Monday, August 21, 2006

Reader's Diary #143- Tom Lowenstein (Translator): Eskimo Poems from Canada and Greenland (up to "Heq")

When I go to read another's interpretation of another culture's art, I'm a little weary. Being from one of those cultures people tend to analyze, I've learned that too often outsiders are either culture blind (a new phrase I'm trying to coin) whereby everything we do is "simply marvelous!", or bigoted.

I had the same skepticism picking up Eskimo Poems. But, I was too intrigued by the collection to pass it up. I've voiced my concern before that I've been reading too much Eurocentric literature. And while most of Canadian literature fits into that category (the term "Eurocentric" has come to mean all Western culture in general), First Nations and Inuit literature doesn't seem to apply. All of our cultures may all be Americanized one day, but for now (and especially when these "Eskimo Poems" were written), there are enough obvious differences in our art. Watch Atanajuat, listen to Tanya Tagaq and tell me otherwise. It's unfortunate that many of the great poets of the past may have been Inuit but will likely never be recognized names like Keats, Frost, or Whitman. I think times are changing and new Inuit poets will probably have a better shot at success, but names like Aua will probably be forgotten except by a few openminded literati.

Knud Rasmussen, in his openmindedness, was a rarity of his time. These poems were originally collected by the Greendlandic born explorer in the early part of the 20th century. He translated the Inuktitut words into Danish, Lowenstein translated those into English. So being doubly translated there's some risk that something has been lost in translation- and perhaps even a risk that something has been added. However...

So far I'm enjoying the poems tremendously. In many ways they are different than most of the poetry that I've read. There's much more repetition- most were originally songs and to be remembered (there wasn't paper) had to have the repetition. Also, there's a lot of untranslatable syllables (ex. "jajai-ija") that end many of the stanzas. The repetition, the "jajai-ija"s (pronounced roughly as "yah-yie--eeya" -they still do this sort of singing today), and the themes revolving around nature all add to a near trance-inducing poetry experience.

That's not to say there are no similarities with non-Inuit poetry. The poems collected by Rasmussen are superbly crafted poems. There are some examples of figurative language,
"A little mouth,/that curves down at the corners/ like a stick, bent to form a
kayak's rib",
- from Netsit's "Men's Impotence"

"each time the sun/ climbs over the roof of the sky"

- from "Dead Man's Song"

and masterful imagery
"His head is swollen,/ his beak is hooked,/ and his round eyes/ have lids turned
inside out,/ red and heavy!"
-from Tatilgak's "Bird Song". Combined with the poet's unique way of interpreting mankind, these are great works of art.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Rasmussen seems like he would have been quite a rarity, in his sensitivity to another culture. You have had much more exposure to Inuit culture than I have, but yes, after hearing a musician like Tanya Tagaq, I can agree wholeheartedly that there are considerable differences between our forms of art.

Go ahead and coin "culture blind". It's a keeper.

John Mutford said...

I think the CBC has already tried out "Pop Culture Blindness". It's a reference to those insanely popular movies, books, etc that we sometimes miss. Like my wife who has never seen "The Breakfast Club."

Christina said...

I haven't seen "The Breakfast Club" either. In fact, sometimes insane popularity is what keeps me from reading a book (ie: Dan Brown's latest craze) or seeing a film. I'm not the least bit trendy, and I'm pretty stubborn. I pride myself in not being a bandwagon-jumper...with the exception of "Lord of the Rings" (which, in my defense, I read as a teen before the movie hype...)

...oh, and blogging. I finally succumbed to that too.

Yikes...I'm a closet trend-follower!


John Mutford said...

You can try coining "closet trend-follower". Coining your own phrases is the latest thing.