Ice and Identity

  • Jay Ruzesky
    In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage. Nightwood Editions (purchase at
  • Pete Sarsfield and Kim Mann (Illustrator)
    Glacial Erratics. Your Nickel's Worth (purchase at
  • Sean A. Tinsley and Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley
    Ajjiit: Dark Dream of the Ancient Arctic. Inhabit Media (purchase at
Reviewed by Shane McCorristine

The Antarctic tourism industry thrives on people’s sense of enchantment. In visiting the huts of Shackleton or Scott, the tourist can become a polar explorer; going to an otherworldly and pristine realm that most will never be able to visit. Given the role that the race for the South Pole still has in forging our imagined geography of Antarctica, it is no surprise that tourists are obsessed with the past, with literally walking in the footsteps of dead explorers. Jay Ruzesky’s In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage emerges from this context and is part travelogue, part memoir, and part narrative recreation of Roald Amundsen’s successful journey to the South Pole in 1911. Ruzesky, a poet and professor of Creative Writing, is a distant relative of Amundsen’s and was motivated by the centennial of the Norwegian explorer’s achievement to set off on his own journey on a cruise ship to Antarctica in the company of his brother—ironically named Scott. Ruzesky weaves together memories from his childhood with reflections on the trip south through Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. Vignettes from Amundsen’s triumphant Antarctic expedition provide the connecting thread in what is a well-written and well-illustrated book. Ruzesky does rehash some of the old dichotomies that haunt historical research on polar exploration (the egalitarian Norwegians learned from the Inuit; the class-ridden British ignored indigenous knowledge) but his ecstatic engagement with Antarctica is infectious. At times, this risks becoming overbearing (“my own quest to Antarctica is not just a following of footsteps, it is a pilgrimage to the place where epic struggles played out, where heroes were made and died, and where the gods had announced their presence in the form of unknown and indescribable wonders”), but Ruzesky does tap in to the magnetic attachment that many Western men have with Antarctica. There is no questioning of this enchantment and what it might hide, but as a polar dreamer the author probably has more in common with explorers like Shackleton and Amundsen than with academics interested in Eurocentric ways of seeing.

Ajjiit: Dark Dreams of the Ancient Arctic by Sean A. Tinsley and Rachel A. Qitsualik is a wonderfully phantasmagoric collection of fantasy tales inspired by traditional Inuit stories of transformation and struggle. This promising collaboration paints an Arctic landscape inhabited by spirits, animals, humans, and non-humans—all of whom share certain needs and desires. In the opening tale “Elder”, Pigliq, a member of the Inugarulliit, or Humble Folk, is unable to dream and is therefore marginalised and bullied by his people. But in a dramatic turn of events, the sleepless Pigliq is the only one who can resist the onslaught of the Sinnaktuumait, the monsters from the sea who have come to steal the dreams of his people, leaving them soulless zombies. After rescuing the Humble Folk, Pigliq, recognisable as a kind of universal folk hero, becomes an Elder and leaves the community in search of others like himself.

I was lured into the world created by the authors because of their gentle introduction to the concepts and dramatis personae in Inuit cosmologies. These include the inuunngittut, or non-human beings like the Qallupiluq, a shape-shifter who resists the shackles of a single form but is fascinated with humans. In “The Qallupiluq Forgiven” one of these chimeras leaves its watery darkness to claim a human child who had violated a taboo at the sea ice. But far from showing any fear, the child sings from the hood of the Qallupiluq and prevents its returning beneath the ice:

The calf! The Qallupiluq screamed within its mind, even as the chimera’s mouth loosed a true scream; for the blue light, the flame that emanated from the child, was a qaumaniq, the aura wielded by the Some Seen. This child, then, was an Angakkuq. A Shaman.

The child forces the Qallupiluq to face up to a past injustice and thereby shares the concept of forgiveness, a type of strength it had not respected before. Other highlights include “Oil,” a sensuous and delightful revenge tale about a wife and her unwanted husband and “Slippery Babies,” a Lovecraftian nightmare about the feverish dreams of a woman who may or may not be a mother to two babies who wail “Ti, ti, ti. . . ,” “Taaq. . . .” This is a collection about what it means to be human, about the innua or core spirit that lies beneath the social masks of all animals and spirits in the Arctic.

Identity is also a concern in Pete Sarsfield’s wintry collection of poetry, Glacial Erratics. Encouraging the reader to dwell on the title (“n. A large block of rock carried by a glacier and deposited some distance from where it was formed”), Sarsfield’s poems speak of dislocation and of people who are lost or out of place. Watched over by Kim Mann’s photographs of snowy landscapes, frozen streams, and alert deer, the poems seem designed to inspire tension. There is a deep loneliness in the collection that is drawn from a sense that humans are a strange species. In “unwelcome company,” a spooked person wanders the docks afraid to even be alone with a rat. Elsewhere, “this one” concerns a suicide, removed from consecrated ground and dropped into an unsheltered harbour. Throughout, Sarsfield ponders the distance that remains between people who are near each other. The person who sits beside us on a plane is “separate, a reader, / head down in the dark aisle seat, a welcome stranger in her solitude” while the hotel rooms we claim from previous occupants become remote, “they absorb and deflect / leaving minimal trace or clue / unless excavated, with care.”

This review “Ice and Identity” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 186-88.

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