Utilomar by Kathy Jetñil Kijiner


Kathy Jetñil Kijiner is a Marshallese poet and performance artist who in 2014 was asked to address the UN Climate Summit in New York City. Many of her poems, including “Dear Matafele Peinem,” discuss the threats that climate change poses to the Marshall Islands. In “Utilomar,” the poet articulates how climate change affects both her island home and the mainland.


I dreamt of a dead shark

we were at a family party
my mother asked me to check the oven and

when I opened it
there it was
massive, gray leathered skin, jaw open
like a metal trap

I dreamt of eating a shark

When I woke up I met my mother in the hallway
I told her about my dream
how it felt
together we went outside and that’s when we found
the world

Our neighbours wandering outside
morning daze on their faces
homes inundated, families evacuated
sent to sleep on classroom floors at the nearby elementary school

My family is a descendant of the RiPako clan, the Shark clan
known to control the waves with roro, chants
it was said that they turned the tides with the sound of their voice
they sang songs to sharks encircling their canoes, we were connected
to these white tipped slick bodied ancestors carving

through water
we would never
have eaten them

In the Marshall Islands I teach Pacific Literature
Together we read the stories our ancestors told
around coconut husk fire

So what are the legends
we tell ourselves today?
What songs are we throwing into the fire . . . what
are we burning?
And will future generations
recite these stories by heart, hand
over chest?

In one legend
It’ll start by saying
in the beginning
was water
water from the sea that flooded our homes our land and now
our only underground reservoir
what we call a fresh water lens
shaped like the front of an eyeball, nestled deep in our coral
feeding on rainwater it watches us, burning and angry it is
it poisons us
with salt
leaving us dry
and thirsty

Over 6,000 miles away from my island home is the US state of Minnesota
I’ve read that Minnesota, like the Marshalls,
is simultaneously drowning and thirsting
In 2007 24 Minnesota counties received drought designation
While 7 counties were declared flood disasters
In 2012 this time 55 Minnesota counties received drought designation

while 11 counties declared flood emergencies

Climate scientists warn of intensified heat
this heat threatens Minnesota’s great North Woods
a forest nearly 12,000 years old
scientists predict the mixed hardwood and conifer forest
will follow glaciers and retreat north by as much as 300 miles in the next century

I imagine a hardwood tree ancient
and weary, dry
untangling its roots from the soil
before heaving its tree trunk body
to a new home where it will forever mourn
its roots
In this legend,
identify the theme, the moral the message what
have we learned . . .
have we learned

What is the archetype of a monster and a hero?
can they be one and the same?

Here’s another story of a tree
On one of our atolls known as Kwajelein
There was said to be a flowering tree at the south end
that grew from the reef itself
a utilomar tree
it was said its magical white petals fell
into the water and bloomed
into flying fish

On a lazy Sunday my cousin and I lay side by side
on my aunty’s veranda, sun drying our skin, together
we dreamed an organisation dedicated to young people like us
who leapt
blind and joyful
into water
willing ourselves wings
to fly
who dared to dream of a world where both forests and islands
stay rooted
who believe that this world
is worth fighting for

I still nightmare of dead leather sharks

But I’d rather dream
I’d rather imagine our/next generation
their voices turning the tides
how our underground reservoir will drink in their chants
how they will speak shark songs and fluent fish
how they
will leap

into the water
before blossoming

to fly

Kathy Jetñil Kijiner

As The Crisis Escalates…

In our natural world, the issues of climate catastrophe and species extinction is a priority. Stories related to pollution, greenhouse gases, the depleting ozone layer, glacier meltdowns etc. have turned pivotal if we are to attempt to salvage what’s left of our planet earth. We as readers and responsible citizens need to take the threats to our environment seriously. We need to worry about the consequences of damaging the earth and its atmosphere and focus on finding solutions based on scientific facts, not political prejudice or business interests.

As climate change continues to wreak havoc on populations across globe, writers are fighting back with words that jolt, motivate, and best of all, provoke one to act.

Through this platform, I’m offering to the readers, a slim anthology of poems on the subject of climate change. Slim, but by no means weak or tepid. This is poetry that investigates human relationships with the environment. Each poem offers a unique perspective on climate change in its own style. All of the poems here are free to read online, and all are worth your time.

The anthology consists of ten poems that will be published weekly, compiled by Vinita Agarwal.

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