Rock Piles Along the Eddy
By Ishmael Hope; Ishmael Reed Publishing Co.; 2017; 72 pages; $20
Step inside, sit quietly and listen. This is the message Ishmael Hope conveys on the second page of his recently published volume of poems, "Rock Piles Along the Eddy."
"Don't take notes / while I am talking," he admonishes.
Hope, who lives in Juneau, is the son of a Tlingit father and an Inupiaq mother who clings tightly to his Native heritage. His new work is filled with imagery from many sources, but it keeps returning to the cultures he was born into. It's a life evoked in many brief passages in these pages.
"Guests drag soil / into the entryway, halibut jacket / smeared with salmon guts…The old woman's sodhouse / disappears. Her stick / points the way."
It's a culture built on subsistence, but collecting what it can from the modern world as well. In "Gathering for the Potlatch" he writes, "Cut slices into Walmart bags. / Slant the edges so a single ribbon unravels. / Establish a firm, unending coil. / Knit waves and chevrons from grandma's pattern book."
Elsewhere he shops the internet for old wool blankets.
Hope is an emerging Alaska poet, but writing is just part of his resume. He's also a documentary director, an actor, a nonprofit foundation board member and has even co-written a video game. All of it swirls around his Native identity, and he's presently pursuing an MFA in creative writing with the Institute of American Indian Arts. So it's no surprise this brief book covers a broad swath of intellectual and geographical landscapes.
Much of it, however, stays close to Hope's temperate rainforest home. In "Midnight Forest" he takes a stroll.
"Nettles sting feet, skunk cabbage, / devil's club, rhubarb, spruce tips, / blackberry bulbs, screech / owl calling for herring to romp / along the rock, froth / gathering at the ankles."
There's great loss in this realm, though. On another page an old man drunkenly wanders down the street pondering the son he lost to suicide and the homeless children underneath the bridge. "Drowning in after-death" is how Hope puts it.
Life takes precedence, however. "We should appreciate good people / when they walk among us my father would say," he tells us late in the book, a message he has taken to heart. We learn at the start of "Blanket of Gratitude," an ode to Cyril George, who taught Hope much about his culture, that the elder was given the poem late in life, a gift of finely crafted testimony that wasn't saved for the funeral after he had died.
"Gratitude" is suffused with the many lessons Hope learned at the old man's knee, and it's this knowledge that spurs him onward in some of the more activist poems here, which envision an America returned to its Native peoples. The book's most overtly political moment comes in "Children's Cries," a blistering attack on the American war machine that too often kills children. It wouldn't happen without the tacit acceptance by all of us, however. "We are responsible," he writes, "the most to blame, / because we sit by and shrug."
Envisioning world without white Americans
It's a country he, as a Native man, doesn't accept the legitimacy of. In "Steps Toward Dismantling Collective Psychosis on Colonized Land" he tells white people, "You can't logic it away, because this is insanely illogical. / You can't normalize it, because our ancestors' bones among / the cigarette butts are snapping at your ankles."
Farther down he writes, "At this moment, we are bringing groceries to our grandmothers, / getting advice on how to remake the world when the settler / state collapses." It's an angry thought, perhaps, but as the current administration attacks the sovereignty of Native Americans at Standing Rock, stealing yet again land that was once theirs, it's understandable that Natives would dream of a world after white Americans have gone away.
The final poem, "Tribal College After the Catastrophe," fantasizes about this post-American world, picturing an amicably anarchistic state where the rules are unwritten but congenially followed. It's a pleasant daydream, but one that doesn't take into account human nature.
As a poet, Hope is drawing from the very culture he pictures the end of, however, and he's surely aware of the contradiction. He references other poets by name, but the one he most echoes remains unnamed but apparent on the page. The spirit of Beat poet Allen Ginsburg haunts several of these poems, with Hope's repeated jazz references and with the scattershot imagery he sometimes employs. This is particularly apparent in "Indigenous Thoughts":
Here. Drink from the jug of tears,
the tears of those who hid in tents
when our people were infected,
the tears of our grandmothers who
swallowed their language, the tears
of those perusing their bodies
for gunshot wounds from past lives.
Chew bitter plants, come up for breath,
claw out of the trench chock full
of refuse from interminable wars.
The jug of tears was collected
from your guilty, forgotten dreams.
Drink. Drink from the jug of tears.
It's not all this dark, fortunately. Solace is found in nature, in brotherhood, in defending a culture that could have been lost. Near the end, four poems are given in both the Tlingit they were written in and their English translations. The sight of this language in print, with its unusual punctuation and its seemingly impossible combinations of vowels and consonants that defy pronunciation is a reminder that too many languages have been lost, that we should be thankful this is one that remains, and that we should support its preservation, as well as the preservation of the people and culture that it sprang from. This objective lies at the heart of Hope's work. A life attuned to people, place and past.
"Listen," he says. "This world is made of song."
David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer and critic.