At its most basic, Aritha van Herk’s 1991 essay, “In Visible Ink,” is about her trip to the Arctic. She presents us with facts of this trip: she went in May; she drinks hot tea and eats bannock; she wears caribou skin and Kamik boots “of Inuit design” to protect against the cold; she rides a komatik pulled by a snowmobile (3). At one point, a runner blade on the komatik breaks, and her guide, Pijamini, repairs it with plywood and nails (6). A simple story, and yet the narrator agonises over not being able to accurately convey the story, the true experience of being in the Arctic.
How can we write an experience beyond words? Where does the writer belong in a wordless world? And, what if that world turns out to be not wordless, after all, but written, spoken, understood, in a language the writer cannot possess? How does the writer reconfigure herself in a world where ‘possession’ is not a concept? I will address these concerns in my breakdown of “In Visible Ink’s” narrative arc, showing how, where, and why the narrator comes to certain conclusions about the practice of writing within the space of the Arctic as contained by text. What van Herk’s essay wants to talk about is writing, and the invisible limits of writers.
“In Visible Ink” opens with a view of the landscape as text, as van Herk (the narrator) considers the land and sea “both consummate empagements, intagli in the white” (2). The land and sea seem equivalent to words and the snow that covers both becomes a blank page, as if the Arctic itself is written in invisible ink, waiting to be read. A clever gesture to the title that tells us much about the narrator as the consummate writer—this landscape of Arctic is interpreted as she would a text, in a writerly fashion.
After these initial descriptions, the narrator muses about the questions she will be asked of her journey when she returns home: “how long did the trip take? how far did you go? how cold was it?” (3). And in these questions is the echo of familiar questions asked of writers: how many words did you write? how long did it take you to write that book? how many rejection letters have you received? van Herk decides these questions—and here we can assume she means the direct questions about her trip and those pesky questions all writers face—are not without meaning, but beside the point. These questions accept only quantifiable measurements and cannot possibly convey the experience of either the Arctic or writing. And in this acknowledgement of the similarities between experience and writing, the narrator confesses a desire for temporary escape from words and writing, to have the same experience as writing without the act of it, which she finds in the Arctic (4-5). This newfound experience leads her to realise the impossibility of rendering the Arctic in words when she asks: “how to describe or even begin to evoke this landscape?” (5). And the reader asks back: but haven’t you done so? She may have described a setting, but she claims failure at evoking the Arctic (a failure of writing, a failure as a writer committed to render a truth).
After the narrator acknowledges her inability to write the Arctic, she continues with her description of the place, presented now as a reading, not a writing. She ‘reads’ the tracks of polar bears and foxes and the komatik in the snow (6). Treating the Arctic as text, as a being to be read, is the highest level of praise from a woman who has made reading her career. But, again, she finds her limitation: “I cannot read these reaches” (8). She presses on. If writing and reading fail her, then what of speech? This is where van Herk realises that the failure is her own language: English is not sufficient. Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit) has the capacity, is as expansive as the Arctic, and can therefore encapsulate the landscape and experience as one, simultaneously. And as she has been absorbed by the experience, she finds herself only describable by and in those same Inuktitut words. Words that she refuses to repeat because they are not hers. She can borrow some, a small handful, while she is in the Arctic, but otherwise they stay with the Inuit, with her guide Pijamini, who gets the last laugh (did he know the Arctic would foil Southern attempts at articulation all along? Of course).
Throughout “In Visible Ink” we are confronted by the limitations of writing, and yet this essay is beautifully written. How can the form honour/uphold the content if the form is the essay and the content the inability to write it? If form and content were to truly mesh, wouldn’t that necessitate the essay to never have been written, to only remain a distant thought, an anxiety in the writer’s mind? Perhaps, if she were a poet.
As shown in my breakdown of the narrative arc, the essay moves back and forth from landscape and Arctic to ruminations on the Arctic that are ruminations on the practice of writing. This constant movement enacts a continual erasure and re/placement of the previous text with its forward progression.
Consider the words (those vessels van Herk finds so faulty). “In Visible Ink” is written with high-level diction—academic, and fearlessly inaccessible. As writers, we’ve been told to write simply, to invite our readers in. But van Herk breaks this rule, purposefully, to emphasise her point that the Arctic is not accessible, not for Southern readers. Journeying through the Arctic is a commitment that requires experience and a guide, so reading this essay needs the practice of reading academic / theoretical texts. And yet she maintains that the words fail.
The words are suspect (to the writer, the narrator, the reader), but readers tend to trust the narrator. We believe her struggles of articulation, and we know van Herk has been to the Arctic. The doubts she voices about her abilities regarding her portrayal of the Arctic seem genuine, rather than falsely self-deprecating. We believe that if she has failed at conveying the Arctic, she has not failed as a writer because she voices the anxieties associated with writing more generally. And she acknowledges the unwriteability of landscape, of Arctic.
The problem is in the multiplicity of Arctic. van Herk gestures to these versions of place (of self) with the tension between the present-tense narration and the second person addresses. Present tense exemplifies the act of continual erasure and points to the endurance of writing. The trying/erasing/trying/attempting to understand something/anything/erasing/trying, until, finally, some words remain on the page. This has the multiplied effect of mirroring the Arctic’s endurance and seeming timelessness, of amplifying the essay itself in its efforts to press forward, to rewrite what has already been written, and to speak to the practice of writing. The present tense keeps the narrator, forever, within the Arctic. In her state of wordlessness.
The second person addresses to “the reader” complicate this. The essay has already been written. It has been read. What is writing without a reader? The use of second person implies van Herk’s experience of the Arctic must be relegated to the past, along with the essay’s words as she writes them.
The Arctic exists outside of the
boundaries we writers come up against and transgress—the Arctic has no need for
boundaries, except where the snow melts. The Arctic is not a blank page on
which to write, or which will reveal its invisible ink. The Arctic is not a
book to be read. The Arctic is itself a writer, and it speaks a language other
than English. Inuktitut. The Arctic is a writer in that English fails, has no
better word for a landscape contiguous to our practice of writing. The Arctic
wrote van Herk while she occupied that landscape, and in doing so reveals a
writer’s reflection in the ice.
van Herk, Aritha. “In Visible Ink.” In Visible Ink: The Writer as Critic: III. NeWest Press, 1991. pp. 1-11.
Essay by Allie McFarland, RVRB Editor and co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project. Allie writes novel(la)s—concise, women-centred blends of prose and poetry.