Looking at Photos and Telling Stories: Mark Prendergast reviews ‘How to Dress a Fish’ by Abigail Chabitnoy

How to Dress a Fish by Abigail Chabitnoy Wesleyan University Press 2019

I used to know someone who had a beautiful, unusual name. I have only ever met one person with this name. She had soft, lustrous brown skin (the envy of all the women who worked with her) and a thatch of the thickest straight black hair, which would not lie flat. We called her our “Indian Princess”. She lived with a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that almost exclusively affects girls. After attending a conference about this disorder, one of the women who had worked with her for a long time took some pride in finding out our princess may have been the oldest person in Australia living with this condition. Another female carer at this house was an early-career historian, working in the field of disability to pay the bills after her marriage broke down. She went to the archive to find out more about our princess. In fact, she was born an Inuit and had been adopted and brought to Australia in her infancy. (I heard her adoptive parents were religious.) Subsequently made a ward of the state, she had lived in state care ever since. Sometimes, when I was assisting this woman with everyday things, I would wonder about her incredible life journey. I would have loved to learn more about it from her, but she had no words.

Abigail Chabitnoy is an American poet of Germanic and Alutiiq heritage, and How to Dress a Fish is her first collection of poetry. The book is the outcome of Chabitnoy’s project to find out what she could about her great-grandfather, Michael, a Native Alaskan purportedly orphaned as a boy, and taken from his family to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1909. (The Indian School had been founded at a surplus army barracks in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Marianne Moore taught there from 1911 to 1914, work she referred to in later years as ”soldiering”.) One of the primary documents Chabitnoy addresses is a photo of Michael, dressed in an ill-fitting suit, standing in front of a painted backdrop with a long rent down one side, an exhibition of the illusion of assimilation. By investigating these records from the colonial archive, Chabitnoy journeys and journals from Middle America to the Pacific, at times in confused fear, to learn what it means to be “of the water”.

 I am afraid to put my face under
water ..afraid of filling these lungs
until the strain on my line
pulls me under

mouth open

One of the concepts Chabitnoy utilises is that of putting things right, of doing things the right way. So, a poem about making salmon cakes – an archetypal “women’s poem” overturned – shifts between loss and resourcefulness, and from sustenance to disturbing dreams:

In all the cans of fish
never so much…………never
so much –

I threw them in the waste pan
and spent the evening
looking

for other bones
I might have
missed

for nights
I dreamed of other bodies
escaping
……………and bad omens.

 There are no neat resolutions in Chabitnoy’s poetic, nor are past events reinterred through a tragic reading of history. Her poems have currency. So, for instance, a couple of other poems in How to Dress a Fish describe the experience of a wildfire emergency: “Not a bird remained/ only a wall of hostile air/ and the sea/ the smell of fish/ baking”. As a progressive settler reader, my first inclination is to read these poems as a wake-up call, as Chabitnoy’s effort to smack the reader in the face with a wet fish. But is this simply another misreading? Perhaps Chabitnoy’s poetic of looking both backwards and forwards speaks more to the evolving traditions of Native Alaskan cultures?

Being white, it would be a kind of nonsense for me to consider that people in my family might have become alcoholics because they were white. In the poem ‘Elocution Lessons’, Chabitnoy faces down the bio-political anxieties generated by her Alutiiq heritage and her familial experience of alcoholism. Is it in the blood?:

I have inherited more skeletons than I can count. Such a weary weight
to conquer this mass
.

Q: Statistically speaking,
…………………………………..Must I be old?
…………………………………..Must I be traditional?
…………………………………..
Must I be fair?

Fair skinned, fair haired, neatly squared?

That means, “the right box on a demographic form”

 In these poems Chabitnoy is racing from questioning the colonial archive’s ascriptions of identity, to radical doubt with regard to all collated Eurocentric knowledge about Native Americans. The middle section of the book ends with another dream-poem, ‘Qawanguq with House’. Not incidentally, there are no translations of the Alutiiq text in the book; rather, a link is provided to the Alutiiq Museum’s “Word of the Week” page. Here, Chabitnoy is reweaving the complex of simple, elemental images she works with associatively to intuit deeper ways of knowing:

I dug my way back
………….to survive the flood
into the earth

I didn’t know what I didn’t know………………………………………………..You can’t throw the fish
………….I didn’t know……………………………………………………………………..back in the water
what kind of monster was I………………………………………………………….and expect to swim –

So I dug.

 I dug out a rib
and another’s rib
………….
another

I dug deeper………….………….
………….until

I reached the bottom of this
house I reached the cellar
where the center was cold

 where I could hide

 .

 my body full of bodies.

 You also get some indication here of the energy Chabitnoy devotes to typography and layout across the whole field of the page, in her highly visual multi-vocality.

 The third section of How to Dress a Fish shifts from coming to terms with lineage and ancestry, and the processes of healing as a kind of rebirth, to a critical investigation of history. The first poem in this section rhetorically and typographically reduces all settler constructs of knowledge (including current understandings of colonialism as genocide) to the status of myth. Part of Chabitnoy’s process in the poem ‘History Lesson’, a poem that draws on non-fiction sources about the Russian colonisation of the Aleuts, is omission. Not simply erasure or elision or redaction, but a somewhat more cold-blooded exercise of authority, of power:

[The Destroyer] then proceeded to destroy without
ruse or surprise any baidarkas found on premises, and
to break throwing boards, darts, spears culture and
bows and arrows. by these means [The Destroyer]
destroyed not people so much as [his] means of
survival. It is by these means, and not by genocide,
which is largely mythological (we know little) that
he broke … and entered Aluet folklore.

 largely mythological This man, who in 1970 would
be remembered by Aluet chiefs of Unalaska as the
Destroyer, understood and respected the Aluets.

[NOTE TO SELF: After this poem, include
definitions of GENOCIDE.]

 What do you call a note to act that has no intentional force? The following poem, ‘Collection Object’ is a long poem that radiates across fourteen pages, as the poet questions: how is culture reacquired, who determines what culture consists of, what is cultural knowledge and how is it passed on? Here are a few grabs:

Before we were Russian.
They told us
………………we were Russian.
It means salmon-fisher in Russian.
…………………………………………………………………………………………Doesn’t it?

 –/–

In my memories, often my mother…..becomes a scapegoat.

A Daughter must be faultless
in her presentation.

…………..“Guard your tongue in youth,” said the old chief, “and in age…………..…………..
…………..you may mature a thought that will be of service to your people.”

(I read this in a book someone gave me, The Wisdom of the NATIVE
AMERICANS.)

 –/–

 I saw a bear in Pennsylvania once

No one believed me.

…………………………………………………..Use the mask, giinaruaq (“like a face”):

 –/–

I heard we were not Indians after all.
I heard we were our own not-Indian-indigenous people.

It’s complicated.

We call them naked ones.

……………………………………………………………..(They:)
…………………………………………Matarngasqat Camani amlertut.

 In ‘Collection Object’, and the other poems that make up the third section of How to Dress a Fish, Chabitnoy charts the meaning-making of her recuperated being. As an settler Australian reader, I somehow want the end of this poem to be the end of the collection. But it isn’t. Chabitnoy’s project is not only one of singular regenerative autoethnography. She reaches back to the women who lived alongside her great-grandfather and ancestors, but whose stories are buried beneath deeper layers of omission. Furthermore, in ‘Ways to Skin a Fish’, and in the notes at the end of the book, Chabitnoy outlines her family’s engagement with the legal processes that followed from passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. And the poem ‘How to Make a Memorial’ tries to find the words (“It couldn’t even be called a war”) for an ignoble event in the brutalising history of the colonisation of the Aluets.

Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang’s essay “Decolonization is not a Metaphor”, unpacks some of the elusiveness of settler colonialism, including white “moves to innocence”:

Everything within a settler colonial society strains to destroy or assimilate the Native in order to disappear them from the land – this is how a society can have multiple simultaneous and conflicting messages about Indigenous peoples, such as all Indians are dead, located in faraway reservations, that contemporary Indigenous people are less indigenous than prior generations, and that all Americans are a “little bit Indian.”

 Chabitnoy’s docupoetry sits and wrestles with this complexion from the get go. How to Dress a Fish opens with the poetic persona directly addressing a ghost from the past (Chabitnoy’s great-grandfather) asking the urgent question: what is the right form of redress? Then we jump into another voice altogether (drawn from a collection of Aleut folk tales), a voice that is broken up and breaks down, as it is annotated with wacky scrupulosity. Chabitnoy’s spirited intelligence (co)operates and contends with/in all the fractured elements that make up the mish-mashed zone of her creative being. Her remarkable poetic debut avails itself of all the tricks and turns of contemporary poetics, and adds to the growing body of doucupoetry investigating the particularities of global settler colonialism.

 – Mark Prendergast 

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Mark Prendergast is a poet and writer living in Preston. His review of Jeanine Leane’s Walk Back Over and Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics was published in Rochford Street Review 28.

How to Dress a Fish is available from https://www.hfsbooks.com/catalog/titles/?search=how+to+dress+a+fish&ref=Search+Titles

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