Book Review: Split Tooth
“We plant ideas/ With bullets we heed/ We raise fists we draw/ Fine lines to hold each other”
Carrying warm clear liquid
Let me undo your braid
Let your black hair cascade
Down your smooth brown back
Wood smoke and silence
Words not welcome
Let me comb your hair
Let the wind howl
Let me count your memories
Let me penetrate your warmth
With the rhythm of the brushstrokes
Let me smell the top of your head
Inhale your ideas
Let me braid your hair
Raven feather black
Hear the elastic snap
I am in your braid now
You are in control
You just don’t know it yet
- Tanya Tagaq,
I’ve always been curious about the arctic. It has seemed a different world to me; flat, white, cold, empty and barren. Remote and mysterious. The tundra has seemed like its own planet with its own rules. I didn’t think I would ever come to know it, but through Tanya Tagaq’s book Split Tooth I’ve been offered the gift of an introduction; and so have you if you would like.
Tanya Tagaq shines a light onto modern Inuit life in small town Nunavut with a brutal and poetic finesse. Part animistic fairytale, part poem, part autobiography, the book burrows into the psyche like an artic fox, guiding us through the landscape of the human experience like a series of Inukshuks.
Poems are stitched together by the arctic landscape of prose; we come upon them like signposts in the wilderness; showing us where we are going and where we have been. They tie the book together like markers on the vast tundra of psyche. The prose itself is rich with metaphor; it speaks to the subconscious through the universal symbolism of myth. It evokes the deep animalistic parts of us through a combination of familiar and exotic imagery; seeming to hold the deep patterns of all life while also being infused with the unique song of the artic. Certain phrases carry the musk of fox on their fur; sentences rise off the page like the smoke of burning seal fat; there are a thousand words for snow.
The brutal legacy of Canada’s residential schools and the fallout from the genocide against First Nations people are alluded to in the present-day struggle of a culture bound by the curse of intergenerational sexual abuse. Pain is the norm; the glue that both binds the community together and cracks them apart. The children carve their names into each other’s arms, and huff solvents together, bonding through both an initiatic-like embrace of pain and the flight from it.
Competition ignites itself
Like that time the glint off the midnight sun
Turned the razor blade blind
For a moment and I accidently sliced
You way too deep
Who can handle the biggest wound?
Who does not yield to pain or blood?
Poker face birth face rape face
Pain is not forever
But it is the doorway into the next realm
So we practice pain
When there is none around
We create it and rehearse it
Hoping to prove our strength
Hoping to distract from fear
Hoping to survive
The spiritual world and the world of flesh exist as interwoven realities in this work. Trauma, drugs, and the deep connection to the land keep the door to the spirit world perpetually open, so that mystical experiences and everyday ones cannot be separated. This is something I love about the book. It challenges us to see the world in a more wholistic way. In reading it we can no longer separate what is a vision and what is a living, waking experience, and so we are forced to integrate them into one seamless worldview. We must either reject the authenticity of the story or else believe it; and something deep inside us believes it; even if we don’t want to.
I would highly recommend Tanya Tagaq’s debut novel if you are interested in mysticism, myth, the arctic, the Inuit, shamanism, or healing. There is medicine in her prose. There is myth inside her meter. Her words seem to grow out of the landscape like living beings sent to us strait from the universal subconscious reality. By turns we are being spoken to by bear, ocean, or fox. Sometimes even the Northern Lights rise off the page and into our eyes, filling us with their cold, green light. This book will stay with me for a while.