“Poem,” by Joan Naviyuk Kane

Commentary by Amanda Moore, Contributing Editor

One of the great frustrations I have as a writer is not the limit of my imagination—I have plenty of that—but rather the limit of my capacity with language. So often I reach for the word or phrase I want to describe something I see, feel, or experience and come up short. It’s not that what I want to say is too abstract to fit into language, but rather that my education and experience with words are sometimes inadequate to the occasion or my vision, and I need to head to the dictionary, thesaurus, or my more intelligent and “wordy” friends. What happens if this inability to find the word for something is because the language isn’t one I was born speaking? Or even more difficult, if the language I seek is disappearing, fading from use? In today’s poem, “Poem,” by Joan Naviyuk Kane, the speaker’s search for a word in Inupiaq, the language of her mother, uncovers compounded losses—natural, cultural, ancestral, and personal—that have accrued over time and echo through generations.

The poem opens with a simple declarative statement, “I imagine the cliffs bare,” a stark image of denuded nature, though the fact that the speaker has to imagine this implies that the cliffs aren’t bare—at least not yet. Not dwelling long on the imaginative act or the significance of the bare cliff, the speaker moves immediately into repeating a conversation, addressing “Mom,” and describing the exchange as one without novelty, the speaker locked in “a circuit of my own ignorance, one we repeat.” The familiarity of the exchange could be comforting, an affirmation of their relationship, but the ignorance she acknowledges indicates the repetitive discourse may also be problematic, a failing on the speaker’s part to grasp something significant. The speaker asks her mother if she knows a word for “seabird,” a question not unlike many she no doubt asked before.

This act of seeking language is a familiar one, especially between mother and child. I am reminded of when my toddler was first constructing a world of words, pointing at everything in sight to ask “Whassat?” in her sweet little lisp. “That’s a trash can, that’s a motorcycle, that’s a spider,” I would answer. In “Poem,” the dynamic is more poignant: the speaker is an adult seeking a word from the language of her ancestral heritage—literally her mother tongue, the Inupiaq her mother speaks. The way the question is phrased, “is there a word you know for seabird?” (emphasis mine), strikes me as  significant because it indicates the speaker understands there are indeed many words for “seabird”—many languages and cultures that contain this reference—but she’s seeking her mother’s particular knowledge, knowledge that has perhaps been difficult for her to grasp in her “circuit of ignorance.”

That the mother “this time . . . doesn’t want to disappoint” implies that in the past she had been unable to conjure the words her daughter asks for, whether from the limits of her own vocabulary or the untranslatable nature of certain parts of the Inupiaq language. Both mother and daughter seem eager to make the connection, to bridge the two languages, but the mother can only offer only what she can construct by putting the Inupiaq words for ocean and bird together to coin “Imaani.tiŋmiat,” which is, ironically, not all that different from the English “seabird.” The mother’s desire to please hints that this word, while adequate, is not a particular Inupiaq word but rather an ill-fitting garment fashioned from what is on hand at the time. The speaker, thinking about cliffs and the birds that dwell there, is perhaps looking for some specific way of seeing the world through Inupiaq words; her mother has only generalities or coinages to offer in response.

After this exchange, the poem shifts to a compelling use of punctuation-as-graphic: two identical lines of asterisks spaced out variably, mostly in pairs, with a few blank lines between the rows. In Kane’s recorded reading of the poem she offers silence here, but visually there is much more at work. I first think of these asterisks as a definitive and stylized break between stanzas, but I also understand them as figurative representations of the very seabirds the speaker is trying to learn to name. Asterisks, black punctuation marks with extended appendages, are how we might see seabirds from afar, skimming across a distant horizon or dotting a cliff face. While this graphic representation isn’t perfect—it almost never is with this kind of text-as-image—it still certainly evokes a sense of “bird.” In the same way that the Inupiaq word the mother offers for seabird is inexact or general, these asterisks are an inexact representation of seabirds. They may also represent the “particular constellation” mentioned toward the end of the poem. In any event, this visual inexactitude is a further example of the limits of language (and even the page) to describe what we see and experience.

The asterisks do provide a definitive break in the poem’s tone and structure. After the lines, the poem becomes less narrative and, although it asks several questions, there are no question marks or other end punctuation, the poem’s mechanics now embodying loss. Reentering the imaginative space of the poem’s beginning, the speaker wonders, “How many oceans full of seabirds were there,” lamenting what has been lost: oceans and seabirds, at least on the surface. Because “Poem” incorporates Inupiaq, a threatened language with only a few thousand speakers left, it is easy to hear this lament as something even deeper. Not a single word or seabird has been lost but entire languages or oceans of them.

“How many oceans / How many words,” the poem continues, further conflating birds and language. The horrors inflicted on indigenous populations as a result of European colonization, and the ways the government stripped tribes and families of their lands, rights, children, and languages, are innumerable and myriad. To put it in the parlance of the poem, the number of words, oceans, and seabirds lost is incalculable. “Poem” does not tread this ground overtly, but I find it impossible not to consider this history as the poem reminds us there were “many oceans once full.” Native people are not a monolith, and the imagery of the poem takes an expansive view: tribes and cultures are the oceans, each with its own ecosystem. There is not one language, one people, or one ocean lost but many, and in these oceans and on these cliffs were the myriad seabirds, which we now have precious “few words to describe.”

The final stanza of the poem is comprised of five interlocking lines that contain Inupiaq words and their translations, a celebration of the depth and beauty of what those words can hold as much as a declaration that not all Inupiaq language is yet lost, especially as the speaker repeats the words and moves them into our consciousness. These words, which take entire phrases to translate, don’t have English equivalence, a wonderful reversal of the speaker’s desire at first to contain what we can now see is a rather pedestrian English word, “seabird,” in the more sonorous and descriptive Inupiaq.

The first and third lines of this final stanza are anchored to the left margin of the page and begin with the Inupiaq word, followed by the translated phrase. The second and fourth lines fly away at different intervals from that left margin and begin with the translation, followed by the Inupiaq. The fifth and final line hangs in between them all, featuring the closing note: “imiktuq: it is echoing.” The effect of these interlocking lines is a melodic blending of languages, a back-and-forth that creates narrative and song. Just as the speaker’s mother combines two separate words, these line breaks and the lack of end punctuation invite the reader to combine English phrases and Inupiaq words to create new meanings, sounds, and phrases. I particularly love the blending that happens between the first two lines to give us another loss: “it blew away / a particular constellation containing many stars.” Among the words translated is “siġvauraq: young guillemot,” a specific seabird that is also a cliff dweller, evoking the opening line of the poem. There is also a lovely repetition of “imailaq / imiktuq” across the very last line break. Although I don’t speak Inupiaq, Kane’s recording of the poem helps me hear the call and response, the echo, the exchange of language between mother and daughter.

How ultimately fitting that this work is titled “Poem,” a signifier of the failure of a single word to describe and account for all the richness it encompasses. Like the asterisks, the title “Poem” is a figurative representation or description of the lines that follow. There is no perfect word to contain or even prepare the reader for the experience of the poem, so “Poem,” like “seabird” or “Imaani.tiŋmiat,” will have to do.


Amanda Moore, the author of this column, is a contributing editor to Poetry Sunday. Her poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Zyzzyva, Cream City Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. She received her MFA from Cornell University, where she served as Managing Editor for EPOCH magazine and was a lecturer at the John S. Knight Writing Institute. Currently a 2019 Fellow at The Writers Grotto, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center board member. She lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter.


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