If we were to lose the word “dust” in the English language, we would have shambolically few replacements: Powder, dirt, earth, sand, soot, cinders, soil - all seem to implicate different substances and consistencies. Then we have granules, flakes, fragments and filings which appear to be the properties of dust itself. Dust, then, is irreplaceable. Dust can only return to dust. What then, if we lost the word “dust” altogether? To what would it be returned?
This complex metaphor for loss - the irrevocable relinquishing of a lone, selected word in English - is the brilliant outcome of Nancy Campbell’s project The Polar Tombola. This work was devised as an acute performance, to reflect the fact that, traditionally, most Arctic nations have an oral, rather than written “literature,” and the transmission of songs and stories from one generation to the next lies at the heart of cultural practice. Yet such performances of creative works of verbal art are increasingly endangered in the Arctic, as are indigenous languages. To play The Polar Tombola is to play with high stakes. Despite its village fete aesthetic - deliberately chosen by Campbell to reflect the central London venue for which the first performance was commissioned, complete with bunting and a hand-painted sign - players faced a dilemma. “I begin to wonder whether I should have set up shop as a fortune teller instead…” notes Campbell, as the cut and thrust moment of choosing a card with a Greenlandic word on from the Tombola, often revealed “an eerie synchronicity” with the circumstances of the individual diving into this old Italian game of winter time chance. Then comes the dictionary. Players are asked to hunt down their chosen word in the Greenlandic dictionary provided - an in-depth and time-consuming task. The meanings often refer to mark-making, or mood, or the environment, for example kagdleq (“thunder”), karnalak (“reindeer which is shedding its hairs”), and ikiarôrpoq (“the sun or moon shines through the clouds”). This word is a salvage situation, and succinctly highlights the vulnerability (and in some senses, tenacity) of the West Greenlandic language, according to the UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger. Why tenacity? Perhaps because this urgency is carried through Campbell’s own consciousness of the shifting topography of language decay in the equally temporal Arctic, one which she has returned from her own travels in the region with - and one which has survived the transition. One which is still game.
Still, the real crunch happens when players are asked to give up a word from their own language. This draws on Campbell’s interest in erasure and the constraint-driven writing practices favored by Oulipo. Without giving away too much of the contents of the meticulously produced The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words (Bird Editions, 2017) - a publication which navigates between catalogue, confessional, cartographic guide, eulogy, poetry collection and execution site - words such as “nice,” “guilty,” “impatience” and “cerulean” are included in English. Contributions in other languages are submitted alongside (e.g. the word for “loneliness” in Korean, the word for “darkness” in Icelandic), nicely shifting a neat colonial exchange of English and Greenlandic. For the players involved - many of them artists or writers - all kinds of incentive are used, from willingness to participate in the crucial critical scope of Campbell’s underlying message to personal relief, it seems, at being able to ditch a word or phrase for good. Because those are the terms of the deal - you agree, in writing, to fully abandon your selected word for the rest of your life. In one of several thought-provoking texts commissioned from poets for A Book of Banished Words, Vahni Capildeo astutely questions “how to ‘lose’ or ‘abandon’ a word? Put it in jail, throw away the key? Then in every reference book or text block, an opaque rectangle shining where it used to be . . .”
High-end Japanese businessmen who can afford to replace their cocktail ice-cubes, order cubes cut from the older parts of Greenlandic icebergs. In an anamorphic exchange, everything surrounding the context of the new, miniaturized and ancient iceberg becomes an entirely different environment. Perhaps artist Steve Perfect’s sudden acquisition of “kaggsuk” marks a similar shift in context, when now educating London pub landlords on this Greenlandic word for ice-cube.
Some writers used the commission to explore issues of linguistic politics close to home: Phil Owen banishes the word “dissever,” used in the brutal conclusion to an 1847 British government report that the “Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales.” Interesting too, that Nasim Marie Jafry “picked up Coxsackie” - now the term for a “serious, virally-triggered neuro-immune illness,” whose name has etymologically evolved from a Hudson River indigenous word for the hoot of an owl, at Loch Lomond. Campbell potentially re-routes/roots a Highland Gaelic recovery system through her own deep-seated concern with the vulnerable languages of Greenland, its exhausted eco-system - punished through decades of commercial fishery ventures on one side and through the implications of global climate change on the other. In a locus of lostness - a plethora of alternate meanings can be found.
Some players baulk at the last moment, refusing to give up a word. This response too, is deeply imbued with both personal and universal poignancy, with a rhetoric of right and possession. With this loss of interaction comes the preciousness of the sense of one’s own language, one’s own tongue. Such strategies of loss are non-binary; co-contaminating shadows of meaning, thrown across one another create an uneasy sensation of the acquired versus the relinquished. What makes this project an astonishingly essential act that transcends the boundaries of game as a formal rehearsal of political role-play, is the radical center of relinquishing a word of one’s own. This is the price. Campbell has cleverly disguised an old trade deal as a game, only the bartering system of which word will cost the trader least, is made complex. This is a very real exchange. The inheritance of an endangered Greenlandic word, enables the induction of real responsibility. Dust is perhaps - like the nature of shadow, which is only a darker shade of the object on which it is cast - a bi-product of all substances capable of being ground down to near-nothing.
The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words is published by Bird Editions, 2017. Nancy Campbell’s recent work responds to Arctic landscapes and languages. Disko Bay (“a beautiful debut from a deft, dangerous and dazzling new poet”– Carol Ann Duffy) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016. Previous books include proviso, Death of a Foster Son and How to Say “I Love You” in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet, which received the Birgit Skiöld Award. She is co-editor of Oxford Poetry.