Saturday, December 15, 2018



North Was Here by Ellie Ga
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2018)

Ellie Ga was artist-in-residence aboard the Tara, a research vessel lodged in the ice of the Arctic Ocean and, importantly, only the second boat in history built to drift indefinitely in pack ice (where it collected scientific data on Arctic ice conditions). Ga stayed on board for five months, and North Was Here is a fruit of her expedition. What an interesting premise or basis for a book!  And I think Ga achieved something unusual here though I don’t know if said achievement was intended. That is, with North Was Here, Ga reveals how silence and space can be claustrophobic. It would seem a paradoxical result—aren’t silence and space elements whose span could be seemingly infinite?

Yet read the words that begin the book:

“At the beginning North was here. But it keeps changing. That’s where we were.”

Or Page 4:

That is, the words seem to indicate the illusion of far-ness or distance. That everything that is happening is (psychologically) happening within a small space, as in our bodies and, say, the inch of space around our bodies. Claustrophobic.

Let’s look at one of the images in the book:

It’s a photo that captures the density of fog in a way that turns what should be that background foggy space into a wall.  I’m claustrophobic—no doubt that informs my reading—but reading/viewing the pages make me imagine a nightmare: I’d be standing within fog so thick that I can’t see beyond an inch from my nose. Anxious I start clawing at the air in front of me as if I could rip apart the grey shroud to hopefully see some light and then a  different image than monochromatic gray. But I’d be left pawing at air and I’d start to feel suffocated, though there’s more than enough air—let’s say fresh air even—around me.

Gray. Indeed, the sense of being closed off is enhanced by the book’s palette: gray, white, dark, some occasional color but which is muted… Here’s some of the book’s photographs:

The photographs show how everything seems muted into silence, even a photograph of eyes which rarely succeed in manifesting silence:

So what does it all signify? (I mean, beyond the obvious of documenting a five-month journey with the Tara … and assuming there’s more to signify….) Well, perhaps that the adage, “It’s the journey, not the destination etcetera” is overrated. The book results from a ship adrift. So, guess what? Perhaps “going with the flow” is overrated. The biased I says all this because … the book makes me feel claustrophobic.

But perhaps the book is a gift by telling me not to bother with visiting the North Pole (an item on my bucket list). I’ll take the gift—thank you. This book makes me realize that life, for me, is clearly South…

But then the book laughs at my response:

Okay. But let me note the last sentence. Indeed, one reason I recommend, notwithstanding claustrophobia, this book is for this very sentence:

“At least we weren’t drifting sideways.”

If ever any of us reaches the end of our life to look back to judge how one has lived, I hope you can conclude:

“At least we weren’t drifting sideways.”

Drifting sideways—that would seem to be a claustrophobic lifestyle: aimless, trapped in an abhorrent vacuum… in fact, meditating over drifting reminded me of that Hugh Grant character in the movie “About a Boy” before movie things happen to the character: Will Freeman, who lived a lifestyle devoid of responsibility thanks to a substantial inheritance; look it up yourself.  So don’t live life by drifting sideways. Better to go North even if, yes, you end up South. Such, after all, is poetry.


I do want to express a particular appreciation for the "Drift Drawings." This section provides line drawings intersected with the source of those lines being the path tracked by Tara as it drifted. This section could have been its own chapbook (perhaps it was as the book description notes how North Was Here is comprised of four projects including three “Arctic booklets” made during the journey) and, as such, would be an interesting text for visual art classrooms where students are taught about drawing—how drawing can surface from numerous sources and not just, say, as studies for other works.  The line as diary… and that diaristic line is certainly evocative.

Here are examples:

That third example above does make me wonder about its underlying inspiration. Like, did Ga just have a difficult or problematic experience (was she, cough, feeling claustrophobic?) that … made her want to get off the boat?  I’m being fanciful now, but you get my drift …

Recommended for what would be, to the receptive reader/viewer, a deeply full and thoughtful experience.


Eileen Tabios is the editor of Galatea Resurrects (GR). She loves books and has released over 50 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her 2018 poetry collections include HIRAETH: Tercets From the Last Archipelago, MURDER DEATH RESURRECTION: A Poetry Generator, TANKA: Vol. 1and ONE TWO THREE: Selected Hay(na)ku Poems which is a bilingual English-Spanish edition with translator Rebeka Lembo. Forthcoming are WITNESS IN A CONVEX MIRROR which will inaugurate Tinfish Press' "Pacific response to John Ashbery" as well as THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL: Selected Visual Poetry. She also invented the poetry form “hay(na)ku” whose 15-year anniversary in 2018 was celebrated at the San Francisco and Saint Helena Public Libraries. She doesn't let her projects be reviewed on GR as she's its editor, but she's pleased to turn you elsewhere for recent reviews on her work: HIRAETH was recently reviewed by Litter MagazineTo Be An Empire is to Burn! was reviewed in The Halo-Halo Review; and MURDER DEATH RESURRECTION received an engagement in The Halo-Halo Review. More information about her works is available at