My Soul to Keep

by Jim Doss
Second Place, July 2022
Judged by R.T. Castleberry

Only in dreams did I speak Iñupiaq,
that ghost language of my ancestors,
the syllables sweet as muktuk on the tongue

as I addressed my forefathers. What I said,
I don’t know, but they nodded and laughed
in agreement, their ivory labrets gleaming

in the firelight, imaginary spears in their hands
thrusting at some large beast swimming by.
Awake, I speak the English of the government schools,

that precise noun-verb-adjective-noun simplicity
developed half a world away from the tundra
and the ocean’s frozen fingers scraping the pebbled shoreline.

South of us salmon run like clockwork
from summer into fall, first the Chinook,
the Sockeye, then the Coho feeding our brothers,

the grizzlies and blacks, the eagles, the other tribes
and sportsmen. They flock to the riverbanks
by the thousands with their lines and nets

to snag kype, break the hunched backs
to taste their pink flesh, while we wait patiently
by our boats on the arctic icecap to see

that first bowhead breath rainbowed in sunlight.
We ease our wood-framed vessels into the water, paddle
through the breakers to where the great beasts will surface next.

We wait crouched like our forefathers, listening to the quiet
lapping of water against our boat, tensed with harpoon in hand,
ready for the miracle of life to continue

for the next thousand years in sod huts
with their caribou pelts, or manufactured homes
stacked on pilings along gravel roads

with 4-wheel drive pickups and snow machines
parked out front. The glide of the umiak is just like I remember
from my dreams, almost slow-motion, yet it is filled

with thousands of spirits, both dead and living,
chanting softly to the whales and their ancestors,
urging them to rise up, rise up, and take the next breath.

I enjoyed the richness of the details in this poem. It's a powerful evocation of their ancestors and their rituals. --R.T. Castleberry