Inupiaq poet explores her homeland and history in two collections | Book Reviews

As Americans, we don’t like to think of ourselves as colonizers. That was the dirty work of Europeans in Africa and Asia, but certainly not here. This is our land. Not stolen, but given to us by our God. That’s not colonization. Or so we quietly reassure ourselves. And certainly the Arctic was not colonized. There were no wars for it. Europeans simply trickled in and took possession. We don’t give much thought to the people who had already long inhabited the North.

For Indigenous residents, it’s a different story, of course. For those who had long dwelt in the high latitudes, carving their own histories for centuries and even millennia, the arrival of Europeans marked a sudden disruption. Their history was overrun by ours, and in our history books, largely erased and replaced by ours. And through our activities in the Arctic, along with climate change driven by human activities everywhere, the land, sea and ice where these forgotten histories transpired have themselves been forever altered. A profound sense of loss pervades the vast territories of the Arctic.

This is the landscape that the Inupiaq poet Joan Naviyuk Kane explores in her newest collection, “Dark Traffic.” Raised in Anchorage, where she lived for many years (she’s presently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard), she looks to the ghosts of the White Alice Communications System as her doorway into this tangled history. A relic of the Cold War, White Alice towers, part of the Distant Early Warning Line installed to detect incoming Soviet missiles, once dotted the landscape of Alaska. Some still stand, looming reminders that the North now belongs to faraway empires. And some sites are heavily contaminated. The land that Kane’s ancestors once walked and considered as belonging to none but themselves is now in places ruined by people far removed from it, for causes wholly unrelated to the lives of those who were there first.

Sixteen times in the first stanza of one of the poems directly addressing White Alice, Kane repeats the Inupiaq word “sassaq,” which translates as clock, or an instrument to measure time. In the second stanza the word is repeated again 16 times, but in this case a line is drawn through each of them. It’s an analogy, perhaps, for the erasure of history.

Like humans everywhere, Americans are skilled at erasing uncomfortable stories. In the poem “White Alice Goes to Hell,” she brings up and briefly comments upon several sites that were once part of the system. Delta Junction. Murphy Dome. Elmendorf Air Force Base, where, she tells us, a little-known internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II once stood. “Archeologists working on the research used old / records to pinpoint the camp location in an area now / partially covered by a parking lot.” A historic wrong was simply paved over and forgotten by those responsible. In the poem’s closing line, Kane turns to Driftwood Bay, rife with toxic waste from its time as a White Alice station, “a final report of excess.”

“How many Eskimo words are there for white people,” Kane asks elsewhere pondering those who came and took over their lands. In “Counterpane” she talies the return that Indigenous residents received for their lands. A dependence on outside resources; orphanages; planes that sometimes crash, decimating villages; food airdropped from the sky in the form of Western staples rather than drawn from subsistence; “the flu pandemic of 1918.”

Starvation also arrived, although it certainly stalked the Inupiaq people long before the arrival of Westerners. The influx of new residents offered items of little use, however. “Rifle tobacco tea and cloth / deliver us from this time / when the foxes come no longer:” she writes in “Starvation Episode,” “a glut, and what to sustain us?”

The land and sea change apace, bringing “water over water where once we found ice,” she writes in “Dark Traffic,” the haunting poem from which the book derives its title. “Before it ceases, the ice collapses easily. / There is no day without a symptom.”

The wish to reclaim her home persists nonetheless. “Let us lose our grief / in great rafts as we translate the renamed straits” she writes in “Darker Passage.” And in the following poem she adds, “I no longer circle / the graves of the dead, the ones who exact / so much from the living.” And elsewhere, “at worst, radical emptiness reminds us / of our humanity.”

Sir John Franklin, whose lost expedition led to searches and the flooding of the Arctic by Europeans in search of him, makes a brief ignoble appearance. “Our hero crosses his own heart on his way down to hell.” Revered in his failure by the British, and obsessed over by countless armchair historians (including myself), Franklin looks far different to those whose lands and waters he entered uninvited and unprepared.

Many of these poems originally appeared in Kane’s award winning 2018 chapbook “Sublingual,” and it’s worth reading the two collections in tandem. Some of the poems differ in subtle but crucial ways that open these verses up to further inquiry. In the final line of the first version of “Visitors,” about the transitoriness of human settlements, she writes of them being, “weary of anyone small enough to bar the exit.” In the revision, the weariness shifts towards “anyone small enough to bar our entry.” Our walls serve two purposes. “White Alice Changes Hands” is a completely different poem, a mere three lines in the earlier book, it stands as both an introduction and a coda to the longer piece found in the second.

“A bad hangover and a bad book idea birdlessly / compound the need to perform to expectations,” Kane writes in “Sublingual,” turning the focus onto herself. Surveying purloined land and suppressed culture in “Sometimes There Are Even Scars,” found in “Dark Traffic,” she writes words that summarize these two books. “& walking night after night in an apartment, / parched, I looked out the window into the dark / for some glimpse of what I’ve lost–”

David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be emailed at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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