Ocean leveling the land

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, Global Warming & the Marshall Islands

High tide season on the Marshall Islands. Photo by Nick Wardrop
High tide season on the Marshall Islands. Photo by Nick Wardrop

Kaia Sand

Ideas, poets?

I queried poets in my commentary “An Ellsbergian task for poets,” reflecting on the language shortcomings of the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” How might poets bring creative language skills to full-force to motivate action toward a climate phenomenon that is mostly in the future? I was grateful, then, to receive an email from poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, forwarded by Jacket2 editor Jessica Lowenthal. Jetnil-Kijiner began with a Marshallese greeting, “Iakwe,” and described her “urge to respond” to my query:

“I don't have the term you're looking for regarding a more poetic terminology for climate change,” she wrote. “However, being a resident of the Marshall Islands, a tiny atoll that is currently being swallowed up by the sea, I've written a poem on what I'd like the world to know about how some of us Marshall Islanders feel about climate change.”

Intrigued, I followed Jetnil-Kijiner's link to the poem, “Tell Them.”

The poem begins with the description of a gift to "friends in the states"—earrings in a basket—and spirals outward toward many things that she'd to impart to people in the United States ("and when others ask you/ where you got this you/ tell them...")  including this:

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


photo of a cemetery on the Marshall Islands by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

Water moves differently among cemeteries, sea walls, and homes. It moves horizontally, a plane of water, in a cemetery, flooding. Rising, rising, rising, when water suddenly exceeds the height of a sea wall, it gushes. While a sea wall is made to confront water, a house is threatened by water's crashing.  To impart the urgency of global warming, Jetnil-Kijiner created dynamic images of particular immediacy —water moving through three Marshall Island locales. The poem continues:

tell them what it's like

to see the entire ocean level with the land

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner has attempted to "tell them what it's like" through other media, also, collaborating with the Univeristy of Hawaii Sea Grant Program on a video, "Hide Tide in the Marshall Islands.

A poet, writer, artist, and journalist, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner studied creative writing at Mills College and taught as a Student Teacher Poet (STP) with Poetry for the People. She has participated in Youthspeaks Hawaii, the artist collective formally known as The Bombshelter Crew and the queer Pacific Islander artist collective One Love Oceania (OLO), and Voices of Our Nations (VONA). She has also performed “Iep Jaltok” at various solo performance theater venues including City Solo, Third Root Art Collective's “For Colored Girls Only” show, and CounterPulse's “Words First.” She currently writes the blog Iep Jaltok (yiyip jalteq), the title of which refers to “a basket whose opening is facing the speaker.” The term, Jetnil-Kijiner writes, also is used to describe "female children" who represent "a basket whose contents are made available to her relatives. Also refers to matrilineal society of the Marshallese."

Here is Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner performing “Tell Them” at Poetics Crossroads: An Open Mic with Swag, in Berkeley, California.  

Read the entirety of  “Tell Them” on Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner's blog, Iep Jaltok.