Alaska Quarterly Review, Vol. 34, No. 1 & 2, Summer and Fall 2017; Ron Spatz, editor
Literary journals have distinct missions and identities, and Alaska's long-running and preeminent Alaska Quarterly Review (which, despite its name, comes out twice a year in what are essentially double volumes) is no different. As co-founding and long-serving editor Ron Spatz states in his editor's note to the 35th anniversary issue, AQR "is of Alaska but not Alaskan." That is, it comes from Alaska and carries with it attitudes of independent thought, inventiveness, and global perspective — qualities associated with life in the north. It publishes the best creative work it can find, choosing from the piles of submissions it receives each year, sent from both established and new writers from around the country and beyond.
The latest volume continues this tradition with 12 exceptionally fine short stories and selections from 33 poets, along with a special feature of photographs and short narratives related to contemporary art from Papua New Guinea.
What holds the volume together, aside from excellence, is a focus on understanding "the other." As Spatz emphasizes in his introductory note, it's the job of writers, poets, editors, and publishers "to seek truth in all of its parts while creating every possible opportunity for compassion and empathy."
The short stories here, while varying greatly in subject matter, length and form, should leave any reader in both amused and serious thought about what we value and how we live. Ranging from magical stories about transformations (Maria Mutch's "The Peregrine at the End of the World") to character studies (Hadley Moore's "The Entomologist") to deeply felt inquiries into human cruelties (Ben Nichol's "A Kind of Person" and Ariel Djanikan's "The Assailant"), these stories ask us, as only the best fiction can, to try on the shoes of others and see where they take us. One (Marian Crotty's "Common Application with Supplement") cleverly adopts the form of a college application to present the life of a tragically honest young woman ready for another life.
In the ample poetry section, well-known poets are represented with brilliant new work. Jane Hirshfield appears with three poems, Robert Wrigley with two, and Alaska's own Peggy Shumaker with one. Wrigley's narrative poem "Horse Heaven" closes the volume with a heart-lifting image of horses running around their pasture "in their joy, which was beloved by me."
Poems by two other well-published and highly-respected Alaskans appear here. Jill Osier, of Fairbanks, gives us poems in which birds and tides project, in sideways ways, human emotions of love and loss. Elizabeth Bradfield (actually a former Alaskan) shares six poems from her manuscript Toward Antarctica, which draws upon her experience as a ship naturalist. These lovely poems full of natural history and guiding details are all in the form of haibun, which combine prose poetry with haiku. She also includes notes to expand upon geographic, historical, and biological references.
A reader might wonder what New Guinea art is doing in a journal from Alaska. A look at the special feature — 85 pages of high-quality paper and colored photographs — should answer this. "In the Footprint of the Crocodile Man: Memories, Myths and Contemporary Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea" comes from an exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. (That museum houses a very large collection of New Guinea art.) Curator Carol Mayer traveled to a very remote area to purchase contemporary art made by local artists; one master artist then visited the museum for a five-month residency.
What's stunning about the art (aside from its beauty) and the narratives that accompany it (organized into "origin myths," "customary life," and "village life") are the similarities to Alaskans' traditional and contemporary art. For the Sepik people, the crocodile held a major role in the world's creation, much like the raven does in Alaska Native cultures. Crocodile imagery is prominent both in traditional house posts and finials (totem-like carvings mounted on spirit houses.) Other traditional stories represented in Sepik art involve women who marry crocodiles and various transformations between humans and animals. (Mayer understood that the stories she was told belonged to clans, and she received permissions to include their retellings, by those who owned them, in the exhibit.)
An artwork made for the exhibit by the carver Teddy Balangu, during his museum residency, is called "Killer Whale." The artist had never seen a killer whale until he came to British Columbia. "I had a dream in which I brought the killer whale to my country." His carving has a blowhole, fins and flukes but otherwise looks more like a combination of a river fish, with decorative scales, and a fierce crocodile, with face designs. It's an object of great beauty that also demonstrates how artists throughout the world blend new and old, tradition and contemporary experience, reality and imagination.
The final section of the New Guinea feature, "An Uncertain Future," briefly discusses threats from logging and mining to the land and river the artists depend upon for their lives. For now, the carvers make something of a living by selling art to collectors around the world; their art depends on generational knowledge of who they are, living where they do.
Writers and artists, both, in the remaining places in which unique and traditional systems still flourish, have much to show us about what we all have in common, the world around.