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For national poetry month, 3 Alaska poets shine

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: April 27, 2019
  • Published April 27, 2019


By Mar Ka, University of Alaska Press/Alaska Literary Series, 128 pages, 2019. $16.95

Roughly for the North

By Carrie Ayagaduk Ojanen, University of Alaska Press/Alaska Literary Series, 80 pages, 2018, $14.95

Of Darkness & Light

By Kim Cornwall, edited by Wendy Erd, University of Alaska Press/Alaska Literary Series, 62 pages, 2019. $14.95

April is National Poetry Month. The annual event, launched in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, has grown to be the world’s largest literary celebration, according to its website. The organizers encourage readers everywhere to spend the month exploring the boundless possibilities of expression that the form offers.

Here in Alaska, no publisher has done more in recent years to bring the best of the state’s poets into print than the University of Alaska Press. Under its Alaska Literary Series imprint, the Press has been issuing titles at an increasing rate, including three that have arrived in time for this year’s celebration.

The longest and most ambitious is “Be-hooved” by Mar Ka, the pen name of indigenous rights attorney Mary Kancewick. In keeping with her profession, several of the poems found in this collection focus on life in Alaska’s Native villages, evoking scenes from the remote corners of the state where life obeys its own rhythms and sets of rules.

“Between boardwalks, houses / built on permafrost sink into puddles” she writes early in the book. In a more expansive flurry a few pages later, Ka tells us:

“Meanwhile the village behaves in accordance with its summer nature,

sleeping and waking at all hours in the all-hour light,

checking salmon nets in bear-gun weighted boats,

cleaning, cutting, drying the fish gathered like manna–

indifferent to progress, productivity, rising GNPs,

all tended by others in other countries

with different religions and different heavens,

different songs, dances, and things called serpents.”

Along with villages, caribou are recurrent. Ka alerts readers to the sounds they make while walking. “Listen now to the thrown / kisses of ankle tendons clicking over bone, kiss-kiss, kiss-kiss.”

At times Ka’s style recalls Gertrude Stein, with its repetition of words, slightly altered in sequence each time to find new meaning. “Believe / in life transformed; that we transform life / in belief; that belief transforms us. / That life is thus, to be transformed.” Unlike Stein, however, when Ka embarks on a word spiral, she keeps it brief, knowing when to quit.

The most haunting poem in the book is also the most singularly direct. “Snow Machine Collision” recalls a fatal head-on of two snow machines between Ambler and Shungnak that involved alcohol on the part of the man responsible and that claimed the life of a young woman filled with promise. The piece examines the impact of the tragedy on the girl’s community and family.

An intoxicated driver also takes lives in “Roughly for the North,” by Carrie Ayagaduk Ojanen. “You wrote the last time you killed a seal / with your harpoon two men hunting with you / were later hit by a drunk driver / and killed in Nome. I don’t believe anyone / could be hit accidentally in Nome. / But you didn’t want to write about that.”

Ojanen is an Inupiat poet from the Ugiuvamiut tribe, which long inhabited King Island (Ugiuvak in the Inupiaq language) in the Bering Sea during winters. Midway through the twentieth century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the school there, a move that forced the islanders to relocate permanently on the mainland. Most moved to Nome, others scattered, and the distinct island culture was lost.

This history runs throughout Ojanen’s book, a sense of uprootedness and intergenerational trauma. Though born on the mainland, Ojanen feels the draw of a place that should have been her home. “they return / my family / my ancestors / it is summer / they are coming to the mainland / where we live now / even in winter / Ugiuvak, but they have that / secret place / we wish we had / all together.”

Elsewhere she envisions her aapa (grandfather) at the time of the forced abandonment.

“What you must think of–so long sitting here–

the BIA did not send another teacher to your island,

wrested your school aged children away

as you stood to get on the boat to Nome. Ugiuvak,–home without your eldest children–

the movies you made to try to convince them to send another teacher

to King Island, to bring your children home.”

Ojanen also evokes life on Alaska’s western shore. Physically difficult work, subsistence, traditional culture, death and renewal. And she offers some memorable descriptions of nature. Of a passing herd of caribou, she writes, “They were like ghost ships at sea, plunging / in and out of swells, appearing and disappearing in the fog.” And on witnessing a pair of condors take flight, she writes, “they fell back / into the air.”

The third book, “Of Darkness & Light,” collects a brief handful of poems by Kim Cornwall. As a child in Washington State she was victim of sexual assault, and as an adult she came to Alaska trying to outpace her memories. Unable to overcome the trauma, she took her own life in 2010, leaving behind poetry that is gathered here by editor Wendy Erd.

Only one of the poems directly addresses her assault, but a sense of irrecoverable loss permeates much of the book. Loss of abilities, loss of love, loss of life. In “Pursuit” she writes, “On the nightstand; / tea, stale, / and coins he forgot. / Above the white mug / I cup my hand; / no steam / no spice lifting / like scent from skin.” She closes the piece noting that “We are born chasing touch– / its brief and fragile heat.”

There are also moments of hope, as when she observes, “Midwinter, among / old-growth trees / one shoot strays toward the light. / ... The gleam of green. / Faith, thaw, / Spring, sun / they’ll come again.”

In kneading bread she proclaims, “The Gruel Dough ripens all day / and so death leavens in a man,” adding later, “Her dough springs back, and a resurrected life / shapes bread and rolls a wafer man.”

The works in each of these books remind us of the power of poetry and the necessity of maintaining it. For as Mar Ka writes, “When metaphors lose meaning / language, like any beast, becomes / endangered as a species.”

Thankfully, UA Press is helping to keep that language alive.