Climate activists and poets, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and Aka Niviana, travel to the latter’s home of Greenland to recite their collaborative poem, Rise, on a melting glacier that might threaten the former’s home nation of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.
Dan Lin directed this poetry film for 350.org, which, oddly, only allows the Vimeo upload to be viewed on their website—which is unfortunate, because it includes subtitling options in Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Turkish, Russian, and Japanese. The above YouTube version, which Bill McKibben shared at The Guardian along with an accompanying essay, is unlisted but—at time of publication, at any rate—shareable. The former link includes some background by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner:
With the last few poems I’ve written, I’ve tried to balance the piece by grounding it in some sort of legend … For this particular poem, I struggled with finding the right legend. … The legend I ultimately chose was “Ao Aorōk In Io̗kwe” a legend from Ujae that was transcribed by Heynes Jeik. The Marshallese version of the legend is below. There is no exact translation at this time, but here is my own (somewhat rough) summary:
The legend features sisters from Ujae who loved and respected each other very much. One day they decided to have a juggling competition around the entire island. They began their juggling competition – when the eldest reached a certain spot by the edge of the reef, she dropped the shells rock she was juggling, and she suddenly turned into stone. The younger sister, who was following close behind, noticed this strangely shaped rock – when she came closer, she saw that it was her sister. In her grief, she decided to drop the rock she was juggling as well, choosing to turn to stone, so she could stay by her sister’s side. The moral of the story is the love that connected the two sisters.
I asked the group I was skyping with a few questions – why did the elder sister turn into a stone at that specific spot? Was that spot magical? They weren’t sure. But one of the members from the Curriculum Assessment Team offered that she noticed we have many stories that featured the creation of stone, or people turning to stone. We reflected on this a bit, and an observation was offered that stones are permanent – they never disappear, and that stones are a part of our culture as well. After our skype session, I received a message from Heynes Jeik: “…Ij bar kakememej iok bwe ekkar nan jar ke roritto ijoke, rej ba deka ej motan manit in ad, em aolep men ko bunnid rej erom deka, ej einwot juon men eo epan jako nan indeio.” Which loosely translates to, “I just want to remind you that according to our elders, stone is a part of our culture, and everything becomes stone, it’s something that will never disappear.”
I ultimately chose this legend because it features sisters, which I felt fit nicely into the concept of me and Aka as “sisters of ice and snow/sister of ocean and sand.” I also appreciated the concept of stone – the concept of permanence against the destructive forces of climate change. My friend, Lyz Soto, who regularly edits my work, helped me think it through further “the idea of choosing stone so you can always be a part of your home.” This, ultimately, became the declaration I chose to focus on – choosing stone to always be a part of our home.
I’ve spent 30 years thinking about climate change – talking with scientists, economists and politicians about emission rates and carbon taxes and treaties. But the hardest idea to get across is also the simplest: we live on a planet, and that planet is breaking. Poets, it turns out, can deliver that message.
But they don’t watch impassively. Both are climate activists, and both have raised their voices in service of their homelands. Jetnil-Kijiner, 30, has been at it for years – she’s performed her work before the United Nations General Assembly and the Vatican. Niviana is newer to activism – just 23, she recited a poem at a recent Copenhagen climate protest, where she met a well-known glaciologist, Jason Box, and he, in turn, organised the complicated logistics of this glacier expedition.