Book Review: Iep Jāltok

A poetry collection explores the stories of the Marshallese people and the fallout of the US military’s nuclear testing on the islands.

Published March 17, 2017

It is rare for a poet to blatantly state an objective in penning a collection, but in Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter, writer and environmental activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner clearly articulates a hope that her work will put human faces on the statistics, and bring to light the health and climate change conversations from her beloved homeland, the Pacific Oceanʼs Marshall Islands. She recounts legends and family history, draws attention to the US militaryʼs nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands (and the fallout-related cancers that resulted), and writes frankly about climate change, colonization, and racism. Through poems that range in style—the predominantly free verse text begins and ends with picture poems and also includes prose poems—the writer reveals stark contrasts between an idyllic past, a diseased present, and a threatened future for the environment.

The collection opens with ʻʻBasket,ʼʼ a picture poem in the shape of a basket. The poem sets a feminist and melancholic tone for the four-section collection. ʻʻMy smile/was merely/a rim/woven/into my/face,ʼʼ Jetnil-Kijiner writes. Interesting legends immediately follow, but the bookʼs gold appears in the two middle sections: ʻʻHistory Projectʼʼ and ʻʻLessons from Hawai‘i.ʼʼ In the former—based on the poetʼs years-ago high school project—we learn that during the nuclear testing, a fisherman witnessed atrocities including soldiers shooting off a woman’s ears. The fisherman never forgot his own hunger after nuclear contamination resulted in a fishing ban, thus was forever grateful for the American gifts of food, such as canned Spam, flaky biscuits, and chocolate bars, even though eating these foods eventually destroyed his health.

Strong imagery reinforces the gravity of the situation. A boy with ʻʻpeeled skin/arms legs suspended/a puppetʼʼ and ʻʻjelly babies/tiny beings with no bones/skin—red as tomatoesʼʼ—are juxtaposed against images of American marines and nurses ʻʻwith bloated grins sucking/beers and tossing beach balls along/our shores.ʼʼ

It is easy to empathize with the injustice-fueled fury that simmers beneath many of these poems. Jetnil-Kijiner speaks of the irony of an American uproar over nuclear testing on goats and pigs, for instance, when little was made of the rampant, post-nuclear-testing cancer rates among the Marshallese. The poetʼs family was not spared. Niece Bianca had a ʻʻwar/raging inside [her] six year old bones,ʼʼ and a grandmother developed tongue cancer.

Occasional prosaic and melodramatic lapses are evident in this, the authorʼs first book, but Jetnil-Kijiner succeeds at making the personal political, and she does so with passion, originality, and grace. Her poetry is underscored with pride in a people ʻʻtoasted dark brown as the carved ribs/of a tree stumpʼʼ and a place ʻʻdropped/from a basket/carried by a giant.ʼʼ Beyond the numbers and statistics, there is ʻʻa toddler/stomping squeaky/yellow light up shoes/across the edge of a reefʼʼ that is ʻʻnot yet/under water.ʼʼ And there is a young Marshallese poet doing what she can to “[will] the world/to find its balance.”

Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter
by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner
96 pp. The University of Arizona Press