Poet’s Body as Archive Amidst a Rising Ocean

aerial view of Jaluit Atoll Lagoon, Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands will not exist if the earth is warmed by two degrees. Given its vulnerable position, the Republic of the Marshall Islands was the first developing nation to pledge to cut its carbon emissions by one-third at the UN climate negotiations in 2015. It also pledged to limit the rise in global temperatures to one and a half degrees Celsius instead of two degrees. However, their political efforts have not been enough.

The fight against climate change is a global one. Yet facing the threat of rising tides, wealthy nations are willing to sacrifice smaller island nations, such as the Marshall Islands, to keep their economies booming. In other words, smaller countries seem to be at the mercy of larger ones who are top oil producers and energy consumersand who have the economic and political leverage to forge or break global partnerships.

In an effort to garner Western support, Pacific Islanders have started performance-based awareness projects such as Water is Rising and Moana: The Rising of the Sea. Rather than fulfilling the victimization narrative that the traditional news media opts for, these performances highlight the simultaneous risk and empowerment of Pacific Islanders when faced with “sinking islands.” 

Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner is a Marshallese climate change activist, poet, and performance artist dedicated to spreading awareness about her hometown, the Marshall Islands. She recited her poem “Dear Matafele Peinam,” an ode to her daughter, at the 2014 opening ceremony of the United Nations Secretary General’s Climate Summit. Through her performance, she urged countries to rethink their environmental policies. By alternating between scenes of her daughter and the destruction of her homeland, Jetñil-Kijiner draws attention to the simultaneous global and local narratives of climate change.

The performance starts off with a peaceful scene where Jetñil-Kijiner and her daughter are walking on the beach together, the waves at low tide. However, the accompanying video later pans to waves crashing into people’s homes, leaving devastation in their wake.

dear matafele peinam,

i want to tell you about that lagoon
that lucid, sleepy lagoon lounging against the sunrise

men say that one day
that lagoon will devour you

they say it will gnaw at the shoreline
chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees
gulp down rows of your seawalls
and crunch your island’s shattered bones

they say you, your daughter
and your granddaughter, too
will wander rootless
with only a passport to call home

Jetñil-Kijiner begins by describing the lagoon at a slow and rhythmic pace, in the style of a bedtime story to her daughter. However, her pace becomes faster and her voice louder as she depicts the destruction that the lagoon will inevitably cause. The lagoon that seems “lucid” and “sleepy” eventually devours the daughter and the island whole, rendering her “rootless.” The daughter is left with a home that is absent yet signified through the physical passport. 

This performance makes visible the ways in which climate change affects specific people and places yet fails to be acknowledged in the larger world. As Jetñil-Kijiner envisions a future where her country is underwater and her daughter does not have a home, she highlights the incapability of policy makers and global powers of dealing with the effects of climate change. The passport still remains, though the land the passport signifies is gone.

History of Imperialism and Destruction

The Marshall Islands are not new to histories of destruction. Since the 1940s, they have been suffering from the consequences of nuclear violence due to U.S. military imperialism. Environmental problems from nuclear testing are compounded by the effects of climate change as the global sea-level rise is currently forcing the Marshallese to migrate elsewhere and possibly lose their homeland forever.

Mushroom cloud at sea level as a result of nuclear testing
Bikini Atoll nuclear weapons test in 1946. Image colorized by International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, 2012.

The adversities of Pacific Islanders are often overlooked because of the small geographical area these islands occupy. When questioned about nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands, the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger allegedly replied, “There are only ninety thousand people out there. Who gives a damn?” 

Pacific scholar Epeli Hau‘ofa points out that this derogatory view arises from the assumption by social scientists that the Pacific island states are too small and too isolated to rise up above their economic dependency on wealthier nations. However, Hau‘ofa argues that these islands are vaster than the West thinks, since the ocean is a vital part of Pacific identity—“We are the sea, we are the ocean.”

Pacific islanders’ histories not only include imperial violence but are also frequently told through an imperial lens. Hau‘ofa notes that the epistemology of the Pacific Islands gets lost in translation as histories of empire remain dominant. To reclaim the history of the Pacific Islands, or at least the telling of it, Hau‘ofa proposes an alternative temporal dimension that reconstructs it. He says, “Our histories did not begin with the coming of Europeans.” Artists such as Jetñil-Kijiner provide frameworks countering the Eurocentric vision of Pacific history and exploring Pacific culture before imperialism.

Artistic Resistance and the Power of Orality

Jetñil-Kijiner insists that global resistance can help create a future where her daughter will have a home. Here, the poet echoes the sentiments of the Pacific Climate Warriors, whose Oceania-based activism invites people from around the world to join their cause: “We are not drowning,” their motto states. “We are fighting.”  In “Dear Matafele Peinam,” she emphasizes the obstacles that stand in their way and the simultaneous armies of people fighting against climate change. Using oceanic metaphors, she says they will fight against the “greedy whale of a company” and “backwater bullying of businesses.” These obstacles to climate action are soon overcome by acts of resistance:

hands reaching out
fists raising up
banners unfurling
megaphones booming
and we are
canoes blocking coal ships
we are
the radiance of solar villages
we are
the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past
we are
petitions blooming from teenage fingertips
we are
families biking, recycling, reusing,
engineers dreaming, designing building,
artists painting, dancing, writing,
and we are spreading the word

The barrage of active verb constructions speaks to the numerous modes of resistance that combat climate change. In Jetñil-Kijiner’s video performance, she includes a montage of protests to emphasize such resistance. The verbs shift from physical actions such as “reaching,” “raising,” “unfurling,” “booming,” and “blocking” to creative ventures such as “blooming,” “dreaming,” “designing,” “painting,” “dancing,” and “writing.” As resistance shifts from physical spaces to artistic endeavors, Jetñil-Kijiner’s poem itself becomes an example of the creative resistance she references in her work.

Jetñil-Kijiner’s poetry creates an embodied archive of resistance amidst the narrative of islands drowning beneath a rising ocean.

Jetñil-Kijiner’s poem is essentially an oral story meant to be passed on from mother to daughter. She admits that choosing a poetic medium is difficult due to the issue of accessibility. When she initially published her poems in the newspaper on the Marshall Islands, few people read or even understood her pieces. However, when she started posting YouTube videos of her poetry, she received positive feedback from many Marshallese people. 

She adds, “I figured out that the reason they were able to understand it a lot easier is because our culture is essentially an oral culture – we’re great listeners, but reading and writing is still a bit of an isolated skill set. Spoken word, however, is able to bridge that gap between storytelling and poetry.” Jetñil-Kijiner’s spoken word poems on YouTube help preserve the oral culture of the Marshallese. This orality becomes a way of engaging with a wide audience on the Internet, while resisting dominant modes of literacy and previous assumptions about passivity.

The Embodied Archive

Jetñil-Kijiner’s performance poetry creates an embodied archive that ensures cultural preservation regardless of destruction caused by rising tides. This movement of the archive away from paper to human embodiment becomes a way to ensure Marshallese culture passes on to the next generation. It also allows the Marshallese to retain their relationship to the land without requiring a place-based archive. 

Although embodied knowledge systems were initially viewed by the West as ephemeral archives that do not have physical records and are therefore lesser in value, the rising tides overturn this notion. The tides wash away written histories, or what Joy Lehuanani Enomoto and D. Keali‘i MacKenzie term saltwater archives, which were already imperial. Enomoto and MacKenzie propose the embodied archive as a positive shift away from saltwater archives, saying “[p]erhaps our roots must come from within our bodies, our chants and song, our dance and stories, our language and spoken word, our secrets and our collective memory. The archives we embody.” The embodied archive becomes a site where Oceania’s imperial and climate history is stored.

Embodied archives will persist as long as human beings and collective memory persist. Enomoto and MacKenzie explain: “The inheritance we leave for our children is what dwells in each of us. It may be the text tapped into our skins or the story, song, chant and spoken word….All of this exists outside of the political or physical state of the land.” Jetñil-Kijiner quite literally leaves such an inheritance behind for her daughter through “Dear Matafele Peinam,” which becomes a tale of resistance both poetically and performatively. 

Ocean as Creator and Destroyer

What does it mean to be the ocean but also be destroyed by the ocean? Jetñil-Kijiner wrestles with this dichotomy as she attempts to piece together the Marshallese oceanic identity in the ravages of climate change.

In “Dear Matafele Peinam,” Jetñil-Kijiner refers to the ocean as a “mother ocean” that no one can push over the edge. This depiction of the ocean as a maternal figure suggests faith in the ocean’s nurturing qualities, as the speaker promises her daughter that their island will not drown. 

Activists hold up a banner under the sea to protest against carbon emission. It reads: "Connect our Dots: Your Caron Emissions Kill Our Coral"
Activists protesting against carbon emission under the sea around Marshall Islands. Photo by 350.org, 2012.

Throughout her work, however, Jetñil-Kijiner struggles with the ocean’s double figuration as creator and destroyer. This tension is evident in her YouTube performance of the poem “Tell Them,” where she stands against a backdrop of cloudy London skies that foreshadow a storm brewing, perhaps in the form of rising tides. The ocean both embodies Marshallese identity and destroys it in the current epoch of climate change. Grappling with this tension, Jetñil-Kijiner describes what it means to be a Marshall Islander in her poem “Tell Them.” She says, “We are the ocean / terrifying and regal in its power,” yet follows up with an account of the devastation caused by the ocean today.

tell them about the water – how we have seen it rising
flooding across our cemeteries
gushing over the sea walls
and crashing against our homes
tell them what it’s like 
to see the entire ocean__level__with the land
tell them
we are afraid

Jetñil-Kijiner depicts her people as originating from the ocean, telling stories about “Aunty Mary’s white sea foam hair” and “canoes as fast as the wind slicing through the pacific sea.” Yet, her narrative turns darker as the ocean shifts from a metaphor for culture and nostalgia to an omen of destruction. 

While the statement “we are the ocean” signifies a harmonious relationship between the human and the nonhuman, the line “we have seen it rising” suggests an imbalance in this relationship. The ocean becomes a dominant force upsetting the rhythm of everyday life. The Marshallese identity is also thrown into disarray with this destabilization of the human/nonhuman relationship.

The poem ends with, “But most importantly you tell them…that we / are nothing / without our islands.” The line “we are the ocean” shifts to “we / are nothing / without our islands.” The line breaks at the end of the poem are heard as dramatic pauses in Jetñil-Kijiner’s performance, which emphasizes the word “nothing” and thereby highlights the sense of despair as the ocean that is a part of Marshallese identity becomes the destructive force drowning their islands. The motif of the ocean in performance poetry draws attention to the effects of climate change by emphasizing its real-world consequences on islanders. 

By locating the Marshallese identity in a poetics of oceanic creation as well as destruction, Jetñil-Kijiner’s poetry creates an embodied archive of resistance amidst the narrative of islands drowning beneath a rising ocean. Within this poetics of resistance, Jetñil-Kijiner’s performance poetry reveals the vulnerability that arises from the possibility of losing her homeland to the rising tides. 

What remains, however, is a promise: the sea might overtake the islands if the global community does not act in time, but the islanders’ cultural identities will continue through the embodied archive.

Featured Image: Jaluit Atoll Lagoon, Marshall Islands. Photo by Keith Polya, 2010.

Kuhelika Ghosh is a second-year Literary Studies Ph.D. student in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on postcolonial literature, environmental humanities, posthumanism and questions of multispecies justice. Contact.