Without a Paddle
Don Rearden, Imagine Books, 176 pages, 2020. $12.99
At the end of this difficult week during this difficult year, when neither our divisions nor our challenges appear any closer to resolution than they were prior to Tuesday, Don Rearden’s new poetry collection could be the tonic many of us need right now. “funny how they would / have us divided” he writes in the poem “Red Blue.” “each heartless / red blue.”
It’s a quick assessment of our national dilemma, but it highlights how the divisions are driven by those who want our nation to cleave itself apart. So perhaps a line from three pages earlier should be inserted here. “listen / walls are no obstacle.”
I read this collection, appropriately titled “Without a Paddle,” on Tuesday as Americans voted for president. And I revisited it the next day, amid the anxiety and uncertainty of the outcome. It speaks to what is happening now. This is intentional. Two of the poems found here address the pandemic, highlighting how recently some were written.
But where the politics of the day weave in and out of this collection, so does the landscape of Alaska, offering common ground, if we can get beyond our disputes over how best to access it. Viewed from a jet soaring 20,000 feet above the open country he knows so well, and observing the rivers snaking across it, Rearden writes, “these twists and turns / burned into your brain / the arteries and veins / of your life.”
Rearden is a longtime English professor at the University of Alaska, and author of the dystopian 2011 novel “The Raven’s Gift,” which itself has become unexpectedly timely as it centers around a plague-ravaged Southwest Alaska. Raised in that region, yet a student of the world at large, he writes about things as painfully close as his wife’s ongoing struggle with cancer to the atrocities committed at faraway Dachau, and all that occurs across what he alludes to in the title of one poem as “The Spaceship Earth Ride.”
The poems are not arranged thematically. They come in scattershot fashion. On one page he visits an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet in Florida and, upon observing the gluttony of other diners, sets his own fork down. Much more inviting is the stop at an alder grove, where he points to the “passage to a place / impossible tunnels / a maze / low hanging trail / somewhere the golden leaf carpet / stirs, rustles ...”
Though perhaps not a household name in Alaska, in literary circles Rearden is highly regarded. In these poems he demonstrates why, with an unsentimental yet sincere compassion, astute observations from the finite to the infinite, and an economy of language. These poems are brief, yet each tells a story. In keeping with the best poetry, there’s space for the reader to fill in the details, as each will do in their own fashion.
Sometimes he’s rambling the backwoods of Alaska, encountering the scent of a nearby bear on one page, running out of fuel for a boat far from help on another. Further along still we find him “cutting caribou / smile with each slice / a gift from the Arctic.” He welcomes, rather than repels, the topic of the poem “Mosquito,” writing, “I grew accustomed to your / incessant hum / I grew to love your bite.” For those of us who suffered through an unusually bad bug year here in the Interior, it’s a bit hard to feel the love. But we’ll give the poet his due.
Elsewhere Rearden subtly evokes other notable northern writers — whether intentionally or not, I cannot say. In “My Tarp Coffin” he scrambles to create life-saving warmth during a frigid day, calling to mind Jack London’s immortal tale, “To Build a Fire.” Elsewhere he writes of how ravens famously commute into Alaska towns from their nests in the surrounding hills. It reminded me of the great Sherry Simpson, who we recently lost, and who once wrote a lively essay wherein she followed a corvid researcher as he studied Alaska’s most prominent birds in their primary feeding grounds, the dumpsters around Fairbanks.
Rearden writes of Alaskans, but acknowledges that the state takes a heavy toll on many residents. In one poem he ponders the suicide of a writing student of his, and what he might have said or done to have possibly averted the tragedy. Although with suicides, one never really knows. In another piece, he reminisces about a childhood friend from Bethel who was known for stealing bicycles and who subsequently died homeless in Anchorage. Yet far from passing judgment, Rearden writes, “I hope they let Edwin / into heaven so he can / ride the hell / out of the gold paved / streets behind the pearly gates.”
It’s America at large that he keeps returning to, however, and more so as the book progresses. In a series of three numbered poems titled “Death by Social Media” he engages in lighthearted wordplay, deploying the names of the internet platforms we’ve become so addicted to, while driving home that the things designed to bring us together online seem to isolate us ever more from each other in real life, which might or might not exist anymore.
On other pages, Rearden revisits America’s Civil War, which has morphed from what had appeared as long ago resolved history back into a still-festering wound in recent decades. In an era when the country seems more divided than it has been at any point since that calamitous conflict, he also vents on the president, “a compass with no needle,” who has exploited today’s divisions rather than seeking to bridge them. “your job was to sit / at the head of our country’s table / say grace, be graceful / act with dignity, not Hannity.”
But Readen seeks something better. “funny how they would / have us forget this / we are indivisible / we bleed / love,” he writes, again, in “Red Blue.”
And in "Listen, he offers that better way. “listen / trails call to you / listen / ancient spirits sing / listen / again to your heart.”
Much-needed words in difficult times.