Book Review: Split Tooth

by Mireya Bailey 4 months ago in review

“We plant ideas/ With bullets we heed/ We raise fists we draw/ Fine lines to hold each other”

Book Review: Split Tooth

Heavy hands

Cupped palms

Carrying warm clear liquid

Slippery fingers

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

Thick black

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.

Portrait of Tanya Tagaq by @nannibannani

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.

Mireya Bailey
Mireya Bailey
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