From ‘The Structure of Days Out’

Tom Lowenstein

1

. . . 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,

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
the kittiwakes’ incessant weeping.
So they shuffled, fluttered,
appearing to flounder,

air to whale bone,
dropping

one, and then another,
shuttling their pattern,

and jumping across,
they wavered – idle slightly –

restless, in some exercise
of voyaging or ritual,

the purpose
of their long migration

and this point of repose here
inexplicit.

2

Most days I’d forage in the Co-op, fetch my mail, walk out
to watch the sea ice, and pay visits to extended families.
For a time, till I quarrelled with Stubbs and his second,
I ate school lunch, and then told stories
that the elders had recorded for me to the elementary classes.

The children drew whales, bears, caribou
and all the little animals that struggled through the ancient fables
for their space in the scheme of the early creation.
How squirrels fought back against polar bears
that bullied them; how lemmings outwitted predatory owls and ravens;
and the red fox was punished by the primal shamaness
for raiding her meat cache and not doing his own hunting.
From deep in social memory and observation, the children drafted
lively, knowledgable figures. They breathed quietly on their pages
and out leaped back-lines of companion species,
bounding from the margins in spontaneous series: co-production,
fabulous, in nova . . . formas corpora:
transformed to the present with their daddies in goggles
on skidoos with sledges, and men in wool hats,
with cigarettes astream and shotguns spurting.

Before nightfall I’d walk home, having multiply eaten,
always famished by the time I’d crossed the village.
From the east as I approached the house,
the blue forms, in the twilight, of the bear-skins
high above the storm shed greeted me austerely.
Hair glowing darkly in the twilight
and packed loosely to the clapboard in a thick, sharp vanilla,
it seemed they inclined stiffly to embrace me
(and my home inside, which stood behind them), enjoining me
to share, as I approached, their mute,
inconsequential crucifixion.

When I came home from the north side, they leaned,
by contrast, in reverse direction, deep into the clapboard,
turning in their embrace, as though with their fur
they cringed towards the insulation, ashamed to be seen –
by a white man even – empty, inside out and internally naked.

As the wind beat onto and across their membrane,
the flensed, red-flecked surface that the women had scraped
with their half-moon ulus, had dried crisp to a vellum,
scoured down to the finest, inaccessible capillary:

continued on page 26

as though Saul was preparing some manuscript parchment
on which – where the scribble of veins
and a maze of intestines had recently figured –
he might chart his own labyrinthine circuits.

Most nights I’d spend hours at an upstairs table,
hemmed in by bear robes,
bracketed into that compound body,
its twofold presence, open-chested,
thickening the north wall’s insulation,
hidden, except in occasional flurries,
when the wind came in a circle,
and white-yellow bristles sprouted up and outwards,
horripilating grimly in the moon or the aurora.

Uqpik, whose house, due north, was visible,
would sometimes emerge,
and walk quickly through the snow blur to the sea ice.
Uqpik hunted alone, stayed out till nightfall and walked home in starlight.

When he sang they would come – or so,
from his jokes and mutterings I would imagine –

and he’d talk to the bears, insult them, laugh, scold,
light a Camel. Sometimes shoot one. Then leave them to it.

At Piquk’s that winter, for the first time, I ate bear meat.
Piquk cooked it at a fast boil in a great zinc basin.
Like boiled horse, it rolled in grey, heavy water,
releasing brown suds and a granular bonemeal,
in miserable, humiliating scum which clung to the pieces.
I liked seal, caribou and whale – meat, fat,
guts and stomachs, rutting, high, dried, raw, fermented, frozen –
but I never could enjoy the long, tough fibres of a nanuq filet,
the stink of its aborted energy spun out through the whiff of propane,
then defying the knife and rooting in the molars.

Still, to finish the evening we ate four of the bears’ feet:
delicate, translucent, shared out between eight of us,
separated with our knives and ulus,
gristle trembling, gelatinous,
toes stripped to the yellow hourglass of each metacarpal,
the claws rattling on dinner plates, then swept into the garbage.

3

‘Those polar bears know me,’ Uqpik announced, later.
‘And 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 ivuniq.
“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 malik.
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.”’

The door to the storm shed was always tricky.
The padlock jammed and the hinges were crooked.
Once I was inside, it took a minute
coming from the snow-glare to adjust to the darkness.

Downstairs was a storage room that Kunuyaq and Backland had abandoned,
unlit but for chinks of snow-light
through the clapboard of the north wall showing.
So far as I knew there was nothing in the store room,
till one evening, with a flash light, I went in there,
and saw hanging on the west wall, seal skin maklaks,
harpoon shafts from the 1950s, antiquated traps and firearms.

A rectangular table, with heavily bulbed legs
and inlaid with snowdrift, filled the darkness.
I thought at first it was a grand piano,
and flashed on Parkman’s account of the mid-1840s,
of ‘shattered wrecks of ancient claw-footed tables’,
and ‘cherished relics flung out to scorch and crack upon the . . . prairie’.
It was in fact a billiard table, hauled north, Suuyuk told me, in the 1940s.
‘All the men played then. Real good players.’

I’d watched young men at pool in Rock’s Coffee Shop,
self-confidently rolling with their sea-ice cakewalk
round the table: denims and bandanas,
outdoor-booted, quietly competitive,
but less to win than figure a trajectory,
the likelihood of one uncertainty against another,
the slice, clack and negotiated tangent
to the stream of movement,
a pure line tracked in spontaneity,
shooting from the mind
across the intervention, space subverted,
intersected by a maze of transitory angles.

They were casually so clever.
As though to comprehend the longitude
of points at a distance were inherent
in the eye-hand balance:
any swivel or contortion regulated
by a small, quick adjustment,
so the bones were in alignment,
ribs and pelvis sprung
in an elastic parallel,
the body drawn like a compass needle
to its polar absolute.

In puffs of chalk dust, the clipped violence
of breaks, shots, slams and ricochets,
glances off cue-ball streaking down into the pocket,
was a hunt and dance-play,
dry, hygienic study,
geometric diagram,
of relations they had known since childhood –
along telescopic sights and barrels –
with animals across snowy mountainsides,
wild fowl shearing downwind in the twilight,
seals popping up in difficult currents,
all things in the grain of habitat and movement,
and whose sudden appearances, so often awkward,
demanded an instant counter-intersection.