1910392188
64 pages