Abigail Chabitnoy’s How to Dress a Fish

Abigail Chabitnoy’s debut poetry collection, How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan University Press, 2019), represents the challenges of articulating ancestral history and how it comes to bear on the life of the poet. Chabitnoy’s great-grandfather, Michael Chabitnoy, who was taken from Alaska to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, is the focus of many of these poems. Chabitnoy, a member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, Alaska, uses her poetic skills to confront and negotiate her lost ancestral connections due to the brutalities of a dominant culture that oppressed and extinguished many Native American groups at genocidal levels. The poems in this collection are innovative and skillful, employing aesthetic techniques that coincide with the fragmented nature of the subject matter. They are creative meditations on personhood, history, family, and myth, engaging with unique forms—like grocery lists, newspaper/press clippings, and government records. They also make good use of photographs, white space within poems, and a hand-drawn symbol placed at key points throughout the book as a way to explore alternative modes of expression.

The poems in How to Dress a Fish are concerned with larger questions about history and Native American culture, and how that culture has been distorted, corrupted, cheapened, and in some ways, permanently destroyed. In many of these poems, Chabitnoy speaks directly to her great-grandfather, sometimes asking complex questions: “What’s behind you(r back)?” These questions hold immense depth in the collection and drive the narrative threads forward even as they appear fragmented, and at times, incomplete. In “Shebutnoy,” the speaker attempts to answer impossible questions about her family history, but manages to hit a nerve when she says:

They told the skeptics, yes, it can be done.

Because it could be done.
Because “Indian Marries White Girl.”
Because he died of consumption.
There are words I can’t say.

This part of the poem directly confronts the issues at hand in regards to oppression and genocide. The heaviest emphasis falls on “They told the skeptics, yes, it can be done. / Because it could be done.” The poem confronts faceless entities such as “They” and “the skeptics” but it goes much further. The inherently simplified tone in the phrase “Because it could be done” points to the absolute nature of domination and erasure. The newspaper title “Indian Marries White Girl” points to the dilution of blood; consumption points to the slow wasting away of the diseased body—leading to the present moment where the speaker says, “There are words I can’t say.” These words pertain to a lost language, but also, an inability to articulate past events that have led to a familial and cultural disconnect at devastatingly tragic levels.

What is invigorating about many of the poems in this collection is how Chabitnoy invents her own poetic forms in order to give space to the issues at hand. In the poem, “Survey of Resource Articulation,” Chabitnoy makes use of governmental and contractual language, poetic language, and white space, as well as margin notes and footnotes to create poetic tension that focuses on the assertion of personhood against domination/oppression. The poem becomes incredibly astute when it breaks from these tensions and fills the page with pure poetry:

I dream of the sea [break]
since a girl.
Each time I die,
I lay my body on a bed of shells [broken]
hollow to be strung. [breathless]
Each body having died [break]
multiple. [skip beat] like misplaced
boulders [break]
like fire-rock [breaking],
shape the shoreline.

The poetic expression here is beautiful because of its language and its directives, which are both liberating and healing—they show the reader how to read the poem amidst the chaos of the oppressive world that the larger poem inhabits. Words like “break,” “pause,” “skip beat,” and “wait” alleviate inner turmoil and produce calming effects. Later in the poem, the speaker takes note of the fact that “One can walk for days and still / see major landmarks seemingly / unchanged: the mountain / remains a mountain any way you / look at it.” However, the speaker also makes note of the fact that “a mountain / is a thing that grows.” In this sense, the mountain is a metaphorical representation of the current state of the world that is “unchanged” but “grows.” And yet, the speaker proclaims: “One begins to question, where are my / relatives?”

The variation of language in How to Dress a Fish is remarkably impressive. Chabitnoy incorporates a variety of textual modes that converse in ways that are poetic and confrontational. In “Collection Object” Chabitnoy excels in balancing official journalistic language and personal language to create moving tension. The poem begins with the use of visual-based poetic language concerned with authenticity and Alutiiq phrases: “Iksak ipeguq / Siilaq ipegtuq / Mingqun kakiwigmi et’uq.” Then, the poem switches to a press clipping from 1910:

Michael Chabitnoy, an Alaskan exstudent,
is one of the many Carlislers who is making
good out in the world. He has been in the
employment of the Hershey Candy Co.,
for about two years and is now earning
from four to five and a half dollars a day.

The tension of the poem increases as the speaker relays her personal experiences as a young female trying to connect with her ancestral heritage:

(I was wearing my raven pendant, the one from the wrong
village I bought at another museum, and a cheap circle
charm with “tribal” etchings I had bought for six dollars at a
rock shop in Old Town; it said I would come to no harm in
water, and I took it for a sign.
I wore a dream catcher in my right ear and a feather in my left.)

These two passages converge in ways that are both interesting and compelling. In the oppressive, white-washing language of the press clipping, the great-grandfather’s identity is annihilated with glossed-over labels like “Alaskan exstudent” and “Carlisler” and further complicated by the insistence that he “is making / good out in the world” by being in the “employment of the Hershey Candy Co.” and “earning / from four to five and a half dollars a day.” In the speaker’s personal reflection, objects are the focus; “raven pendant,” “cheap circle charm,” “dream catcher,” and “feather” are stand-ins for a previously erased ancestral history. Additionally, locations such as “the wrong village,” “another museum,” and “Old Town” are inadequate sites for the reconstruction of an ancestral culture that has been erased. And yet, the speaker continually attempts to recover that ancestral part of herself by using what she has available to her: “I made a pair of earrings. Ivory and turquoise / plastic. / They cannot be found for sale anywhere in the world.”

Other poems that are noteworthy for their engagement with erasure and the assertion of voice are “Family History” (including the companion poems “Family Story,” “My Story,” and “Or”) and “Articulation of Distance or, The Hero is Daily Called to Mind;” all of these poems use white space to powerful effect. How to Dress a Fish is a strong first effort for Chabitnoy; the collection is full of variation and depth at both the personal/political and technical/aesthetic level. What makes the poems in this collection special is their ability to bring forth the notion of the speaker as a nuanced witness and an empowered creator in terms of poetic possibility and enlightenment; they are courageous, wholly individual, and provide a solid foundation for more poems to come.

March 18, 2019