Fox-Wife, Wolf Wife and Walrus Fingers

Richard Price, The Owner of the Sea (Carcanet, 2021)

Only Carcanet could do justice to this book; one that is both a testimony to clarity and concision in narrative poetry, and also has a woman who has sex with a dog.

Richard Price, whose collections Small World (2012) and Moon for Sale (2017), are masterpieces of clarity and careful pacing, has endeavoured to bring three Inuit folk tales into English language poetry; “The Owner of the Sea”, “The Old Woman Who Changed Herself into a Man”, and the epic Kiviuq.

Each tale is full of bawdy, fun and cruelty in the best of the old storytelling tradition.

Price walks a tightrope between outright filth and respectable poetic style with an effortlessness that is majestic to behold. One suspects that a lesser poet, with a lesser publisher, would have come unstuck. Instead, Price puts in a perfect performance.

So what are the tales?

“The Owner of the Sea” is a rather opaque origin myth for the mysteries of the deep.

The owner – “The Woman Who Was Always Having Sex”, “The Terrifying One” – refuses to listen to her father who wants to marry her off. Instead, she spends her days combing her hair and having sex with her dog, who she calls “Husband”.

She moves out, across the water, but still depends on her father for food packages. Husband swims across the water between them, carrying the packets, until, one day, the humiliated father fills a package with rocks.

Husband drowns. She fights with her father. Finally, she is cast into the sea.

As she tries to climb into his canoe, he slices off her fingertips – these become seals – then down to the knuckles – these become walruses – and then, off come the stubs, the last of the fingers, which become whales.

She plunges into the sea and her hair is the seaweed, and now you must placate her if you want the bounty of her animals.

It’s a moving tale, in parts, and in parts quite shocking and surprising. It bears the marks of oral tradition, where characters are invulnerable, uninhibited, and the only details are those whose striking imagery captures the imagination, and allows them to be remembered.

Price’s poetry translates this directness to the page. Short lines and expansive use of white space give the words room to breathe. The wind blows through them like an arctic breeze across a fishing boat. Very little is said, but nothing is rushed.

“The Old Woman Who Changed Herself into a Man” is similar to “The Owner of the Sea” in many ways. Knives are taken to body parts – transformation through mutilation – and the traditional place of woman is inverted, norms upset.

It is only when we reach Kiviuq that we see the other half of this society; the male hunters with women waiting for them, sometimes betraying them.

Kiviuq is a wandering hero, the old archetype, familiar from Viking sagas and Celtic myth. He learns to hide inside a seal skin and become a great hunter, only to be bullied by the other boys who plan to kill him.

Inside the seal skin, he gains the seal’s abilities. He tips over the boys’ boats and drowns them. Thus he begins his wanderings, as an outcast.

The Kiviuq cycle is the longest of the three tales. It contains the least allegorical material, and is the loosest in construction. Although there is a beginning, there is no end. Kiviuq is perhaps still out there now, taking up with more women and witches, and facing ever-greater perils.

He is no Cu Chulainn, all-powerful warrior, but an Odysseus, a fighter who lives by his wits.

For those interested in myths and archetypes, there is much red meat here. There is also great poetry. Poems like “Stone House” – part of the “Old Woman Who…” tale – that is simply one potent, resonant line:

                “Ours is a stone house so perhaps the first people made it.”

As far as scene-setting goes, what more do you need?

These are stories that should be more well-known, and Price’s translation ought to become the standard version in English. A timeless collection.

  • Joe Darlington

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