The Owner of the Sea by British poet Richard Price (Carcanet Press) is a fascinating retelling of three Inuit stories. It’s not a translation of those stories. The poet based his version on folk stories told by elders and tales by the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen.
The poet himself, and fellow poet and arctic researcher Nancy Campbell are quick to point out the differences between the Inuit experience and our current sensibilities. In the book itself, however, we find no real attempt to make these stories more palatable to us. Shapeshifting seal hunters who wantonly go about murdering or casting aside sexual partners––especially when they have been unfaithful—well, an explanation would be nice, although what good would it do? No, not because it’s not entertaining, as some of the stories––and also the poems spinning off from them—hold the attention with ease. My question was rather why an obviously conscious choice has been made by the poet to present these tales in new poetic form, without adding any women-friendliness or sanitizing some scatological parts.
Here and there, lyrical bits have been introduced though. There might also be some new ramblings about moral issues, such as in the poem “Questions.” New plotlines can be found in the poem of the fox-woman who cries so much that her tears and snot freeze fast into a stalactite. How her husband Kiviuq unfreezes her from this “jail bar and pinion,” well, let’s not spoil that gem.
On the whole the book is refreshingly without judgment of the Inuit’s customs and mores. We can only appreciate that their ancient oral traditions are brought to a new readership in an interesting loose narrative thread, which is also a feature of the original stories, but in poetic form it’s intensified. The poet calls it filmic “serial minimalism,” and it can just as easily flow backwards, or stop in the middle of nowhere.
I am my own bait.
I am a seal walking through the settlement.
Campbell’s afterword finds a solution to bringing these stories closer to us by contextualizing the Inuit stories into the imperiled Arctic seas that are being exploited by industry and human greed. By directing the focus onto asking who the owner of the sea is, she states the poignantly obvious that it is not the Inuit anymore. However, it’s doubtful that they ever were owners of their strip of the Arctic, even while they didn’t meet anybody from other lands. As their stories, and the poems in The Owner of the Sea, demonstrate, they had plenty of enemies amongst themselves. Also, with the sea and ice around and the constant preoccupation about hunting and feeding themselves, they were well aware of their dependence on the bounty of the ocean, and not the other way around.
The environmental issue, therefore, doesn’t seem to be the main preoccupation of the poet. The opening poem of The Owner of the Sea firmly takes the reader out of current affairs to the realm of myth in personifying the Owner as a sort of goddess with many names, all metaphorical. The themes are set, this is a book about language and its ability to construct a world, rather than about newspaper subjects concerned about the loss of habitats.
Did I mention we will hear quite a lot about sex? Mainly from the male perspective, as fittingly we are in the realm of the one down there, which is italicized as if whispered in awe. The one down there is a funny tongue-in-cheek phrase in the context of lofty praise for the ocean spirit Sedna. Sex, just to be super clear here, in the world of the Inuit myths, consists mainly of getting off on a penis. Where there is no male, either animal or human, available, a piece of driftwood or a penis rising like Excalibur from the lake suffices to satisfy female and male characters alike. The difference between the sexes is that female characters seem to lack other amusements besides sewing and cooking. The women portrayed in the book are mostly not very nice, ranging from evil seductresses, such as the bee woman who collects skulls of men in her house, or the mother who kills her daughter because she is jealous.
Price writes in his introduction: “Clearly, and malignly, key decisions are reserved for men. The tales pull no punches in describing how fraught with the jeopardy of violent misogyny such a society can, at its worst, be. Yet they also prod and jab at the problem of individualism within a society which only has so much room for ‘free will’.
Unfortunately though, the women in the poems are no less violent, although the clever ones use a proxy. The tale of wandering hero Kiviuq starts off with the grandmother being a deciding figure, determining her grandson’s life, teaching him how to swim and breathe underwater, and sewing him in the skin of a seal, sending him out to trick a bunch of “evil” hunters out to open sea where they drown in rough weather. Not your usual granny with apple cheeks:
Do you recognise me, grandmother?
Don’t mistake me for a seal and kill me!
Women don’t hunt, now do they?
I will always recognise you.
(Of course women hunt
but my grandmother knew that.)
It’s true that some poems featuring female characters speak movingly and lovingly, but that is after numerous poems where they get told off, butchered or used as sexual prey. Or shat out, surely one of the highlights of the book!
The truth is the wolverine didn’t have a wife.
For some reason, females tended to avoid him.
No problem, he said to himself, I’ll just shit a wife.
He crouched down and he shat a human woman right out of his backside,
the biggest shite he’d shot out of his hind quarters
since he’d eaten a whole caribou a few years back
(now I come to think about, he said to himself,
a diseased beast I found in its death throes,
tastier than you’d expect, an acquired taste, I grant you, I’ll give you that,
but I left barely a flake of flesh on the bone.”)
He turned round and he finished shaping the shite into a woman,
finessed a bit of the detailing. But he didn’t want to fuss for too long.
“Sure, one woman’s the same as another, Kiviuq’s still gonna want to fuck
that, almost feel like having a go myself.”
“But I better go, don’t want to break my promise to the man,
time to visit next door.”
In some ways this is made even more misogynistic than the original tale, in which we find the wolverine already a pair when they meet Kiviuq. The male of the couple proposes an exchange of partners (called a wife exchange in the poem to emphasize that the women partners have no vote in this).
Another embellishment by the poet is when hero Kiviuq eats the shit of his beloved wife. The mention of shit, particularly the eating of it, is reserved for animals in the Inuit elders’ stories. Whether the ridiculousness of these scenes redeem them as satire of male attitudes towards women, I’ll leave open to judgment, taking into account those readers who would not find it funny but only disgusting and crude.
Price might have had more loving material on the Fox-wife, or it spoke to him more.
Kiviuq and his wife –
Does she have a name in this story? No.
Kiviuq and his wife share their lives lovingly
and if the fox-wife is the dead angakkuq he’s happy,
she deserves a second life and don’t ask
what Kiviuq deserves or if he’s sorry. We’re not in
that kind of world,
This is an example out of a few occasions where Price has inserted commentary by a narrator, especially when Kiviuq has performed some horrid deed, such as murdered the husband of his lost wife who remarried in his absence. As some reviewers have said, these poems may sound childlike, using simple wording, giving them a singsong quality. They gain with repeated reading, which might also have to do with one becoming numb or more used to some of the more shocking passages so other qualities can come more to the foreground.
“If you live for thousands of years”
If you live for thousands of years
is love for ordinary mortals foolish?
Is it love? Do you protect yourself
by trying not to love?
Can tenderness only find comprehension
between creatures promised death soon enough?
Can love only exist between ordinary creatures
who cherish the fragile lives they share?
It’s a beautiful poem but it sounds as something that was put in by the poet, and not a preoccupation in the Inuit tradition. Other poetic highlights include “Silaup putunga” (“The hole in the universe”) and “I travel by song.” The last part of the book has lots of poetic poems, perhaps it’s to do with it being The Goose story, and birds being more poetic with their spiritual connotations of flight. One cannot help introducing a pause for thought at “Waterfowl,” where Kiviuq finds his goose wife and two children not home. They’re flying south for the winter. His mother says, “You can’t go against nature, son.” I don’t think Price had the famous poems by William Cullen Bryant and Donald Hall (also titled “To a Waterfowl”) in mind, with the narrator contemplating his loneliness. With The Owner of the Sea staying in the folktale genre, Kiviuq lacks any realization or reflection of the metaphysical state he is in, and he is doomed to keep traveling while fucking, escaping, and murdering his partners and other members of creation.
JACQUELINE SCHAALJE has published poetry and short fiction, most recently in The Friday Poem, Free State Review, California Quarterly, and Six Sentences, and forthcoming in The Comstock Review. She is a translation editor at MAYDAY. She earned her MA in English from the University of Amsterdam.
RICHARD PRICE is a poet, novelist, and curator. His collections include Lucky Day, Small World and Moon for Sale (all published by Carcanet): his topics are modern families and modern relationships; his forms are various but he says “essentially lyric with musical/expressionist edges.” He is Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library in London.