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In 2 volumes of poetry, contemporary Alaska comes to vivid life

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: May 12, 2018
  • Published May 12, 2018

The Echo of Ice Letting Go

By Julie Hungiville LeMay. University of Alaska Press/Alaska Literary Series, 2017. 112 pages. $14.95.

Just Between Us

By David McElroy, University of Alaska Press/Alaska Literary Series, 2018. 90 pages. $14.95.

The Alaska Literary Series, published by the University of Alaska Press and launched in 2012, has brought a growing variety of nonacademic literary works to publication, including both fiction and nonfiction. From the start, however, there has been a particular emphasis on poetry in the series, and this has been a significant contribution to the northern literary landscape. A number of skilled Alaska poets who might otherwise have escaped notice or been condemned to the self-publication ghetto have instead seen their work distributed to a wide audience in handsomely produced volumes.

“The Echo of Ice Letting Go,” by Julie Hungiville LeMay

Two recent offerings demonstrate the series' continuing commitment to bringing worthy voices to light. Both authors are rooted in Alaska, yet both travel far afield in their writings as well, and both have mastered the art of speaking volumes with the fewest words possible.

"The Echo of Ice Letting Go," by Matanuska Valley resident Julie Hungiville LeMay, is the more inwardly focused of the two books. The poems here are death obsessed, and understandably so. Her subject matter includes her own battle with cancer as well as her son's struggle with drug addiction. In seeking peace and meaning, LeMay looks to nature and to Buddhist practice. The mood is solemn but not somber. Hope is found despite her trials.

In an early poem she recalls nearly drowning in a creek as a teenager, "in a whirlpool of foam / and dark shadow sinking / murky grey to thick black to / dazzling light."

A few lines later she goes into chemotherapy for her cancer and finds herself in the same place. "I gasped a ridiculous help / as heavy stones filled / unmovable lungs, / throat narrowed and closing / edge of vision darkening, then / pulled back once more / to sputtering breath. / Again, not drowned."

When she turns to her son's drug addiction, she conveys the horrors in just a few short lines of similarly Spartan language. "Meth madness / makes me miss / his heroin-quiet thievery. Except for / those near fatal overdoses."

Elsewhere he lands in an emergency room where she goes to see him, and the seeming futility of efforts at helping him is hard to miss. "Two hours more, and they check him / into detox for a three-day / hold. He inches, / like a black beetle, to the end / of the fluorescent-lit hall."

LeMay travels to Tibet and visits monasteries, seeking refuge in Buddhist ideas. But while there she is confronted by the brutality of the Chinese occupation of that once-enchanted land, where soldiers armed with semi-automatic rifles stand watch and stop even nuns, demanding to see their papers. "I avoid / the soldiers' eyes, their faces— / masks trained for no expression. / Their eyes watch / everything but see no one."

She laments her failure to completely embrace and live by Buddhist teachings, but in a telling passage from one of her hospital visits shows she has absorbed the religion's core message. "I say suffering is the quickest way / to learn gratitude."

Throughout the book, LeMay engages in an ongoing conversation with the naturalist John Muir. A series of poems are written in response to brief lines of his, and it's on the land that she, like Muir, finds fulfillment. After a successful moose hunt, in one of the book's few truly optimistic moments, she writes, "I breathe in / hot broth, bite / into tender meat, the whole / land in every mouthful: / taste willow bud / muskeg, winter sun."

Anchorage-based David McElroy is a retired pilot and global traveler whose work in "Just Between Us" journeys outward where LeMay's travels within. The first section of the book collects poems from his excursions to Europe, Asia and Central America. From Finland he takes a ship across the Baltic Sea to St. Petersburg, Russia, where, "We crowd Catherine's house / scuffing her floral parquet. / Boris, brusque and so Russian / recites endurance of heroes / of the great city under siege."

“Just Between Us,” by David McElroy

In Southeast Asia, where he visits his first wat (Buddhist temple) "I mount the warm steps barefoot / with poise, reasonably lucky, / centered, momentarily Buddhist, / modestly hung in the middle way."

To travel, of course, is to encounter history, and sometimes the history of other countries reflects badly on our own. In Zacualpa, Guatemala, he must accept the violence America inflicted on the people of that country by taking one of the two equally bad sides in its civil war.

"But one day the army we trained / comes with civil patrols. On threat / of their own deaths, they arrest / their neighbors. They rope them, / hang them from hooks / to question, beat, blood-splatter / the walls and kill the fear / out of them, cut them down, / mulch them, bury them / in soft soil of the gardens."

Most of the poems are lighter fare, however. McElroy has a shape sense of humor and whimsy, and in the second section of this frequently funny book this emerges in a poem of a dream where a goat runs rampant through an unoccupied schoolroom, eating its way through what matters to people. "Textbook covers are good and tough / as hill shrubs in Babylon. Homer's war, / Hundred Years' War, latest war, / the heart and brain of William Blake / make hardy fare to feed on."

Back home, observing the results of three days of heavy rain, he notes that "Broccoli bolts, and the cabbage split their heads. / Slugs steering along trails of snot / eat buckshot holes in their food and ours / feeding themselves and soon those little lives / in the soil. Surely we're standing upon / a symbiotic frenzy of microbial Calcuttas."

Another poem is a workingman's ode to a Sawzall, which he takes to some recalcitrant bolts in need of removal. "Dust, noise, vibration, Sturm and Drang, / cursing, problem-solving the American way."

Both of these books offer rewards on each page rendered in brief handfuls of words. From these collections we find that poetry in the Far North is thriving, and thanks to the Alaska Literary Series, it has a home where it can continue to grow.

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