At Uqpik's Cabin
Capping the ruins and scattered through the village stood the 19th century traders' cabins: tightly constructed clapboard houses with thick tar-paper insulation. Five of these houses, dragged back from Jabbertown1 along the south beach in native skin boats, survived in the village.
Uqpik's stood near the western end of the peninsula. It had been Max Lieb's cabin, bartered by his family when Lieb froze to death in 1902 on foot to the village from Cape Thompson2 where he had been starving.
Lieb's house stood alone on flat ground near a grassy beach ridge, set round with iglu pits and their ruined whale bone tunnels. ------ Still more remote, and infested with families of wild, nesting huskies, stood Asatchaq's cabin. Sixty years back, his father Kiligvak, 'the mastodon', had built it with lumber he bought from a Jabbertown trader - the first native frame-house in the village.
Perched near the south-west tip of the point, as though set to spring for the sea ice or the open water, the house, with its desolate window and broken chimney, was the furthest northwest building on the continent. Uqpik was its closest neighbour.
I'd stopped here, though the backpack nagged my shoulder,
and watched a flight of longspurs feeding.
It was midday, and a hard wind rushed across the tundra.
I was sweating and cold; my feet were swollen.
Still the outdoors held me.
To enter this soon, was too soon, so it told me.
The south wind grew violent.
It tore at the insulation on the corners which had broken
from their seams of deep, flat 19th century nail heads,
buckling the east side where the dogs lay tethered.
I clambered up the northwest corner.
Ox-eyed daisies, hinged to broken turfs around the house base,
rapped my ankles. Camomile tapped, as though knocking to enter,
the edges of my boot soles.
As if no feet had ever broken through
the stepped frets of the labyrinth!
I glanced along the shed roof. There were caribou blankets
pocked with thick eyes gnawed by warble-fly larvae;
some gulls, half rotted, plumage withered,
beaks and claws in pieces, lay sprawled in a bundle.
Other remainders of game, traps, hunting tackle lodged here,
anchored with long curving whale jaws,
and runners, like horns, of snow-mobiles, exanimate,
stuck through some chassis that was rusting among discs and vertebrae.
A soul scuttled through the frieze of apparatus and detritus stored here.
Torsos clamoured from the scaffold to retrace their bearings.
Midday winked. The fable mended. Red-fox-and-snowy-owl.
They'd been just on the trail through their sublunary offices,
When the hunter - with an invitation for exchange and sociality - had detained them.
The fox squeezed out of his shriveled costume.
He'd dressed in it only once too often.
Earth had grown skinny.
No more fox tracks, no more ruckus.
Day ticked forward. Sun and wind rotation.
The high disc shone through coat and muscle.
She'd been trapped in her nod, in her snow and soot plumage,4
Eyes shrouded on his vertebrae,
His tooth on her shoulder, her beak on his sternum,
Abrasively kissing, dialectically embracing,
Cross-hatched with each other,
When death entertained and finally engaged them.
I tripped the latch, my thumb sliding on the runnels
where eighty-five years of seal-oiled fingers
- hunters, Yankee-German traders, native wives and their 'half-breed' children - had polished and unfixed the catchment.
It was twilight in the passage: the floor, defrosted tundra,
caving beneath plywood panels that squelched in the mash
and rocked from the centre as the inner door I sought emerged from the dullness.
The horns of my backpack scraped a high shelf where I faltered,
wrenching the left shoulder, scapula extrapolated from its matrix
(on a photo-plate I felt it, geometrically projected) on the screen of entry
where I staggered to control the threshold.
Inside the room was black
as the tarp5 I heard flopping and had seen it wagging from the east side
where the dogs slept flat-out in the grass, forget-me-nots and daisies.
The dazzle of that blazed outward to the window,
the scarred glaze of which gave back to the grass
and heaped lost rusting ironware: cans and barrels,
1950s pots and skillets, a discordant, dislocated aluminium kettle,
all the old American etceteras, accessories, disjected recent membra
scattered, half-sunk, stuck together -
itkaq was a verb I later gathered:
'to throw out, or abandon on the midden'.
Pah! I'm gonna itkaq this junk finally, I heard Suuyuk next year -
the dazzle of it rang, like brass splayed clean to brazen needles,
a clash, screwed-up, blazing musically
from the corners of the eyes which had dried in the wind-blast
and now tried adjusting to the darkness and its complex odour:
seal-oil, fuel, excrement and urine half-masked in a whiff of disinfectant.
There was a table where a pot of peanut butter
stood with a buck-knife handle sticking out of it:
twisted antler of the type you get from pawn shops
down in Sioux Falls, Laramie, Billings Montana, and on Fairbanks
2nd Avenue: masculine equipment.
Deep in the jar, the blade was set in folds of peanut butter,
the shrouds clotted with lumps of smashed peanuts and jelly:
while gazing from seal oil - golden, viscous,
in an emptied can of Skipjack tuna - I caught my reflection:
dust-fur on the tin's edge, spiked as the wolf-ruff
of a parka hood, enveloping my hat and collar.
A sharp snore and the rattle of a sleeping-bag abraded my fixation.
The thrash of nylon from a recess screened with plywood burst forth,
and a young man in an insulated boiler suit, grease-stained, ripped and puffy
shambled from the bunk-space where he had been sleeping,
and with mouth half-open to receive his Winston,
eyes doubly sunk in epicanthine ruins
- as though some clan-fate in a Kuniyoshi theatre vision6 hatched his levee -
stood and watched me levering my pack down.
'You got everything?' the young man asked -
as if, in courtesy, receding from a space once his,
in forethought he liked me without bothering to plot the detail,
grasping that my presence, unexpected, was some commerce of his seniors -
and went back to sleep behind his partition.
'Okay,' I mumbled. I was irritated and embarrassed.
I wanted the whole cabin.
I settled my stuff and, disconcerted primly somewhat, looked round
at the textures of the house interior.
There was gravel on the floor and table; the insulation on the walls and ceiling,
webbed with soot from oil fumes, sagged dangerously inwards.
A near-century of grease from countless animals
hauled up and butchered in the family circle gleamed
from every surface. Surrounding the peanut butter jar, on oilskin
scarred by ice picks, knives and cigarette burns,
were sugar, sardines, tuna, jars of instant coffee,
Pream, teabags and used teaspoons,
cogs, brackets, bolts and wrenches, screwdrivers and brake-wire:
the truck of subsistence: abrupt indoor leavings
of out-of-doors business: meat, work and fuel of hunters and mechanics.
A men's house. Uqpik's wife had died five years back,
and I missed her for them.
Next I was drawn to a length of gingham in the north-east corner:
a rucked, shabbily suspended, hand stained curtain,
from which fumes of Lysol swayed through the twilight:
the communal sump of several days' evacuations.
Converging here, as anthropologists had warned me they might,
were all my prudery and learn'd aversions, masked previously
by bathroom culture, tiling, enamel and glazed sanitary polish.
One glimpse of the crusted bucket-handle, and the clusterings, blurred,
of excrements half-melted at the loose brim of that dark infusion,
and (impotent in toto, but to pitch in still quite anxious) I fled the house cringing.
Outside, the air was rough and simple.
I walked to the beach and gratefully relieved my lower person,
though the wind shook my equipment, and a flurry of snow
gusted down from the north which was paralysing to the sphincter.
A mist had come in and sunlight ran
in shafts and pieces through it.
Then rising on the Point ahead
was an arch of whale's jaw-bones,
two mandibles curving
against grey, half-hidden tundra.
The bones faced one another,
and their broad ellipse narrowed
at the high point without touching,
but stood open, enclosing in their tension
a long framed view,
through which, as I circled,
the village, sea and tundra,
were rotated: the tips of the uprights
vanishing in mist as though,
where it drifted in the sky between them,
the dead whale's vapour hung suspended:
breathed out to the faces of past hunters and women.
At the jaws' root in the long pale grasses
were three sets of tripods fixed waist-high:
whale ribs lashed in a ritual grouping,
where the skin-toss game
to celebrate successful whale hunts
was held in the spring time.
Then as I stood, I saw blow in
the flock of whimbrel.
There were eight, perhaps ten.
Streaked, mottled and lean-legged,
arched beaks drawing them
from somewhere they'd been feeding,
bills airily balanced
with the whale bone archways,
and cumbrously perched in calm
on their migration, they lifted and fell
slowly, in exchange of places
between jaws and tripods.
I counted again. There were eight birds -
nine, then twelve, now eleven -
enlarged and then shrouded
by fog in their plumage.
The wind dropped
and I heard them whistle,
gauntly piping, one to another,
a bleak call, but not scolding
as gulls and terns do, nor like
kittiwakes' incesssant weeping.
So they shuffled, fluttered,
appearing to flounder,
air to whale bone,
one, and then another,
shuttling their pattern,
and jumping across,
they wavered - idle slightly -
restless, in some exercise
of voyaging or ritual,
of their long migration
and this point of repose here
'I've broken my tooth' said Uqpik later that day
as we met in the morning at the Co-op checkout.
'Are you going outside to see a dentist?'
'No, I mean the polar bear.'
'On frozen meat? I didn't know you ate it quaq7.
'The bear. She broke it. Maybe Asatchaq heard me.
He was sitting on a pressure ridge, and he listened to that nanuq.
She was talking to herself because her tooth was busted.
Didn't you know I am a polar bear?'
'I didn't. And you're not a woman are you?'
'No. But I had one last week. It was my birthday.
Piece of ass from Silavik!'
The kinks snarled sharply and then came unknotted.
He emerged from the story.
Asatchaq's cassette, scrolled crisply in its spindle
froze and went silent.
'That uqaluktuaq8,' I started, 'of the hunter and the polar bear
with tooth-ache…' 'We don't listen much to those now,'
he reported, as if forwarding a message
from his middle generation who had known them from their elders,
then disburdened themselves from the stress of too much ownership.
'Let the old man tell you. I won't tell you.
By the way,' he continued, 'how many poems have you written?'
And then: 'Here's one of mine. It's for you and about you.'
Tom Lowenstein came to Point Hope.
He went down to the beach.
He looked up at the sky.
Sea gull shit in his eye.
No sooner had Uqpik tuned his lyric,
to thus garland the honky9
with ironic laurel,
than his rebus became public.
The bird shit in my eye
was on everybody's tongue,
and was shaking their tonsils:
the old folks most severely,
they were heaving,
and the smokers had the worst of it,
bent in the P.O or the Co-op
far as their arthritic joints would let them,
crippled to the thorax,
sputum erupting, desisting at last
with low weak tee hee-s
as Uqpik applied to his latest consumer.
Years later I saw the man's mercury still running
when for Piquk's dog-team,
on a nasty, darkening March afternoon,
they cut together snowblocks,
and piled them in a semi-circle for a windbreak:
and suddenly, the construction done,
he grabbed some antlers.
They were lying in the general clutter,
and he raised them to crown his hat and hood-ruff.
I was sorting ropes and harness
and glanced up through the snow drift
to see his hat and thick black glasses,
horns raised above them,
cheek-bones queerly twisted,
and under the antlers, the Inupiaq laughter.
Then he started to dance
among the dogs there -
dug now well into their cover -
hands cupped on ears,
antlers branching from the deer-skull,
the rack swaying vertically
as Uqpik slanted.
It was simply a gag and didn't go on.
He chucked off the horns
in a heap of rubbish.
Nor might I have noticed some other joker.
And yet here,
in allusion, his geste, a footnote merely,
was spirit life as sketched at Trois Freres or at Mas d'Azil10:
the strutting biform - mixtumque genus11 -
in joking shamanistic evocation,
casually abandoned for tea and seal meat
and something dry, in Piquk's cabin,
to de-mist his glasses with.
It was this Inupiaq, but perhaps not him only,
in the cycle of lives he picked up and discarded,
who slotted in and then disordered
the shifting selves of surface and sub-surface persons:
where otherwise the continuity?
It was atiq on atiq12
juggling of future and past portrait dance-masks,
cached into packs of infinitely branching series -
a deep, violently cold larder -
shells of their faces stacked together,
foreheads of life 'One' pleated in the next version's fissure:
weren't they brittle and transparent?
Or was this spirit-skin more pliant
down here that they nourished,
each face fitted into strictly knitted kinship links,
and not free to disaffiliate,
or drift to resorts of their own volition,
improvised bearings and upside-downness13?
'Can I borrow your cheeks?' Uqpik went off joking.
'Mine are frozen.'
Those were rigid constellations
And the spaces between were ordained, unmoving.
Come and go you did not.
There was time in it there, with its limits and anxieties:
The forebears at large within the system:
An anterior medium, collective nekuia,
Down where finite populations travelled:
Webbed strings lit, intermittent,
And where meat, work, games
And procreation drove originating passages.
Rebirth came. It was repeated.
The reprises were foreseen: enchanted advents
Taken care of by habituation. All were
Involved always, and the involution spiraled
In a circle of repeated faces, softly figured,
Coalescent one with another,
As though features - colluding
In the long exchange of plane and angle,
The measure of a jaw, the set of cheek-bones
Or the clear range of a forehead -
Might shift and return, transform at the touch
Of sudden but predictable extra-consanguinity,
Wither in old age, go out, and then return
As though previously uncompounded,
And new semblances wrest, recalling
Patterns long forgotten,
Yet recurrently familiar
As collaborative life forms:
Past and future compassed in the present,
Circling each generation.
'Those polar bears know me,' Uqpik went on, later.
I'm not afraid of them. But they all know me.
Once I went out with Agniin, my sister.
We were on the sea ice - straight out there,'
pointing to the north side, towards Cape Lisburne.
'Where's your rifle?' asked my sister.
'I don't need a rifle. Those polar bears know me.'
So we went out further. Came to an ice pile.
'There's a polar bear behind that ice,' I told her.
She believed me. She knew hunting.
Then I shouted to it. Called out loudly.
Polar bear was sleeping maybe.
Then we heard its feet on the snow. And grunting, breathing.'
'Come on,' said my sister. She wanted to go home now.
'It won't eat you. I'll tell it not to eat you.'
Then that nanuq came round. It was quite a big one.
Mean and skinny. Sick, I guess. Hungry.
It'd been in a fight. Got hurt by a walrus,
maybe in its belly. That's when I started.
'Don't eat her!' I shouted.
'Come and eat me!' 'Arii!' said my sister. She was scared by this time.
'When it's eaten me, it'll have you for its supper.'
She turned her back and started to walk home.
'All right,' I told the nanuq. It could understand my language.
'That's my sister. I will follow.
She doesn't like you. But I'll come back later.'
Damn' if that nanuq didn't walk back behind me.
I stopped a while and tried to help it.
'Go and get yourself some seal meat.
Then I'll come and find you.'
1 Late 19th century whaler-trader's settlement 5 miles from village
2 cliffs 35 miles south of village
3 iglu entrance tunnel; frame house storm shed; traditionally locus of visionary events.
4 Evokes fable in which snowy owl and peregrine get speckled feathers when raven throws lamp soot at them.
5 Tar paper insulation
6 19th century woodcut artist of theatre prints.
7 raw frozen
8 ancestor story
9 Black American term for white man used in the village.
10 Palaeolithic cave sites. The allusion, at Trois Freres, is to a horned male dancer, sometimes known as 'the sorcerer'.
11 Said of the minotaur's 'mixed species', Aeneid 6.25. I've kept the here non-grammatical suffix -que to keep the phrase intact.
12 Literally 'name', but here also 'namesake'. Atiq was a soul component which was reborn into a child of the same name.
13 Upside-downness was a symbol of primordial chaos.
A version of At Uqpik's Cabin was published by Shearsman Books in the title sequence of Tom Lowenstein's Ancestors and Species: New & Selected Ethnographic Poetry (2006). Thanks to Shearsman for permission to republish.