Open the Dark
By Marie Tozier. Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 2020. 70 pages. $15.95.
The title of this spare, quietly lyrical collection of poetry suggests a personal and cultural darkness that the author has grappled with and found a way through, to bring understanding and a sense of peace into the light. Inupiaq poet and educator Marie Tozier, originally from Nome and now living in Anchorage, has delivered a portrait of place, family and generational wisdom that speaks to love, loss, and transformation.
Grandparents and other elders figure prominently throughout. Right at the start, “Grandmother’s Bible” overlays the Christian tradition of noting family births and deaths with a deeper one of knowing “who we were named after.” Here, Grandmother points out the lineage of “Eskimo names” that connect to “dear friends, siblings lost too young, esteemed elders.”
In “Grandmother’s Words” Tozier memorializes her grandmother in the elder’s own words — a series of brief stories about berrypicking, her own mother and her mother’s tools, childhood activities, and a visit to the doctor. Tozier perfectly captures a voice full of love and humor; here, too we find an example of the Inupiaq way of teaching through storytelling. In “She Even Used a Ruler,” we meet Grandmother again, a grandmother who gifted the narrator her kuspuk patterns and her knowledge of how to measure, how to press the fabric, “how the front piece flatters a woman, even if she’s fat.”
“Man of Virtue” introduces Tozier’s grandfather with a brief but telling portrait. Eighty years old, following a scripture to visit the fatherless and widows, this saintly man “travels the smaller villages/To comfort those in mourning./Speaks of grown men as orphans,/Those who need care.” He also plays the accordion and “sings the old hymns/They all remember.” In another poem, “Making Do,” Grandfather recalls his older brothers lowering down cliffs by rope to collect bird eggs and how he, too young to be on the cliffs, invented his own stick and fabric tool to help.
As these examples show, much attention here is given to identity. Who are we? Where have we come from? How do we respect heritage and carry its values into our lives? These questions, so personal for Tozier, resonate for anyone considering family and cultural ties and our own identities.
Other poems immerse themselves in the geography, landscape, and other-than-human life of northwest Alaska with a particular intimacy. Raspberries, fireweed, fog over the river, king crabs, gulls, wild violets, salmon, and sandhill cranes all are on display here in their familiar/familial contexts. In “Aakuaksrak,” sandhill cranes arrive in spring “the color of dead willow leaves;” the poem then turns to a creation story about how cranes got their red caps from cranberry stain. In “Approaching Winter,” a gull on pink legs is “a debutante/Unsure of how to hike her ruffled gown.”
Yet other poems document more painful moments and episodes in our history, sometimes with anger, often with compassion. The long poem, “They Tried to Teach Me History,” which makes up the entire mid-section of the book, begins with an epigraph, a statement from an Indian agent in 1886, about “ignorant” Indian parents who “know nothing of the value of education.” Tozier responds to this by taking the statement apart word by word, refuting its lie with examples from her life and Inupiaq ways and purposes of learning. The last, longest part of this asks, “Would it matter/If I laid out the process/For cutting seal:” and proceeds to describe the process of cutting, drying, and preparing seal meat and braided intestines. “Water run through them/Water/To wash away/The sin/Of being.”
Another, “Facebook: Alaska Mystery Pictures, Investigating Unknown People,” describes historic photographs labeled “Eskimo man” or “Eskimo family;” the depicted people aren’t named, aren’t recognized as more than a generic category, a novelty of smiling faces in fur clothing. The poem’s title suggests a posting of such photos with a request for help with identifications. Tozier, studying the photos, sees “Illuqs looking back at you./Your family.” The pictured parka is familiar. Tozier speaks — presumably to the ancestors — " ‘Dear ones,’ I say./’It doesn’t fit.'”
“Campaign Season Comes Again” is not, in fact, connected to politics but might be particularly fitting for our time of year. It tracks the change of season with precise attention; pale grass, hard tundra, frost on the wind. The final stanza suggests more than it says: “A late-season moth/Wings quiet, sticks/To fresh paint.”
These deceptively simple poems enlarge with repeated readings; they unfold greater meaning each time and leave a reader with much to contemplate about identity, cultures, generational wisdom, and values. Marie Tozier’s fresh voice is a very welcome addition to Alaskan, Indigenous and American literature.
We are fortunate that Boreal Books, which has since 2008 published some of the finest literature with a direct link to Alaska, continues to bring readers high-quality work representative of Alaska voices and our place in the world. “Open the Dark” joins books by Eva Saulitis, Mary Odden, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Susanna Mishler, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, Anne Coray, Vivian Faith Prescott, James Englehardt, Rob McCue, Thomas McGuire, and other outstanding writers. The founder and editor of Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Books, is Peggy Shumaker, a former Alaska writer laureate.