Book review: New poetry books by Alaskans confirm their authors’ national standing

“late summer ode”

By Olena Kalytiak Davis; Copper Canyon Press, 2022; 113 pages; $17.


By Sara Eliza Johnson; Milkweed Editions, 2022; 78 pages; $16.

In her fourth poetry collection, Olena Kalytiak Davis, of Anchorage and Brooklyn, New York, has established herself as a major American poet, publishing with a top poetry press and being reviewed in The New York Times Book Review.

“late summer ode,” perhaps thematically and in contrast to her achievement, begins with a poem titled “I Was Minor,” a list in which the narrator sees herself as a minor lover, daughter, runner, thinker, mother, beauty and Buddhist. Even, “My poems were not major/enough to even make me/a ‘minor poet.’ ” Much of what follows gathers what seem to be mid-life reconsiderations, even regrets, about the past, or fears about growing old. As a collection, the poems pull readers into circumstances that are vulnerable and often very intimate.

While the content may be largely depressive, a great pleasure in the book comes from its lyrical artistry — the way the words play upon one another and the lines form patterns and disruptions of patterns. For example, the poem “I Have Been” begins this way: “enervated, indigested. I defenestrated/i tried and followed. But I is restive, reliefless, with restless/legs. these are my symptoms, my poems.”


Other poems, demonstrating Davis’s sharp intelligence and knowledge of literature, art and the world of ideas, reference past and present cultural figures. “On the Certainty of Bryan” names poets Eileen Myles and Louise Gluck, writer Lydia Davis, painters Richard Diebenkorn and John Zurier, and a song by the Cave Singers, all within a rumination about a relationship and the narrator’s own panicked life. “Back in Alaska, I have opened the window to/on spring./New ideas are breezing in, like students. I am: like students.”

Other poems are in the style of particular poets or respond to them. “After Rilke” and “After Chekhov” are clear about their influences. “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and “Tolstoyan Weather” pay homage to Tolstoy and his dark moods.

One section of the book is made up of 29 sonnets. The tension and fun of these lies in the contrast between their classic Shakespearian form, with elevated language, and their contemporary concerns. The first stanza of number vii reads “so toned! intoned my daughter when she saw me/shirtless saw you still look good in a bra/and jeans (he once said that (once) to me)/but I am done showing off showing awe.”

Davis ends her collection with a lyrical work of prose. “Chekhov, Baby” is a playful story in the style of Anton Chekhov, involving a woman she calls Olena Romanovna and an older man, Brus Kennetovich, sharing drinks in a back garden at the end of summer. The description of Brus includes, “There was a black bandana round his neck because of the current plague, which had reached all the provinces, even this one, which was very far north and where people were very far away from the world and each other, usually alone with their various and highly specific contagions.” As the two talk, we learn of an art project involving “eight boxes in eight kingdoms,” including one at the corner of 4th and E in their town, and, in a long digression, Olena’s much-earlier stay with a young lover at an Italian villa.

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Sara Eliza Johnson, recipient of many honors including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, currently teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Vapor” is her second book, after her first, “Bone Map,” won the 2013 National Poetry Series.

The poems in “Vapor” are informed by scientific principles and facts, from the micro of cell mutations to the macro of wormholes and Saturn’s moons. In seven parts, the poems group around themes or forms. Again and again, the violence and transformation inherent in physics serve as metaphors for human trauma, loss, and recovery.

In the first section, the poem “Planktonic Foraminifera” leads off with “Before microbes clustered to gleam/like the scales of alien fish” to explore a time when plankton sank to the seabed and fossilized. The movement carries into the human realm of dream, language, and touch, to find a future “written into the basalt” and the ocean’s message, “a vibration you can still feel/when you press your forehead/to anything/alive or dead.” Other poem titles — ”The Abyssal Zone,” “Gravitational Wave,” “The Ctenophore’s Transmission” — likewise expand on ocean science to illuminate something of human longing, pain, or survival.

The poems in the “Amplituhedron” section are all informed, Johnson tells us in a helpful note, by a mathematical concept and geometrical shape from quantum physics. These poems appear as blocks of text, perhaps representing facets of the jewel-like shapes. Far from being gimmicky, the form fills with images of “music made of glass,” “bees like pixels from a dream,” and “the gem that hums inside my throat.”

The series of five poems, each titled “Vapor,” are all cataclysmic, relating to death by poison powders carried on the wind. The death-dust may be from the crash of an asteroid into Earth or from nuclear accident or war. The language in these is gorgeously alive even as it speaks of “a black liquid leaking from the holes that had been your ears,” “poisoned veins” that “ribbon delicately around your bone-branches and ocean trenches,” and “only annihilation.”

Other poems by Johnson provide some respite from the violence and traumas that inhabit so many. Poems inspired by the methane lakes on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, employ images of liquid, waves, light, and warmth. The narrator who floats in these lakes finds a way to the surface “where you release/your wound: the island/that one day someone/will probe for life, try/to decipher. The lake/ripples against you/and, grateful to be touched,/you ripple back.”

These new collections by Davis and Johnson will amply reward their readers with both pleasure in language and proof of the resilience of the human spirit.

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Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."