The poetry of hard times is not the poetry of singular genius. Not when our streets are choked with the tear gas and smoke of uprisings long overdue. Not when every necessary motion is one of coming together, however possible, in the flesh or as digital signals. Every day Jason Blake is shot in the back and we are taught that late capitalism will take only more spectacular and grotesque forms in decline. The art of Taqralik Partridge, born of community- inflected forms from hip hop to Inuit storytelling, knows this. In her poem “Sea Woman,” in the voice of the Inuk saltwater goddess Sedna, Partridge compares the power of “lowly water” to capitalist ambition in its leitmotif of the skyscraper: “you would build yourself a monument / as high as the edge of the sky.” Partridge insists the power of water is more formidable, resting in its collective, even destructive, nature: “the tide, the flood, the sneaking mouth / of cracks climbed up in the ice.” Like protestors pouring onto the streets in rivulets, water is everywhere and holds a promise: “I, I bring the clouds to the ground.”
From Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, Partridge is the new director of the Nordic Lab, a branch of Galerie SAW Gallery in Ottawa, a position befitting an artist whose practice contains a fluency across media and subjects. She has a brilliant disregard for categories, it seems, so you might find her identified as any or all of the following: textile or installation artist, curator, spoken word performer, short story writer and now poet, with the publication this year of her debut book, curved against the hull of a peterhead (Publication Studios). Poet Billy-Ray Belcourt from the Driftpile Cree Nation has spoken of the necessity to mix modes of authorship and audience engagement to subvert stereotypical interpretations, as well as the cooptation, of Indigenous work. This mixing also helps an artist avoid being trapped by their own practice. Partridge mixes with agility.
Her poems are mostly transcriptions of performances. Her contribution to this year’s Biennale of Sydney, for example, features the poem “untitled (we saw the multitudes)” in recorded voice, as well as English, Dharug Dalang and Inuktitut large-scale print. Five wall hangings that accompany the poem consist of beadwork and what the artist calls “materials at hand”: “a dishcloth, scraps from my sewing of Inuit garments, dental floss and discarded plastic.” Her contribution to last year’s group exhibition, “ᐊᕙᑖᓂᑦ ᑕᒪᐃᓐᓂᑦ ᓄᓇᑐᐃᓐᓇᓂᑦ / Among All These Tundras,” at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, was a set of wall hangings made with a likewise effective smorgasbord, including plastic blue tarp and fishing lures.
Partridge’s poetry contains the same attitude toward materials. Writing odes for Colten Boushie, Philando Castile and missing and murdered Indigenous women, she not only participates in but helps to create the collective uprising that defines our present. Her poems move coolly between topics of dripping white wealth to love, kinship and Inuit abundance. In the poem “after an argument,” a misunderstood lover tries to explain herself by offering the most tender recollections of her childhood, among which is the memory of sleeping on long trips across water “curved against the hull of a peterhead” boat. The quiet moments in the book, such as this, are some of the most visceral. Some of the strongest. But this is something Partridge knows and tells us at the close of this poem: “I can tell you how quiet is not silent / but yields to gentler sounds.” In this book, joy and protest sit side by side. To be effective, neither must be loud.
Partridge began her career as a spoken word performer. In a 2009 interview, she argues that spoken word is a “good medium because you don’t need anything. You don’t need paint. You don’t need to buy anything. I scribbled on napkins in McDonald’s before. You don’t even need to write on paper.” She uses paper these days but in the same punk spirit. Her poems are transcriptions but also metamorphoses capable of lifting themselves back off the page into music or installations. As a member of the 2018 curatorial team for the first Inuitcurated major exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, “Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak,” Partridge built a qarmac shelter out of New York Times archival spreads featuring racist reporting on Inuit life. She lined the welcoming dome with these pages, inviting visitors into a makeshift world to listen to her recorded poems and stories. Partridge knows the pleasures and politics of her materials, and with them shows us how to collect ourselves for a more knowing future. ❚
curved against the hull of a peterhead by Taqralik Partridge, Publication Studio, 2020, 62 pages, softcover, $20.00.
Jesse Ruddock is a Canadian- American writer. She is author of the novel Shot-Blue.