Rise is a poem by Greenland poet Aka Niviâna and Marshall Island poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. This poem shows how poetry can address catastrophic events involving the global population. Artistic statements on climate change can have varying degrees of involvement and this poem offers first-hand experience of the consequences of the climate crisis. The two poets create a dialogue between islanders threatened by the effects of climate change in their homelands and, near the end, their conversation turns into a stirring global call to action.

In late summer 2018, the poets produced a recorded video performance of the poem, filmed on top of a melting Greenland glacier. The short film enhances the poem’s visual language highlighting a visible connection between the poets and their land and sea. Since then, the poem has been translated and the video subtitled into 8 languages.

Language of Legends

Rise is composed of 150 lines of free verse combined in small clusters of speech, in which each poet addresses the other with their chosen epithets: “Sister of Ice and Snow” and “Sister of Ocean and Sand”.

Each narrative voice has a story to tell. The first one is loosely based on Marshallese legend Ao Aorōk In Io̗kwe, about two sisters who turn to stone. The second is based on the Inuit legend of Sassuma Arnaa, Mother of the Sea, who lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean. Along with their stories, the two narrative voices offer each other shells and rocks as gifts.

With these shells I bring a story of long ago
two sisters frozen in time on the island of Ujae,
one magically turned into stone
the other who chose that life
to be rooted by her sister’s side.
To this day, the two sisters
can be seen by the edge of the reef,
a lesson in permanence.

Animation movie and a modern interpretation of the Greenlandic myth of Sassuma Arnaa, Mother of the Sea. Directed by Rikke Hallund, Perlefilm.

A Lesson in Respect

While the poem only presents two narrative voices, these resonate as if multiplied by millions, billions, when they deviate from their conversation and turn to a wider audience. This is a moment when the poets break the fourth wall with their plea to the reader.

Through the legends of the two sisters and Sassuma Arnaa, the poem aims to be a lesson in respect. It’s a plea for the reader to watch what is happening with a critical eye, knowing and researching the causes of melting glaciers and global warming.

The poets demand

that the world see beyond
SUV’s, ac’s, their pre-packaged convenience
their oil-slicked dreams, beyond the belief
that tomorrow will never happen, that this
is merely an inconvenient truth

And only at the end does the reader finds out that their final request has been there all along, hidden in plain sight, in the poem’s title, their call to action. That the time has come for them to Rise, that the only way to heal is by taking action.

350.org is the digital platform hosting both the poem and the video performance, along with a short documentary of how the project came to be.