Copyright © 2009 by Mike Burwell, Editor Cover art: Paxson Woelber Design and composition: Paxson Woelber ISSN 2152-6451 (print) ISSN 2152-4610 (online) Published by
Chipmunk Press Anchorage, Alaska www.cirquejournal.com All future rights to material published in the Cirque are retained by the individual authors and artists. email: firstname.lastname@example.org Permission to print “Cut, Then Chase,” “At the End of a Hard Day,” and “So Now Then” from Hollow Out, courtesy of New Rivers Press http://www.mnstate.edu/newriverspress/
Cirque A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim ______________________________________________________
Vol. 1 No. 1
Winter Solstice 2009
From the Editor Welcome to Issue #1 of Cirque. Cirque, published in Anchorage, Alaska, is a regional journal created to share the best writing of the region with the rest of the world. Inside this sphere there are a few journals and outside of it there are a lot. Meeting the need for a journal to get the art of this region out to a wider audience, Cirqueâ€™s editorial mission is simple: to offer fine writing from the North Pacific Rim. In Alaska, some existing journals have recently disappeared and others take on submissions from the entire U.S. and Canada. In the Net world, there are hundreds of e-journals that have a disembodied cast to them. Editors from all over the globe editing a collection of writers from everywhere. Many of these journals have strong readerships and identities; many do not. Writing comes out of place, and Cirque speaks from and for the North in order to articulate the essence of this place; at the same time, Cirque affirms voices with international vitality and impact. Our editorial and geographical boundaries include (and are limited to) writers living in Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Hawaii, Yukon Territory, Alberta, British Columbia, and Chukotka. Two rich issues a year will draw exclusively from emerging and established writers living in the North Pacific Rim. If you meet the geographic test, send your short stories, poems, creative nonfiction, translations, plays, reviews of first books, interviews, photographs, and artwork to email@example.com. The submission deadline for Issue #2--Summer Solstice 2010 is April 30, 2010. Cirque is published free on-line and hard copies are print-ondemand. My thanks to Anne Coray and Steve Kahn at NorthShore Press for helping me name the journal, to Randol Bruns for helping me forge ahead with my call for submissions, to Buffy McKay for leaping into the editing, to Janet Levin for her magnificent photos and 11th-hour editorial help, to Paxson Woelber for his cover art and web design and general reassurance that all the online processes would actually be realized, and, finally, to all the writers here who have offered their work for your delight. This issue is dedicated to Fairbanks novelist and poet, Marjorie Kowalski Cole, who was recently struck down by cancer. We are fortunate to be able to include two of her poems in this the inaugural issue of Cirque. Mike Burwell, Editor Anchorage, Alaska Winter Solstice 2009
Cirque A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim ______________________________________________________ Vol. 1 No. 1 Winter Solstice 2009
Contents NonFiction Seeking Spirit Jeff Fair……………... Joel’s Ashes Jim Sweeney……….. Jaden Is Calling Sandra Kleven…….... Neighbors Russ Van Paepeghem On An Early Winter Day, An Abundance of Bugs Bill Sherwonit………. Ptarmigan Hunting in Alaska: A Love Story Steve Taylor…………
7 12 13 15 16 19
Plays At Sea Mother & Child in a Garden
Nancy Lord…………… Peter Porco…………..
Marjorie Kowalski Cole ……..………………… John Baalke………….. Randol Bruns………… ……………………….. Alexandra Appel…….. Marilyn Borell………... Carolyn Edelman…..… Marion Boyer………… Michael Earl Craig…. ……………………….. Gretchen Diemer…...... Sherry Eckrich………... Jo Going……………… ……..…………………. Eric Heyne……………. ……………………….. Ann Dixon……………. B. Hutton……………... Erling Friis-Baastad…… Amy Otto Larsen….….. ………………………... Ernestine Hayes………
28 29 29 30 30 32 31 33 34 35 35 36 37 38 38 39 40 41 42 41 43 43 44
Poetry Water Wildlife on Old Wood Road It’s All Downhill From Here Fresh Water Catching My King Anchorage City Poems #52 Home Front Walking Alee of Wild Roses Gustavus, Alaska, Pop. 101 Bear Photo Bluebirds El Agua Garden Party Mountain Lion Again Winter Accretions Found Winter Ptarmigan Sunday, 12/19/04 7:45AM The Hunter Norma’s Cove Fool’s Lake Old Tom Brings Water into the World
Old Tom’s Hands ………………………… Tribute Janet Levin……………. Freezeout Creek Sean Patrick Hill ………. Out the Back Window Deb Liggett……………. Storm ………………………… Nesting Chronology Joan Kane…………….. The Fire ………………………… September 12, 2001 Susheila Khera………… Pushing Off at Dusk ………………………… Majesty Gone Marie Lundstrom……... Perspectives ………………………… Climbing Lazy Mountain Jason Marvel………….. In Your Snowflake Dream David McElroy………… In My Deli Dream ………………………… April, Austen, Anchorage Buffy McKay…………… How Spring Travels in Alaska ………………………… The Place Where We Live Rachel Mehl…………… A Memorial Perhaps John Morgan………….. Counting Caribou Crossings— Prudhoe Bay, Alaska…………………….. Falling Doug Pope…………… The Wedding Night Vic Cavalli…………….. Green lake Mark Muro……………. Spaghetti western ………………………… Wreck Beach Jon Wesick…………..… Pentimento Pamela Porter ………… Eriophorum Debbie Nigro………….. Beastly Night Steve Treacy………….. Brown Mare Paul Winkel……………. Aid and Comfort Tonja Woelber……….. Remembering Harding Lake Nancy Woods…………. The soul like water, will find a place to go Kathleen Tarr…………. I wore cowboy boots to work today Scott Banks……………. Eve in Homer, Alaska Cinthia Ritchie………… Destruction Bay, Yukon …………………………
45 46 48 49 49 50 50 51 51 52 52 53 54 54 55 56 56 57 57 58 59 60 61 61 62 62 63 63 64 64 65 66 67 67
Interviews Kelsea Habecker Hollowed Out
Mary Huyck Mulka……
Photos and Art Westchester Lagoon Raven and Eagle The Gorosh Pile Capri-Leaf Fallen Paxson Woelber's Alaska Collection All Remaining Photographs
Rebecca Goodrich……. 37 Robin Hiersche……….. 67 Rick James…………….. 61 N. Q. Nguyen…………. 53 ………………………... 31 PW..38, 43, 44, 51, 65, 66, 74, 77 ……..Janet Levin………
Nonfiction Jeff Fair
Seeking Spirit Princess Royal Island off the blue Pacific coast of Canada: one thousand square miles of the most remote, impenetrable, uninhabited, mountain-barricaded, fogchoked monsoon-drenched wilderness the human spirit could possibly hope to find on any shore of this precious continent. Uninhabited? Not entirely true. Deep in these darkling woods dwells the mystical spirit bear. Obscure and mysterious as the snow leopard, this creature haunts the last significant tract of unviolated temperate rainforest on earth, here in western British Columbia. The local Tsimshians know it as Moksgm'ol, "white bear." Big medicine. Others call it snow bear, or ghost bear. But ghost of whom? Spirit of what? We hope to find out. September 10, Day 1 Ten of us rendezvous at the head of a long inlet in the interior of this island wilderness. Together we comprise a research expedition under the auspices of Canada's Valhalla Wilderness Society and the Great Bear Foundation headquartered down in Montana. We are here ostensibly to collect information and observations of this animal and its environment to help justify the establishment of a provincial park preserve on the southern half of this island—a sanctuary for the spirit bear. All appears in order except (I note) for an annoying profusion of photographic gear dangling from the necks, hands, and packs of my compatriots. We plunge immediately into the rainforest, a dark jungle, green and dripping, ambiance of moist decay. When we strike the creek we walk upstream along its shallows following strings of wolf tracks and the footprints of bears: broad, humanlike impressions with the big toes on the outside (indicative of a more stable species). We investigate piles of bear droppings, humanlike extrusions of recycled berries and fruits and other delicacies indecipherable to a man with a stick under field conditions. In the pools of
the creek, water clear as glass, we watch dozens of dullcolored chum salmon, long as my arm. The bear we are looking for is known to science as Ursus americanus kermodei, the Kermode bear, named by the New York Zoological Society for a Canadian museum curator who produced the first verified specimens, D.O.A. A race of our common black bear, the Kermode is special for its odd color forms. One in ten may appear in a white, orange or pinto coat. Colors may alternate through generations; mixed litters occur. The pure white creatures—the spirit bears—are not albino, but simply a ghostly white. Some say perhaps only a few dozen exist. Science knows little about their uniqueness, having lost interest in 1928 when the Kermode was officially demoted to subspecies status. How did they get here? According to scientific theory, the white bear was produced by random genetic mutation in the black bear's genes. According to Tsimshian legend, the white bear was created on purpose by Raven, here on this island at the beginning of time. Neither hypothesis has yet been conclusively refuted. At a bend in the creek we encounter our first bear, a conventional black model on the opposite bank. Sudden clamor of zippers, snaps, parting velcro, bayonet mounts engaging, tinkle of lens caps in the gravel, strategic flourish of tripods: the artistes at their work. The bear of course disappears. Glum disappointment among the photographers. Half a mile farther, we take our stand. Someone saw a white bear on this exact spot two weeks ago. The photographers unpack. We sit. We wait. We watch for pale shadows in the bush.
Before dark we walk back downstream. At the mouth of the creek I speak with Wayne McCrory, chief biologist and leader of this expedition. His vigor belies his fifty years. He wears a black fisherman's cap over a pile of dark curls, and the bear biologist's beard: black, curly, a bit feral about the edges. Part Scotch, part Irish, part bloody English, he is a patriot of Canada--of the land itself, if not always the government. His countenance has a tired sadness about it, reminiscent of a face I've seen somewhere before. Then I remember where: an old gray daguerreotype of one Henry Thoreau. Too few salmon today, McCrory explains. The black bears are off in the woods eating the last of the berry crop. Besides that, he and a pair of film makers in our crew observed the tracks of two grizzly bears this afternoon, one of them quite large. And what might the grizzlies be eating? Well they might be eating black bears, says McCrory. Can't expect the spirit bears to be showing their faces with that kind of company about. We proceed by inflatable Zodiac to base camp aboard the Ocean Light, a classy 67-foot wooden ketch anchored in the bay, charter captain Tom Ellison's contribution to the effort. Not your typical backcountry bivouac, but not bad, not bad. Day 2 Blue skies overhead, stout coffee steaming from the galley stove. Salmon leap nervously in the bay, waiting for rain to swell the creeks for that final uphill run. A single fish rockets out of the water and falls home like a slab of meat, five, six, seven times in succession. We sneak back into the lovely gloom. Untroubled by fire for obvious reasons, this forest of rain has reigned over the landscape for ten thousand years since the glaciers retreated, the warm rains began to fall, and Raven created the white bear. We pick our way over sphagnum, bunchberry, and deer ferns through an understory jungle of red and black huckleberries, orange squash berries, salal (an evergreen berry bush, once a staple of the Tsimshian diet), skunk cabbage, and the menacing devils-club, its stems and huge jungle leaves fully armed with tiny poison thorns. Around us the big trees stand sublime: red cedar, western hemlock, amabilis fir, Sitka spruce. Some of them better than 200 feet tall and five feet across at human eye level. Pillars of the community, the huge Sitkas pump from the soil 400 to 500 gallons of water per day through transpiration and thus prevent the whole area from flooding to bog conditions. Water stored in the soil anchored by their roots provides for constant flow of the streams necessary for the salmon. The high, sparse forest canopy allows through sufficient sunlight to empower the berry bushes. The big spruces and cedars,
when dead, provide elevated den cavities for the Kermode bears which otherwise risk a rude awakening from hibernation due to winter rains or snowmelt. A beautiful system, but delicate. Removal of these giants would change the ecology of the forest for centuries, choking out the berry crop and silting out the salmon— thus starving the bears. But it is precisely these huge 500-year-old riverside Sitkas that are lusted over by the big timber companies, which systematically denude the coastal streams. Flying northward from Vancouver yesterday we looked down on monstrous clearcuts, the virgin forest laid flat, the biggest logs of highest value skidded, snaked, ballooned and helicoptered off to market. What do they make out of these logs? Why, the same thing they make from the last of the old growth timber in Alaska, Oregon, and anywhere else: dollar bills. As an antidote to this disease, McCrory and his colleagues have worked with the First Nations and the Province to protect a significant portion of the spirit bear’s habitat here. Yet crucial areas remain licensed to the clearcutters; they could start anytime. We step along single-file up a labyrinthian path created for the most part by the bears themselves. Slick and treacherous throughout and prone to sudden disintegration, boot-sucking muck, precarious single-log bridges, huge banana slugs underfoot, thigh-deep water crossings, and canes of devil's-club where handholds seem necessary, and carrying the ever-present possibility of Grizz, our trail is, by our standards, nearly perfect. Where the habitat becomes impenetrable for a human we stagger up the streamside gravel—like walking over a loose pile of greased bricks—with the sound of an army on the march. Can't be helped. Along the stream we find dozens of mangled salmon carcasses, all the best parts (skin, eggs, loins) already missing. A bloody, warlike scene, one might imagine. But actually just the peaceful enactment of an intersection on the food web. Everyone doing his job. We observe more scats, this time the color and consistency of a tarry mousse, the result of a protein meal. Good and hopeful signs, all. McCrory explains the rules of the trail. Whisper if you must talk; the bears like it that way. Piss in the stream —a difficult proposition which goes against my training. But human male urine is considered a bear deterrent; better to flush it away. Stay in groups and let others know where you'll be. Each group carries a canister of bear spray, an aerosol concoction containing the active ingredient of cayenne peppers. Repellent but not injurious. Use only if absolutely necessary. Is the spirit bear likely to attack? Not likely at all. But photographers are renowned for putting bears in compromising
situations, and McCrory worries about the bears' reputation. On the black bears' demeanor, the biologist quotes an old homesteader's advice: "Twenty-five percent of them are friendly, thirty-five percent are unfriendly, and the rest just want to be left alone." How do you know which is which? "I watch their eyes," says McCrory. We pass a young fir with toothmarks around a scar in the bark. Why would a bear eat the bark of a tree when it has a year-round supply of its dietary favorites: skunk cabbage, berries, fat chum salmon? I wondered that too, says McCrory, until one of the Tsimshian elders told me that his father chewed the same bark to rid his intestines of parasite. What kind of parasites? he asked. The kind you get from eating raw salmon, the old man said. We take our stand near a logjam two miles up the stream. The aroma of dead salmon washes downstream on the morning breeze. We wait. We wait. Watching too hard. When we relax they appear, one by one, usually in perfect silence. As though by magic. Suddenly we perceive an ursine face among the alders, studying us. Twice, a bear approaches in open mid stream before we notice it. One is a large male with a distinctive injured ear and a rather neutral look on his face. McCrory recognizes him from years past. Torn Ear plods by at close range, delighting the camera squad. In the evening we follow the film team back downstream. Seven bears today, all of the standard shade. It is dark when we reach the Zodiac. Our eighth bear is on the intertidal boulders at the mouth of the creek. We hear the friction of foot pads on granite, the sound of breathing. He is black as the night. Day 3 One of our party, a pale-faced executive type with the cheapest hip waders I’ve ever seen, is an interesting character. He marks our trail with eagle feathers and generously shares his single-malt Scotch. Good man. Yesterday he told me that the crew’s careless banter about finding the bears makes him nervous. The native hunters, he reminded me, never referred to the bear by name. They called him Grandfather. Treated with dignity, the spirit of the bear might offer its body to them. He wonders if we are showing the proper respect. “You believe those legends?” I asked him, keeping my own thoughtful questions and questionable thoughts to myself. “Metaphors,” he answered. For our tramp today, I pluck the cross-shaped tip of a spruce bough and insert it through the buttonhole of my breast pocket—my boreal boutonniere.
Superstitious? Hell no. Of course not. I just wear it for good luck. Propitiating the spirits? Only my own. We pick our way into a different rainforest of aromatic yellow cedar and lodgepole pine. On the lip of a steep canyon overlooking a salmon stream we sit down quietly, waiting for Grandfather. Watching for spirit. Brother raven drops by to deliver his riddle. Something about that brazen bird. The Tsimshians saw Raven as both Creator and Trickster, an intriguing mix, far more reflective of what I've found in my own reconnoitering than that God they used to mumble about back in the Lutheran churches of southern Pennsylvania. Hours pass. I look down and notice for the first time a retired eagle feather touching my boot. From a log bridging the stream and riddled with claw marks McCrory plucks an ivory hair. The white bear was here. "I thought so," he says. He probably did. McCrory operates partly on instinct. For personal safety in bear country he relies on an undefined sense that tells him when a bear is near and when he ought to go the other way. Dependable? So far, he says. Disobeyed it once, years ago, and got into trouble. Along with his work on the creeks, McCrory is investigating native legends for information. All of their knowledge, he points out, of land, history, and natural history, is based on a continuous memory across centuries of observation. There may be a value there that we do not yet comprehend. He recalls entering grizzly country with a native who recited a chant at the head of the trail. "Do you think it worked?" I ask. "I knew it was serious," he says. A man of spirit, this McCrory. Of seeing the white bear, he says, "It strikes chords we didn't know we had." A sentient biologist. A scientist with one foot square in his data and the other in the river of feeling. I respect that, along with a number of his other traits. That skepticism for dependence on hi-tech equipment and inferential statistical analyses, for examples. And his aversion to large bureaucratic fundraising organizations. (His Valhalla Society is a grass-roots network supported by active members.) I admit to him that I narrowly escaped the environmental bureaucracy myself. “What happened?” he says. “Burn your necktie?” “Never owned one,” I tell him. He smiles. Sitting in the middle of a spirit bear’s bridge above a wild creek in a mist-veiled forest at the far end of our continent, two blacksheep biologists strike accord. No bears volunteer today. But they are here. Along the trail back I count an average of five steps between piles of bear shit. Late that night I climb up on deck alone and discover an immense curtain of opalescence pulsating across the sky. Revenge of the cosmic white bear?
Supernatural Tsimshian dream net? Not necessarily. Just a flair of panache in the old chemistry of nature. The rapture of sun and earth in polar ionic orgasm. Sweet reality and nothing more. Beyond this veil I see the Great Bear, Ursa Major, out on her nightly patrol. I look down and find the entire scene—auroral light, distant stars— reflected on the water. Then I notice at some level beneath the surface weird orbs of greenish-blue flaring in the dark of the sea. Of course: bioluminescent ocean algae, excited to candescence by the swash of salmon tails. I linger here between two infinite realms. I watch the heavens. I watch the sea. I wonder. Day 4 Voices drift up from the galley. The two cinematographers are pointing out how even our televised “nature” shows distort reality. “Every culture creates its own mythologies,” says someone. Science can distort, too, McCrory points out, when it interprets as conclusive those facts derived from incomplete or inferential evidence. He argued once with another biologist (“goddamned technocrat”) who had developed a statistical interpretation of black bear ecology based on three years of data from a handful of radio-collared bears. McCrory suggested to him that an accurate view might require a bit longer. How much longer? Try thirty or forty years to start out, he said. “How the hell can you do that?” cried the flustered statistician. “Stay out there and WATCH them,” replied McCrory, a bit of his Irish showing. Meaning that brief scientific forays cannot paint the whole picture of reality. What science gives us at best is a model to aid our understanding, not unlike the Tsimshian legends which offered those people scenarios for survival and celebration in their stirring surroundings. After breakfast we hike upstream to the logjam and fall quiet. A gang of ravens cruises in, swearing and screaming. McCrory swears back at them in their own language, exacerbating the clamor. Around us the salmon erupt in bursts of energy, roiling the shallows in final orgiastic bliss. We wait. Then from the alders the bear materializes—in black again. Fat and nonchalant, he swings his head to look at us: unimpressed. Moving our way, he disappears into a thicket. The photographers fumble with their film. I sharpen my pencil with a pocket knife. When our bear reappears he is close. Very close. He moves toward us through the shallows, belly hairs dripping, pizzle dangling in the current, aware of our lurking stares but minding his own business. At a range of twenty feet he inspects us again through a pair of brown human eyes close-set on a broad face. A look of—
what?— self-assuredness? concealed disdain? professional preoccupation? Impossible to assess. But apparently neither fear nor malice. Fifteen feet away now, our bear sniffs at the water's surface, takes an audible breath, and submerges snout first between logs in the jam. We hear him snorkling in there. Salmonid shadows dart out from beneath. He emerges through the same opening with a three-foot chum contorting in his jaws. Customary technological scramble. Cameras sing like electronic cicadas. General jockeying for position, the perfect view, the ultimate image. The bear looks at us, shakes some water from his coat (clatter of shutters, whine of autodrives) and carries his meal into the bush. A wave of exultation passes among us. Being close to the bear is still big medicine for the human spirit. Day 5 We squeak and squash in our sodden boots up a larger stream and come upon the grandfather of Sitka spruces: eleven feet across at the level of a human heart. A tree with dignity, too big to hug. At the base of it a bear has made his bed. In a sappy scar five feet up a smaller tree nearby we find white and russet hairs. I glue them into my notebook with spruce gum. Day 6 For several hours at midday we drift idly out the neck of an estuary on a falling tide, soaking ourselves in the powerful landscape. Shirking our biological duties? I think not. Floating here in canoes on the face of the sea, warm sun on our faces, surrounded by a palpable peace hurried only by the passage of days and the slow breathing of tides, we acquire—each in his own fashion —a feel for this place, for the mountains and marshes, the ravens, the bears, spirits of the land. Must our biological consideration always circle back to our own lives and feelings? Yes, I would have to say so. How could we possibly avoid it? “The true biologist deals with life, with teeming, boisterous life,” wrote John Steinbeck, “and learns that the first rule of life is living.” Day 7 Washing our breakfast dishes on the foredeck, we watch as Raven patrols her domain. Over the bay she cries, "Awwk! Awwk!" But upon reaching bear country she says, "Itguuk. Itguuk. Itguuk." The meanings I don't comprehend, but I wonder about McCrory. Yesterday I watched him eye a pair of ravens flying upstream and when they called from around the bend (Agak! Agak!), move off in their direction. An hour later he was back, having stumbled preciously close upon a sow and cub, which he took me to see.
Low on the creek this morning bear tracks cover yesterday’s boot prints. We come upon old Torn Ear resting on his elbows, rump high, gnawing on red chunks of salmon carnage. A pleasing sound, not unlike that of a child biting into a ripe apple. In a large pool farther up we find several hundred fish of at least four different species swimming slowly in a circle twenty feet across. A delicate, solemn dance. What would the Tsimshian elders say about this? What would the fisheries biologists say? I’d rather ask the elders. Day 8 I dump Labrador tea, moss, bark, lichen, twigs, black fly carcasses and trampled huckleberries out of my boots and follow Wayne up Newt Creek. Fresh signatures of bear, deer, and wolf in the streamside silt. Wouldn't mind seeing one of these wolves. According to Wayne they are lean, long-shanked, and black as the bears. A more intellectual species however, the wolf eats the brains of a salmon first. Sound of wind, taste of untamed huckleberry. Birches glowing yellow-gold in the September sun. The river rushes past in one direction, driven by gravity, the salmon in the other, driven by something else. We watch a small bear of the prevailing color swipe at a lode of fish among the boulders. She sees us and retreats to cover. Three times we hear the crackle of sticks behind us, smell the odors of bear and the fish on her breath. Hungry but cautious, she fails to return. It has just occurred to me that the spiritual respect McCrory maintains for these bears, the native legends and his own sensitivities is one ingredient of the Tsimshian life-models that is absent in our modern scientific models. And we dearly, desperately need it back. Not to supplant our scientific biology, but to complement it, and thereby to reach for the truths which lie beyond simple fact—and ultimately for a more complete understanding of life. The greatest cultural artifact left behind by the Tsimshian elders is their reminder to respect the white bear and its wild community as they did. Not through the same ceremonies, necessarily, but with the same strategy in mind. They knew all along that their image of the white bear was actually an image of their own spirit. A reflection of humanity. Allegory...metaphor...model. Totem.
We hike to the logjam, a loose confederation of four of us. We sit and watch. We listen. Time and the river flow merrily past. The forest broods quietly. Two bears, standard color, make appearances. Late in the day we mosey seaward. The camera people labor alone with their heavy suitcases and tripods, self-condemned porters of a conventional technology. I lag behind with my cumbersome thoughts. The current passes, slow as a dirge, carrying the stiff carcass of a female chum, belly up, pectoral and caudal fins aslant in the air like rigid sails. Bound for eternity. I pause here, waiting for the white bear, a moment of truth, a voice from the alder bush. Anything will do. But no epiphanies tonight. Just the quiet beauty of earth and river and sky, of tall trees and us tender humans with our tender hopes. The splendor of the hills. Sweet earthen reality. My salmon carcass pirouettes slowly, gracefully, on the braided current. Two dark shadows flap upstream in the dwindling light, croaking in tongues. Happy in my search, I stumble down the cobbles toward the ultimate sea. There is one more bear, in the rocks at the mouth of the creek. Like the others, he is black as the magic in the raven’s eye. And as for the white bear, what is it spirit of? Why, of itself alone, of its own reality. What else could its existence out here on the creeks possibly infer, aside from a healthy, magical habitat? The only ethereal quality of this creature is its absence from view, its furtive, clandestine, hypothetical presence. Though I carry strands of its hair in my tablet, I did not observe the white bear in corporeal form and therefore it remains a spirit to me, real but unseen. Not so much an illusion as an allusion. Alluding to what? Can this phantom strike those distant chords in enough of us to inspire the protection of these woods? Can it stand as symbol of that marriage of data and legend, of science with feeling, this livelier and more complete study of life, which may finally allow us to save our landscapes—and ourselves in the process? Only if we let it. The mysticism, then and now, lives wholly in the minds and hearts of humans, ever struggling to understand our world and our own wild spirits.
Last Day Last chance. Last chance for what? What is it we're looking for? Can't say, really. I'm not certain anymore.
white and disappears into the peaks. In front of me two ducks draw wakes on a glacial pond. A raven and seagull loop against a pregnant mountain. The air’s washed clean and there are not many bugs. Small birds whisper in the brush and stones tumble down glacier clickity clacking splashing into the pond. The leaves barely flutter and the sky’s grey as it has been all summer. I’m supposed to write an essay about what fascinates me. We can work on it all week and read it to the group on our last night. Joel loved McCarthy. He’d been a glacier guide here and returned often to climb in Wrangell Mountains. Before my first trip over here he told me, “The bar’s fun. There’s lots of girls. Bring your ice tools.” Our friendship wasn’t just climbing and skiing. I met Joel when Steve Garvey died rock climbing. He was only thing I inherited from a twenty-year partnership. Joel worked with me for five years, and was nineteen years younger than me. We could climb or build anything. After a hoot from our instructor I pull myself from the cotton patch. White fibers stick to my clothes. An eagle soars between here and an ice fall miles away. Our writing group gathers on boulders of many colors, size and shape. We talk about the names and naming of plants, rocks, and mountains. The names and conversation seem far away and hollow to me.
Joel’s Ashes I forgot Joel’s ashes. His wife gave me a small vial and I’ve been carrying it around in my pocket hoping to feel better. I wasn’t sure I was going to spread them. I’m pretty near alone though I’m with fifteen other writers in a writing workshop in McCarthy, Alaska. I’m on the moraine at the foot of the Root Glacier lying in a field of hairy cotton balls that sit on slender stems poking from a small green leafed plant. The moraine looks like tailings from a mine that’s been sprinkled with green life. The glacier down here is black with rock and sand and stretches for miles into the mountains before it turns
Ook ouk ouk a raven cries. An open rib cage of clean ice floats on another pond. The bottoms of the clouds are turning white. Joel didn’t think he would reach thirty. He told his wife, if he died, he wanted his ashes spread here in McCarthy. Sometime, after she has the baby we’re going to deal with that. Joel died in an avalanche. He made four turns off Ragged Top above Girdwood. He thought the snow was safe. The avalanche ripped from a single point, spread out and dragged him 2,000 feet. He was buried under eight feet of snow. The experts thought he died quickly. I pushed Joel to climb and ski. I was hard on him at work. If I thought, he was rude or unkind, I told him so. We were different than the other climbers. He didn’t want to die. He made a mistake. I’ve made hundreds of them. I didn’t know his wife was pregnant. I found out the night he died. If I’d known I’d have told him, take it easy.
The workshop is good and I like the two instructors, but I challenge the discussion. Nature writing, sense of place, political and environmental writing, metaphors and lessons, give me a break. Please don’t preach to me. Tell me a story. What is my problem? Am I sad for Joel, or am I sad for myself? Was I born sad? Will I feel better when Zoë is born? Zoë is the Greek word for life. Her birth date is two days away. We’re done here on the moraine. I stroll back to the Wrangell Mountains Center with my old friend Doug. We leave footprints in the sand winding around the pond. The clouds are lifting and the sky’s clearing to the west. The peaks wear fresh snow. I’m asking the name of a tall white flower. Two yellow leaves mark the path back.
Jaden Is Calling I was thinking of writing. I had this idea that the right words would help. I wanted to write a prescription, a cure. I was thinking about his teachers. I wanted to tell them all about Jaden because they might get interested, then they might try a little harder and, maybe, they would find the key. They might start to believe there was a key. I am afraid they see him without history. They do not know that his mother had two miscarriages before she carried him to near term; how she went into early labor on Christmas Eve, just as we started to open presents; how earlier that evening, the children’s choir had been singing, “For onto us a child is born, onto us a son is given;” and how in that Christmas emergency, it was so fitting that the father was Joseph and the mother Lena Marie, and how, onto them, the baby, Jaden, was born on December 27th and how we celebrated a late family Christmas in the hallway at Providence Hospital. Jaden was the fulfillment of years of wanting and shoring up under disappointment. The teachers don’t know that his mother took him to Sears for a formal photograph at one month, two, three, and on, for a whole year, or how Lena picked names for her children, when she was a child and never changed her mind about
them. Names for two boys, Jaden and Joren. Jaden is Rueben’s fair Christ child, his eyes limpid blue pools. You can read wonder in his eyes but you do not see the snap of comprehension. Something happens in his brain that has left him forever in the moment. Things don’t add up. Jaden turned six last December, but he does not use a spoon. He wears diapers. He kisses with his mouth open, like a baby bird. Sometimes his mom tries to get him to say, More or Eat, before she hands him something he wants. He seems to try – a little sound will slip out -- but it bothers him to be pushed like that. It makes him feel inadequate. I can see it. Because it’s like he is almost here. Sometimes it seems very close, as if he were merely askew, at a slight angle to all of us. In the angled place, he is perfect. If we could just step a precise fraction to the left or to the right, we’d face him directly and his eyes would light up with recognition and perception. But it has to be the right move, because he might be fragile along that line. If we showed up there abruptly -- if he suddenly saw us in a new way -- it could be too much for him and he would go forever to the other place. I would tell his teachers that he had been progressing nicely until it started, that he could sing Old McDonald and was counting -- one through ten. He loved the brown bear book and Baby Einstein. His mom called him escape artist after the way he could exit his crib, and climb into their bed. One day, he told her, “I love you.” Then he went backward. He lost milestones. He lost words. He lost interest. He lost his overt connection to us. I denied it. I didn’t want to believe it. I had never
heard of children going backwards. Some milestones he never met. He never did point. He never waved bye-bye. When it started, his mom told me “His eyes are rolling back in his head.” My mind said, “No.” My mind said “That doesn’t sound good.” What did it mean? No answers were quick in coming. The answers took years. And they were inadequate. They tried every medicine. They placed an implant in his chest – a vagal nerve stimulator. Its round hockey puck contours can be seen just below his collar bone. Every new option brought a little hope, followed by waiting, followed by a search for another option. Jaden walks well. He runs confidently. He can climb stairs and he knows how to pull down the oven door to use it as a step so he can climb up onto the counter. We praise him for it -- eager for signs of thought and reasoning. Sometimes, when Jaden is on his tummy, either in bed or resting on the couch, he begins to thrust his hips, clearly sexual. He groans in response to feelings in his body. His dad says, “Jaden, knock it off.” It alarms me to think of this happening in school. “Never mind him, children. Just look away.” Jaden’s parents care for him as if he were an enchanted prince. His grandfather thinks he is going to snap out of it. It may seem extreme or desperate but whenever someone dies, I pray they will help from the other side. Last year, for no reason, Jaden started standing on his head. In an odd coincidence, the same day, his uncle, Michael, who was about forty, was also standing on his head -- Yoga -- even though they were in different locations, one not an influence on the other. The form was similar, though, Michael balanced using his angled
arms for support and Jaden balanced on the crown of his head leaning against a wall or window with his arms extended like a man on a cross. I Googled disability, head stands, seizures, parent groups, standing on head. Nothing came up. I was looking for some kind of key, something that would link this behavior with a point of entry to his mental processes. There are clues: He called his own house last week from the extension upstairs. Maybe it was random, who knows? It reminded me of another time when he dialed 911. We discovered this when a dispatcher called back to see if there was an emergency. Then, there was the spat of head standing. No explanation. He is not one for explaining. I want to know where Jaden went and when he is coming back. Do you call this a tragedy? Do you call it the diversity of God’s creation? Do you rejoice and be glad in it? Jaden laughs all the time. He’s like a muse, like Pan, or a laughing God – mirth is in him. We are glad in this. So I thought, if I could just tell the teachers all this, they’d get an idea of what they are dealing with and their approach would be on target. If they knew about him, they would see that they are approaching a miracle and all they have to do is pay attention. If we are not watching, a window might close. I want them to know that the prayers to my dead relatives have helped, because it seems the seizures have stopped. Maybe he will move through all the developmental stages and get back the lost milestones. But someone has to be watching -- like they do with the SETI – with all those computers? If we see a sign, we have to recognize it and reinforce it, as if he were sending a signal. We have to make the link. It is very important. It’s like he’s been trying to call.
Russ Van Paepeghem
Neighbors It was raining in Fairbanks when Erin and I drove home. We talked about the weather a bit, how it had affected her running of the marathon that day. Trash was on the pavement – paper cups and plastic numbers and junk from the backs of pickups that go too fast and care too little about what they’re absenting behind them. Something about the rain and the rolled-up windows of the car and detritus of the marathon on the road we drove made us feel as though we were the only ones in the world at that moment. When we turned the corner into our dirt lane, the cruisers of two Alaska State troopers were parked in evident places, lights off, engines too. Our neighbor, Gary, and his wife were standing outside of their cabin in the rain. One trooper in short sleeves spoke with them, looked at me oddly when I waved. As if I were a nuisance. Gary’s hat was on crooked, I remember, like he’d just thrown it on. It looked very different from the trooper’s hat, all round and wool and sucked to his head. Slow, we drove on toward our place. The second trooper was parked in Bob’s driveway, beside old power tools and truck tires scattered in his front lot. Lights were on in the house. Day was just retreating to dusk, and so it made those lights look like dim candles. I remembered that those lights were on the other morning – two mornings ago – when I walked down to get the paper from the red box at the end of the dirt lane. His lights were almost never on. We drove on. The next cabin’s driveway, the one I’d help build for my landlord two summers earlier, just had the square blue Subaru of our new neighbors in it. The original cabin had burned down in the middle of winter a year and a half prior – in February and its forty below – and the fire trucks were there for eight hours because the water kept freezing as they pumped it on. By the end, it was one pile of long-dead fire and rotten ice. We still hadn’t met the newest neighbors to live there. They’d just moved in a few days ago. Then there was Chris, our closest neighbor, with his wife, standing out in the rain talking closely with another couple, one of whom looked like neighbor Bob: he had the gray hair of Bob, his pot-belly, jeans and white tennis shoes. He was too far away to see his leather skin,
though; Bob had leather skin, wrinkled like goatskin gloves that you find at the hardware store. We waved and pulled into our place. Unloaded the car. Chris’ wife left while we did. “I’m gonna go visit with Chris,” I told Erin. Even though we’d lived there two years, Chris and I talked little. He was a union carpenter, gone always, worked from sunup to sundown. His wife rarely came out of the house. One of the few times we spoke directly was when a cow moose bedded down in his son’s jungle gym and died. Then, friends were helping him load the carcass onto the bed of a low trailer. It’s not what it looks like, he said. We didn’t poach her. I believed him, and they hauled away the big brown body to the dump, since Fish and Game would allow no one to claim the rotten meat. Another time I helped him move a refrigerator he was trying to wrestle by himself down the steps of his cabin. We took the old one off the porch and put it in his truck and moved the new one already offloaded up to the top of the stairs. We lifted it up and over the threshold of his home, and then from inside his home he said thanks. And so when he stood outside in the rain that day, as though he were taking numbers, it was an opportunity I felt obliged to take. Sometimes we do things despite knowledge of their impact or how they might make us feel. We do them because we feel it’s just the thing to do. When they saw me coming, the older couple moved to their car: wasn’t Bob at all. Chris acknowledged me with a flip of his chin. -Hey. He stood, grizzled face, flannel shirt. I remember
thinking that he looked a lot like me. -What’s up? He paused. Looking at the car. It turned in its own tracks, and then it drove away up the potholed lane. -Bob’s dead, he said. Plainspoken. It felt as thought he would not look at me. -Really. I crossed my arms, felt the rain bear down. When it rains in Fairbanks, it doesn’t rain hard, just steady. -Yeah, I found him a couple hours ago with puke and blood all over his face. He waited. I think it was a couple of days ago, man. I think he died and no one knew. Finally he looked at me. The hard grizzle on his face contrasted with the soft flannel of his shirt and made me believe he was tougher than what he appeared. Meanwhile, the rain collected in potholes that hadn’t been razed since we’d first moved in. I wondered if that was our responsibility. -I just saw him and freaked, man, he said. -You all right? -Yeah, like I said, I just freaked and ran back here. I called my wife. I called 911. He was animating his movements with long sweeps of his arms, back and forth across the driveway. These movements showed me both the fever and pitch of how he moved. -They wanted me to touch him. Touch him, man. He was all bloated. I was like, he’s dead, man, there’s no way I’m touching him. She says: I really need you to touch him for me. So I touched him. His arms were folded like mine, under the clothing. -Bob was a good friend, man, he said. We talked and stood for a few minutes until we saw the troopers leave. We just talked and stared down the lane the way brothers do when they have little to say, usually in spite of the need to say much. -I’d better let you get out of the rain, he said, turned. The back of soft flannel then facing me in the drive. -Yeah, I said, and did what he allowed me to do.
On an Early Winter Day, an Abundance of Bugs The sky is dark and heavy with dull, leaden clouds. The forest, now stripped bare of leaves, drips with somber wetness. Skeletal birch and cottonwoods rise above soft ground whitened by slushy snow. In short, it’s the sort of early winter day that’s all too common in Anchorage, a day that many people lament for its dreariness and will soon forget as it blends with others of its kind. I, too, often feel my spirits droop beneath the weight of such dark weather and a sodden landscape. But today my mood brightens the farther I walk along the Coastal Trail with Coya, my mixed collie. This hike, this day, are made memorable by the critters we encounter
along the way, unexpected meetings that lift the spirits while engaging the senses. Two cow-calf pairs get our attention, both feeding within a short stone’s throw of the trail. And a high-pitched tsssssst amid a stand of birches leads to the uncommon sighting of a brown creeper, a year-round resident of the Anchorage Bowl, but an LBB (little brown bird, for those not into birding lingo) not often seen, in my experience. Both moose and bird will be worth a mention in my field journal. But what really sets the day apart from most others is the abundance of bugs – a term I use loosely here, to include both insects and spiders – that are crawling across the snow and occasionally flying above it. I can’t recall exactly when I began to pay attention to such things. But for many years now, I’ve made it a habit, during Anchorage’s transitional seasons, to look for bugs that somehow manage to walk or fly about in conditions you’d expect would kill them – or at least numb them into inactivity Cold-blooded invertebrates aren’t expected to be active when snow covers the ground and temperatures drop toward the freezing point. Yet often they are; at least a hardy few. One recent year I recorded the outdoor presence of Anchorage insects in every winter month. Yes, it was an unusually mild winter, marked by periodic thaws. Still, who’d have guessed? Not me, certainly. Maybe an entomologist. There’s one type of spider that I’ve taken to calling the “snow spider,” because it’s the one arachnid (not to be confused with insects, of course) that I’ve found crawling across the snow in both early and late winter and, more rarely, in the depths of the season. Small enough to comfortably perch on the tip of my pinky, these spiders generally have dark brown abdomens and lighter chestnut-brown legs. They’re out and about today, as I’d guessed they might be, crawling slowly across the slush and instinctively curling up if I get too close. Sometimes my meddling self can’t resist moving spiders and other bugs from trails, fearing they might get squashed by less attentive walkers or skiers. I’ve largely stopped doing that after crippling a few in my awkward rescue attempts and today I leave the spiders entirely alone, partly because human traffic is so sparse. But spiders are neither the most abundant nor the most obvious invertebrate on the prowl today. That would be Elasmostethus interstinctus, the birch shield bug, an insect I’ve come to know better thanks to Dominique M. Collet’s Insects of South-central Alaska, the first layperson field guide to our region’s common insects. I’ve longed many years for a decent guide to Alaska’s insects, so I was delighted to discover Collet’s
book while browsing the aisles of Title Wave Books last spring. For all my good intentions, I barely opened Insects this past summer, while busy with grander interests and adventures. But the book’s been getting more use with the cooling days and shortening hours of daylight. I fully expect it to become an integral part of my day pack once next year’s bug season kicks into full gear, because I’m constantly finding creeping, crawling, buzzing bugs that I’d love to know better, maybe even on a common-name basis. As its name suggests, the body of E. interstinctus closely resembles a miniature shield. Crudely triangular in shape and, by Collet’s measure, about three-eighths of an inch long, adult shield bugs are mostly olive green, with a reddish zigzag pattern atop their backs. But today they simply appear dark and bulky (by insect standards) against the bright snow. Once upon a time – well, not so long ago, actually, but at least a year or two before I found Collet’s Alaska-specific guide – I confused shield bugs with stink bugs, another, much larger family of common insects. And to be honest, I’m still not sure they’re so different from each other. My Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America – another recent acquisition – notes that “shield-backed bugs are often lumped with stink bugs but are recognized by the enlarged scutellum [the platy shield that covers its body].” Since they gained my attention several years ago, I’ve handled my share of local shield bugs, sometimes to brush them off my clothes and other times because I’m curious. And I have to say, they can give off an awfully repugnant odor. Collet doesn’t mention anything about repellent smells, but either shield bugs can stink things up or Anchorage has stink bugs, despite their absence in his Southcentral guide. (It’s worth noting that both shield and stink bugs are what entomologists call “true bugs.”
Unlike other insects that we lay folks indiscriminately call bugs, these, among other things, are characterized by mouth parts that according to Collet, “are modified into a piercing-sucking stylet.”) Today I’m mostly content to keep a respectful distance, though I can’t resist stooping in now and again for a closer look or even a touch. At first glance and from afar, the shield bugs appear frozen in place. But when I stop for a longer, closer gaze, or nudge their hard-shelled forms, I notice the legs move ever so slightly. It makes sense that they’re moving somewhere, albeit at a snail’s pace. Or slower. Why else would they be out in such weather? For a while I keep track of their numbers, figuring I might see a handful, maybe even a dozen if I’m lucky. But it quickly becomes apparent that they’re everywhere along this stretch of trail, so I give up that effort. I don’t go more than a few steps without passing another of their dark, stout bodies and must see scores of them during my 3-mile walk. Never have I noticed so many shield bugs. And to see them on snow is especially rare. In fact I have a hard time recalling more than a few crossing snowy ground. Across the years, I’ve mostly observed them in late summer and into the fall. That jives with Collet’s comment that “This brightly colored insect is often
noticed in the fall when they start entering houses in search of overwintering sites.” His observation helps to explain their abundance here today. These shield bugs must have been surprised by Anchorage’s mid-October snows and below-average cold. Now they’re in something of a last-ditch search for a place to spend the next several months. I almost said “desperate” search, but I’m not sure shield bugs ever feel desperation. Besides snow spiders and shield bugs, I see midges slowly whirring through the air. They seem so dainty, but midges must be among the tougher flying insects, because they’re also among the few species to appear late into the fall and early in the spring – and sometimes, during warm spells, in winter itself. About a mile into our walk, along one short stretch of trail, I encounter the most amazing spectacle of all: several small, black flies are whirling and flopping upon the snow. Actually, I’m not entirely sure they’re flies; but I can’t find anything in Collet’s guidebook that definitively matches their size and appearance, so for simplicity’s sake I stick them in the order Diptera, which includes everything from mosquitoes to gnats, midges, crane flies, whitesox, no-see-ums, and house flies. The flies’ frenzied manner is especially curious on a day when their invertebrate relatives are moving ever so slowly and it stirs vague and distant memories of other insects that whirled crazily after their flying ability (if I remember correctly) had been compromised or damaged in some way, either chemically or physically. On a hunch, I pick one up and place it on my open palm. It’s small, about the size of a sesame seed or even smaller, and appears black in color, with wings folded over its back. The fly sits quietly a moment or two, then shifts its body upon the cooled but relatively warm surface of my hand. Then, almost before you could say “there it goes,” the reinvigorated fly flies off. This suggests that the cold has inhibited the ability of these whirling, flopping bugs to stay (or get) airborne. They’re trying to lift off the snow, but can’t. Maybe earlier in the afternoon it was just warm enough that they could zoom here and there. If I had the patience and time to stay and watch, I bet they’d eventually stop their whirling-dervish ways and enter a kind of stupor. There’s no question that the presence of moose and squirrel, brown creeper and chickadee, redpoll and magpie, have enlivened my walk, my day. But it’s also clear that what makes this afternoon hike especially memorable are the much tinier, easy-to-overlook bugs that inhabit this forest and other woodlands (and
habitats) across the city. That they are creeping and crawling, whirring and whirling on this cold and raw early winter day is another one of those “small” miracles that open up my life. I’ve often thought it would be both fun and informative to begin building a life list of the insects and arachnids with which we share the Anchorage Bowl, a sort of invertebrate equivalent to what birders do. One thing that has stopped me is my aversion to collecting specimens, which would aid the identification process. As a boy I killed more than my share of “creepy crawly” life forms. I have no desire to kill more, simply to learn about and catalogue my tiny, wild neighbors. I’ve also been slowed by a lack of resources (whether perceived or real). Now that I have Collet’s guide – supplemented by the Kaufman book – I can more easily move ahead and at least begin to expand my knowledge of local bugs, without having to collect them for later reference. Maybe this will also motivate me to seek out local entomologists for their expertise. Guidance is a good thing. Heading back to Point Woronzof, I’m already rolling around many questions I might ask after sharing today’s dark and snowy day with an abundance of bugs.
Ptarmigan Hunting in Alaska: A Love Story I was happy. I really was. I was single and doing what I loved in the great outdoors. I had a small acreage and a yellow dog. I had plenty of money and free time. Picture a fair-haired lad standing tall on the summit of life- living every man’s dream in the middle of California. I had plenty of girlfriends but wasn’t a lady’s man, not a pretty boy. You’d find me on the ice playing hockey or stomping around the hills chasing mountain quail before you’d get me out club-hopping. I had successfully avoided marriage for 33 years by sabotaging every loving relationship by simply not taking it seriously. I wanted women, but didn’t need them. All I
really needed was my Labrador Retriever, a shotgun, and fields to wander. Some women would hang in there for years, waiting for me to grow out of my meandering. Then they’d they’d start pushing. Then they were gone. There was no thunderbolt strike when I met the Woman. My knees didn’t get weak when I saw her. Insert your own cliché- it wasn’t us. I was a bird-hunting guide, she was a bunny-hugging vegetarian. She was a Democrat who idolized Hillary and I was so far Right I thought Rush was a little pink. It was still the smoothest relationship I’d known. Sure, we argued, but even that was refreshing. Here was a woman who didn’t stoop to agree with me. She knew her mind and could state it without getting cruel or emotional. Slowly, without really being conscious of it, I came to love and yes, to need her. I became tender, nay, affectionate for the first time. The Woman didn’t push, she pulled. This was possible because she loved me. But she didn’t need me. She accepted my bird hunting business because...you can’t get too emotional about a bird. “It’s not like killing Bambi or something cute,” she’d tell her friends, “It’s just a bird.” She loved the outdoors and would joyfully tromp a few steps apace of me and the dog, pointing out pretty wildflowers or asking questions about animal tracks. I was careful to only take her places where the chances of seeing a pheasant or grouse were dubious. I didn’t want to scare her off hunting or think it was some kind of slaughter. So I took her to marginal territory here in the Central Valley where we had a fine time afield without being interrupted by actually killing anything. I didn’t expect to convert herno chance of that- but I wanted her to understand. To know that I didn’t hold myself above the circle of life, that I wanted to join in it. I had hunted critters all over the country for sport and profit, but one game bird always intrigued me: the ptarmigan of Alaska. It was about twice as big as a pigeon and lived on the flat, intimidating tundra. There are three subspecies of the ptarmigan, pronounced without the “p”: the Rock, White-Tailed, and Willow. Alaska was supposed to be full of them. I invited the Woman but warned her- this is a real Hunting Trip. The sixth Commandment would be broken. Repeatedly, if possible. We’d fly into Fairbanks then rent an RV and strike out into the wilderness. No map, no idea where I might find ptarmigan. But the dog and I were professionals. It would be a bloodbath. The plan was bold and exciting and worked. Except for the killing part. We walked and drove and walked some more but didn’t find a single bird. Three days of hiking in the Alaskan outback held no joy for me. The spongy peat of the tundra is like walking on a waterbed. It’s strange and exhilarating for about ten
minutes then turns into a thigh-burning nightmare. Especially with no birds to shoot. The Woman, of course, loved it. We saw caribou, moose, grizzly-tracks and a wolf. The autumn hues of the pygmy willows and low berry shrubs were impossible greens and yellows and a thousand variations of the color red. The Woman adored them all and made the dog and I pause several times each hour to look at a particularly artful arrangement of blossoms or to identify animal droppings. The hiking? “What a great workout!”, she squealed, “I’ll go back a changed woman!” I could hear her humming contentedly at my side as we slogged through the endless morass of the fruitless plain. On an unremarkable ledge on yet another pointless walk, I just gave up. I sat down on the cold wet ground. I was beaten. I put up a good fight, but my prey had won fair and square. “There’s four birds right there!”, the Woman shouted, pointing off to the side of the game trail we had been following. These birds had never seen humans before and acted like it. The dog and I walked within about ten feet of the crane-necked rock ptarmigan before they finally got nervous and took off. Two birds fell with the first shot and I let out a “Whoop!!” of victory. The surviving pair lit about 20 yards away and waited there patiently for the dog to retrieve their downed comrades. Then he and I marched over and flushed them, and I shot both. I held up one of the majestic birds to admire. Brilliant white wing-tips and a body flecked with greyblack feathers. Beautiful. I turned to find the Woman sobbing, standing fixed in the spot only yards away where she had pointed the birds for me. Damn. I went to her and said weakly, “Everything’s got to die, baby.” but she was shaking and looked away. I should have said something eloquent, something compelling like, “Life on earth is not like a ladder, with humans at the top and all the other beasts scrambling beneath. We are just animals with forethought. I kill with a responsibility.” Instead, I tucked the ptarmigan into my game pouch and we walked back to the motor home in the rain. Back at the RV, the Woman was quiet and made herself busy cleaning and straightening up. I moved behind her as she stood at the sink, and she slumped into my arms. She wasn’t crying but she was troubled. In a rare flash of wisdom, I kept my mouth shut and waited for her. “I know you love hunting, honey, and I do want you to be happy. I know you won’t change, and that’s really OK. But I’m not going to change either, so we’re stuck, here.” I held her for a long time, just feeling her close and thinking hard. Then I showered and shaved for the first time all week. I put on the only clean clothes left, the jeans and sweatshirt reserved for the plane ride back, and dug into
the backpack. I’d been carrying the ring around for a month, cracking the box open, breathing deeply, then quickly stuffing it out of sight. Waiting for The Time. It was a full carat and represented more than a few month’s work of leading hunters to murder birds. I called her outside. “Now?”, she asked, “What’s going on?”. I just stood there on the sweeping plateau looking back at her. She sighed and walked out. It had just snowed and was very cold. We squeezed together for warmth. The highest mountain on the continent was looking down on us in white majesty. The Woman took it all in then looked to me for explanation. I whispered in her ear, “Thank you for coming out here. Thank you for trusting me.” There, 20 miles down a dirt road with no name in the middle of the tundra, I fell to one knee in the mud. She looked down into my face for a moment, missing the ring I was thrusting near her chin. She seemed puzzled for a moment then saw it. Her hand flew to her mouth and she called to God. The rest is too precious. It is forever in my mind, one of those flashbulb-memories that I can’t even think of now without getting unmanly and emotional. The point is, she said yes. But she was wrong- I did change. After we were married I quit guiding hunters and went back to school. I got my Masters and now I spend my time in group homes counseling kids with real problems. I still hunt and spend twice as much time in the woods as in my bachelor years. But now she and I build nesting boxes for wood ducks, cut brush piles for quail cover, and dig tanks for water sources. I produce twice as many birds as I harvest each year. She says that’s OK.
Plays Nancy Lord
At Sea “At Sea” was presented in the Play Lab at the Last Frontier (Valdez) Theatre Conference in 2005 and given a staged performance by the T.B.A. acting company at the conference in 2006 in a showcase of Alaskan plays. It also was presented in a staged reading at Seaside (FL) Repertory Theatre in 2008.
SYNOPSIS: Brothers-in-law in a drifting boat test their relationship and survivorship skills.
CHARACTERS OWEN: a man about thirty, dressed in new (still creased) and stylish outdoor gear, a New York Yankees ballcap, and a bulky orange Mae West life jacket. Fancy video camera and binoculars around his neck. GEORGE: a man closer to forty, dressed in Carharts, grungy jacket, and a faded ballcap with some company logo.
SETTING At rise, the two men are adrift in a wooden skiff. GEORGE, in stern, is leaning over the outboard, from which he’s removed the hood. OWEN sits in the bow, facing the stern.
OWEN: You know, those guys on the Essex, they drifted around in their little whaleboat for--I don’t know--I forget how long. Long enough to eat one another. GEORGE: (Looking up.) And your point is? OWEN: Just making conversation. (He stares out toward the horizon.) (GEORGE mutters something unintelligible.) OWEN: It could be worse, that’s all I meant.
GEORGE: It could be better if you hadn’t dropped the spark plug overboard. OWEN: You know I’m not seaworthy. You shouldn’t have let me hold it. GEORGE: I thought wiping it off on your shirttail wouldn’t be that challenging. OWEN: I’m easily challenged. (Pause.) The thing that gets me is that you’d go out here (gestures widely with his arms) without spare parts. And a radio. Emergency stuff. You know, you being the brother-in-law and all, the responsible one, the one guy my sister actually likes. GEORGE: There was a reason. OWEN: Oh? GEORGE: I was rushing. OWEN: I wasn’t rushing you. GEORGE: Your sister was. She said, quote, get him out of here. He wants to see whales. Show him some whales. OWEN: I’m looking. (He makes an exaggerated show of peering out at the water.) (Pause.) She said that? (GEORGE puts the hood back on the motor and sits beside it, so the two men, at opposite ends, are facing one another.) GEORGE: She thinks you’re still ten years old. OWEN: No. (Pause.) She thinks I’m fourteen. She thinks I’m going to snap her bra strap or something. Like she never forgave me for the time I told on her making out in the garden shed. GEORGE (Ignoring Owen, looks around, with a mildly worried look.) It’s pretty lonely out here on a weekday. Eventually, though, someone’s bound to spot us. (Pause.) Of course, the tide’s pulling us out. Once we’re in the gulf . . . OWEN: (After a moment.) Actually, I think I was about eleven that time. I didn’t like her boyfriend. He was mean to me. When I was fourteen, I think I was making out in the garden shed. Sheila O’Reilly—boy, I haven’t thought about her in a long time. GEORGE: (Still looking toward gulf.) It’s a big ocean out there. If we drift into the shipping lane, I guess a tanker or cargo ship might see us. Or might not. It might run right over us. The seas can get pretty wild out there, too. OWEN: You don’t want to hear about our family. You don’t want to know about old Andy. GEORGE: Who’s old Andy? OWEN: Judith’s ninth-grade boyfriend. GEORGE: You’re right about that. And you can pretend we’re not really drifting out into the North Pacific Ocean. Where would you like to be? Lake Wonkamoopoo? Where was that place your family used to go in the summer, where you were always falling off the dock? OWEN: Once I fell off the dock. Lake Winnepasakee. In New Hampshire. GEORGE: Fine.
(OWEN opens a small picnic cooler and looks inside.) Now I wish we hadn’t eaten those sandwiches already. GEORGE: You’ll die of thirst before you’ll die of hunger. OWEN: (Contemplates this.) Well, I know you don’t ever want to drink salt water, although apparently you can drink urine. But rain’s the thing. (Looks up.) You’d want to capture as much rain as you could. Those guys from the Essex, after they got rammed by that Moby-Dick whale, survived for a long time on rain and each other. GEORGE: Fascinating. OWEN: It is! It’s an amazing true story. Think about it! A bunch of guys in a little whaleboat, not knowing if they’ll ever see land again, and they have to figure how to create a civil society in the space of 25 feet, one that will give them their best chance of survival. (He looks along the length of the boat.) How long’s this boat? GEORGE: Eighteen feet (or whatever actual boat on set is). Let’s hear it for cannibalism. OWEN: That was later. At first they organized themselves, like taking turns lying down or bailing water. It was damn crowded. Then the weakest ones died. The first one or two, they did the civilized thing--they dropped them over the side. But then they realized that that wasn’t the best survival technique for the rest of them, so they got over that particular hang-up, the idea that you couldn’t eat another person, who was already dead anyway. GEORGE: I guess you had to be there. OWEN: If I was dead, I wouldn’t care if you ate me. If it would help you live. GEORGE: Thanks. OWEN (Waits.) You’d do the same for me. (Pause.) Wouldn’t you? GEORGE: I don’t think I’d have much choice. I’d be dead. OWEN: But you wouldn’t mind? I mean, before you were dead, you’d say something, you’d give me permission? GEORGE: I’d be in a coma. OWEN: Before that. GEORGE: I’d be hallucinating. I’d be attacking you with a knife. OWEN: (Startled.) You would? GEORGE: Hell, Owen, I don’t know. Why are you talking about this shit? OWEN (Watches the water, several beats.) Think we’ll see any whales? GEORGE: (More kindly.) I’m doing my best tour guide impersonation. I’ve been watching for blows. A day like this, they shouldn’t be hard to see, even a long way off. OWEN (Fiddles with his video camera, looking through it, pointing it at the horizon. He points it back at GEORGE and starts filming, dum-dumming the theme to “Jaws.”) GEORGE: Cut it out. (He frowns at the camera.)
OWEN (Narrating) And this is my brother-in-law, who took me whale-watching. (Turns camera back to water.) This is the ocean, where the whales live. They’re there somewhere, in the deep blue sea. What kind, again, George? GEORGE: (Irritated.) Humpbacks. Killer whales, if you’re lucky. OWEN: I want to be lucky and see killer whales. I want to yell, “Thar she blows!” (He turns the camera off.) (They both stare at the water, in different directions, for a minute.) OWEN: Judith really said that? GEORGE: What? OWEN: Get him out of here? GEORGE: Well, something like that. She had her hands full, with the kids and all. She wanted you to have a good time. OWEN: (Thinks about this. He takes his cap off and runs his hand through his hair.) Yeah, well, after a while on that whaleboat, they decided it wasn’t all that smart to wait for people to die. By the time they died, there was hardly anything left worth eating--I mean no fat at all--plus, at that point, it looked like they were all going to starve. GEORGE: (Points.) There’s some birds feeding over there. Must be a school of herring or something right there. OWEN: They drew lots. It was fair that way. GEORGE: Sometimes humpbacks will come up under a school like that, they’ll just explode through the surface with their mouths wide open. OWEN: (After a moment.) You think I’m not listening. I’ve got a picture in my mind of a humpbacked humpback. GEORGE: Good. OWEN: What about the other ones? GEORGE: Killer whales? OWEN: Tell me they’re not particularly killers. GEORGE: Oh, but they are. They’re the wolves of the sea. They’ll attack bigger whales sometimes. Watch for really tall dorsal fins. (OWEN looks worried.) GEORGE: You can call them orcas. (Pause.) The other whale it’s possible we could see out here--sometimes, far enough out, in the gulf, in really deep water—is a sperm whale. OWEN: You’re kidding. GEORGE: I’m not kidding. Why would I be kidding? There are sperm whales in the gulf. I’ve seen them. They kind of just rest there at the surface sometimes. Sometimes they hang out around fishing boats and eat the black cod off their hooks.
OWEN: Moby Dick was a sperm whale. I know all about Moby Dick. GEORGE: I thought you did. OWEN: Sperm whales have nothing to do with sperm. Spermacetti, that weird stuff the whalers wanted, they thought it looked like the other thing. (Looks with binoculars, slowly scanning, then drops them to his chest.) The real Moby Dick attacked and crushed the real whaling ship. GEORGE: That must have been one pissed-off whale. OWEN: Oh, man. (Thinking.) Just so you know, the guys in the little whaleboat finally did get rescued. Or two of them did, the two that were still alive, sitting there with a pile of bones they didn’t want to leave. They were cracking the bones open and sucking every bit of marrow out of them. They had to be physically separated from the bones. Even then, once they were taken aboard the ship that found them, their pockets were filled with finger and toe bones. They were, like, completely insane. GEORGE: (Stares at OWEN.) When we don’t come home, they’ll send a plane out to look for us. And then a Coast Guard boat, or the auxillary. If I die, it’s going to be from embarrassment about having to be rescued. (Pause.) But I’m still hoping some other boat will show up and give us a spark plug or a tow. That’ll be embarrassing enough. OWEN: (Smiles.) Did you think I was worried? I wasn’t really worried. I was just thinking about--you know--being crazy as a survival mechanism. Going insane was the only way those guys could reconcile themselves to killing and eating their buds and having nothing to live for except sucking on bones. That, and hope. GEORGE: (Giving in.) So, did they stay crazy? Or did they get better after they were rescued? (OWEN messes with the cooler, swinging the lid open and closed with nervous energy.) I don’t remember that part. I think they got better. GEORGE: Let me have one of those Sprites. OWEN: (Stops fiddling, hesitates.) I don’t know. We might need them. GEORGE: Owen! OWEN: What? GEORGE: Give me one of those cans. (OWEN tosses a can down the boat-length, to him.) Aye, aye, captain. (GEORGE pops top and drinks.) OWEN: (Makes a 360-degree turn, looking for whales.) Yeah, I think that Judith just really was in a hurry for me to see whales. She knows how much I’ve wanted to. GEORGE: (Takes off his jacket.) It’s getting hot. OWEN: You think? GEORGE: Hot for Alaska. But there’ll be a daybreeze coming up. You can take off that jacket. I don’t think you’re going to fall overboard. Though I guess you could. If anyone could.
OWEN: I meant . . . Nevermind. (Owen decides he is too hot, takes off all equipment, takes off the life jacket, puts gear back on. He puts his hand in a pocket, pulls out a handful of Tootsie-Roll candies.) Oh my god! Tootsie Rolls! Who named them that!? Tootsie Rolls! GEORGE (Holds out his hand.) Sure, I’ll have one. Thank you. OWEN: Don’t you see!? Tootsie Rolls! Tootsies, like toes! In my pocket! GEORGE. (Flatly.) Isn’t that amazing. Are you going to let me have one, or not? (OWEN divides them into two equal portions, carefully, one and one, two and two, etc. He walks the length of the boat and drops George’s portion into his palm. GEORGE puts them into his own pocket. ) (OWEN, back at his end, scans with binoculars). GEORGE: You know, we might not see any whales. We probably won’t. OWEN: That’s OK. (Rests the binoculars back on his chest.) GEORGE: (Irritated.) I thought that was the thing you most wanted to do? I thought that’s why we were out here. OWEN: (Raises the video camera again and turns it to GEORGE.) Here’s my brother-in-law again. He’s a smart guy about a lot of things. (Pause.) Not everything. Here we are in his little boat. (Pans around boat, back to GEORGE). Two guys. They survived the broken-down boat for ten minutes, and they didn’t have to crack open any bones. They only tormented one another, as all good brothers-in-law should. And were honest, except when they were dishonest. (GEORGE waves his hand at OWEN, dismissively but with grudging amusement.) OWEN: (Still filming.) George doesn’t know that Owen has a package of beef jerky in his bag. George is a pretty good captain, except he mistook his cabin boy for a first mate. Also, he should have a crow’s nest, so he could climb up and get a better look for whales, which all the old whalers knew were hard to see from sea-level. Also, he allows himself to be distracted so that he is, for example, not attentive to the ocean behind him, where there’s a boat coming to his rescue. (At this, GEORGE snaps around. Sees what OWEN has seen, and grabs an oar from the boat bottom and begins waving it high in the air.) OWEN: (Still filming, shouting.) Ahoy! Ship ahoy, me matey! Ship ahoy! GEORGE: (Turning, while waving oar.) You will not tell Judith I didn’t have a toolbox. OWEN: You won’t tell her I’m an idiot. GEORGE: Deal.
Mother & Child in a Garden Hannah, beautiful child, blinded from birth, smiles at the feel of her mother’s face, the firm cheekbones, the hollow below, the pliable flesh, the small animal flutter of the eyelids, the quick upturn of Lucretia’s head, mother offering mouth and chin to Hannah’s hungry fingers, the child luxuriating in the moist warmth of Lucretia’s lips. The magpie in a branch of the beech whose great trunk supports Lucretia’s back might imagine that the child is gazing at it as it regards the child, but it probably knows Hannah cannot see it. The finches pecking close beside the picnic blanket sense they are secure, despite Hannah’s spirited straddling of her mother’s lap. Likewise, the boar whose great whiskered head is just now emerging from the dense brush into the clearing feels certain it is about to taste the power and thrill of its tusks goring a hated foe. Hannah’s smile is just starting to fade at the rough new sound, Lucretia’s head is turning sharply towards the thrashing brush, the birds have already taken wing when Johann, standing at the other end of the clearing, squeezes the trigger, driving a blast of pellets into the boar’s head and chest, something the animal failed to anticipate.
Poetry Marjorie Kowalski Cole
Water “What do you think,” I whispered, Is the traditional gift for a sixth anniversary? You whispered back, “Water.” One August day, Canadian kids back in school, our two kayaks skated alone over water deep and cold and absolutely still, as if Lake Superior were meditating on its own clarity. We ran the boats up onto a boulder and bare skin met warm granite until helicopters filming a Park Service video chased two lovers from a private world On a flooded gravel pit back home in Fairbanks I paddled a craft that you created from plywood, glue and stitches, turned over to me for its maiden voyage. Go ahead, you said, and with those words gave me that still brown pond, filled with upside down trees and secret places where ducks nested behind the willows.
On a lakeshore in Michigan. I watch a family of mergansers ride up and down the waves, and suddenly, I remember rivers. The Chena slowing after her ride through the hills, undercutting the bank, dropping spruce whole into the current, the Nenana roaring past the carcass of a whale who missed her turn out in Norton Sound and Tolovana Creek cooling the hot springs, inviting with steam the wicked, the loose, the courting, the lost. Years ago, we flung ourselves forward on skis over windy, bald summits, carrying gear enough to keep us alive at twenty below zero eleven miles to reach that valley where hot water rises from a fault in the earth’s crust. When we climbed in, comet Hale-Boggs was pasted on the night sky and a ring of cedar planks held us red and steaming, coopered together in the stream.
Wildlife on Old Wood Road Six a.m., returning home at first light, my headlamp startles a white ptarmigan. It flies up from the edge of the road to hide in the aspen, its black tail wings a shock. Silent and fast it transforms from a fat bird to triangular fighter. A moose appears huge, silent and complete against the trees. Two calves with her, giant teenagers. Her ribs press against the brown suitcase of her hide. She looks, to me, exhausted. This morning my eyes are filling with tears. I'm back in my mother's last year, I'd like to do it over, I'd like to be there again. A fox separates from the snow uphill orange fur fluffed out for warmth
slips down the road and into the woods. Solitary, even though head of a household. She was that way--she never once complained of the solitude, or the silence. Is it wrong to see the world of the animals intersect with mine, to see boundaries unfixed. All things brush one another, have the power to astonish, adjust, even comfort. I swing left and return to my cave, the snowfree garage the coffee, a warm and sleepy mate upstairs under the quilt. He could teach a cat how to relax. The comforts of my nest restore me to this world. For now I am fully a creature of this hour, though it mixes with the next.
It’s All Downhill From Here Stone sheep cross a ridge in the St. Elias Range, I blend the morning’s fog in a bottle with my breath, a ewe scuffs windblown snow, uncovers lichen and moss, amid the devil’s club, growing lush in countless ravines. a lamb curls in the pit of her belly. Come spring, wobbly legs emerge, In time, the mix wells in my throat, emanates
followed by a golden eagle, talons clutching the steamy innocent. from cracked lips. Coarse stubble mimics a riffle downstream Dried blood surrounds the remains like a frame as blowflies swarm. and tears flow from crow’s feet, slip from high-country to low. I hail the evening sun like a cab. The driver wants to know Where to? as he hefts my bag into the trunk.
Fresh Water The seagulls circle and scream, and will not approach the dead bearded seal washed up on the beach lying against a piece of white driftwood half buried in the sand. Along the Bering Sea coast the Cupâ€™ik people say the seal comes to you, for a drink of fresh water.
John kneels down and takes out his knife makes a cut across the forehead, this will allow the sealâ€™s spirit to escape he says a westerly wind is beginning to blow white swells out on the Bering Sea cold rain starts to fall. We walk the wavering line of salt water lapping ever farther up. Looking back the gulls are gathering among the tangle of driftwood that washes up
Catching My King My father said you've got to go down the muddy banks walk out into the current, carefully cast your line deeper into the water darker darker than I could see running past and wait for what happens besides the usual, tangles arguments and broken lines. That's it, he said you've got to see what the early morning brings
after every storm. The noisy gulls move closer to the seal whose open mouth must have caught the first drops of rain. Walking back to the village the smoke is spiraling out of the muki. In this small shack there are men with their backs pressed against burning walls straining to protect lungs from the steam sucking the searing air through woven mouthplugs of dried goose grass. Fresh water is constantly ladled onto the rocks, stacked on a glowing red barrel stove.
when all manner of things are still possible and it was, a dime bright male fresh from the deepest oceans sea lice still clinging. With my King flopping furiously another fisherman ran to help haul it back to shore where I clubbed it with a piece of driftwood stuck it with my knife till it lay still, bled quietly and all the currents ran red for awhile.
Home Front Downstairs, where interior walls meet, a flower blossoms overnight in green carpeting, fungus the color of old toenails, feel of a babyâ€™s ears. I reach deep, find an amorphous base melded
to carpet fibers like candle drippings. What temerity in this thing, born between concrete slab and jute backing. How many others wait beneath the floor, to spring their pale existence into mine?
Anchorage City Poems #52 beneath my feet the street lamps form circles in the hoary dark I follow the rusty railroad tracks to the bog at the end of Lois Street my dog eager, tail wagging black spruce hold fast in the bog, deformed and gallant beg mercy from a lowering sky, my doggie lifts his leg leaving his mark mountains to the east light with the last glow from the sinking sun. I recall Mother's ill-conceived Chopin and lambchops, baked potatoes, a supper of innocence pond ice forms on the dull surface of the bog magpies, my old friends, skirt the surface of thin ice, I know I can not go there or return to the scree strewn ridges in the east, or to the icy peaks five hundred miles distant and the sting of the Kuskokwim blowing unevenly against my cheeks. I know when I will leave this place no one will call me back not even the magpies with their incessant chatter I tidy my affairs, walk my dog savor what I call my own, all I once loved I still love
Walking Alee of Wild Roses I am standing in the doorway of my parents’ room and I know I shouldn’t go in. But my father is out plowing or harvesting or milking, and my mother—she must have gone to hang clothes on the line. I hesitate, remembering. My eyes scan the room. The air sparkles in dusty suspense. I see the dark stained furniture, carved, turned— bought at Saturday auction after the calves were sold— the bed at my eye level, covered in chenille, the wardrobe, so squeezed at the foot of the bed the drawers can’t be opened, and the dresser, where my mother could sit at the mirror. Her lipsticks and powders are inside its little drawers, and on its top, a procession of bottles— one, Channel No. 5 that Uncle John sent during the war. Only an oily residue remains, and a memory when the glass stopper is lifted. The dresser’s elegant oval reflects the doorway and me. I watch myself tiptoe wide-eyed into that private space, up close to the mirror, and look at my self. In double image my small fingers touch one of her bottles— cool milky glass embossed with red roses. On Sunday mornings before church my mother splashes it on—Rosewater— it’s good for her skin, she says. I twist the cap, hold the bottle to my nose, and breathe in my mother, the woman of her. Now, here I am walking a sandy path alee of wild roses. A southeasterly breeze flutters off Icy Passage, lifts rose essence and hands it to me. And unexpectedly I inhale the residue of the woman, my mother, and a remembered scent of the child, my self.
Gustavus, Alaska, Pop. 301 There are two roads in Gustavus, two docks, one mercantile, and too few words for rain. The woman steering our taxi with one hand, her right arm stretched across the car’s seat back says, We call this driving mist. Moss comforts the ground, lumpy as the baggy sweater she wears. Moisture beads cow parsnip and fireweed, fungus ladders spruce trees. You won’t want to be doing that moose call of yours around here in October, girl.
Gustavus is the far place, cool as a shell, raw, wet as the birth of a moose. I guess most of us wanted to be far away from something or other. She grips this spit of land scraped flat by glaciers. Winter, she hunkers low like the odd-eyed halibut. She’s selling a local cookbook as she drives. I like this recipe, “Rusty’s Butt Boils” for your halibut steaks. Fog irons the bay flat. Sea kelp washes in, brown and gelatinous, like entrails on the rocks.
Michael Earl Craig
Bear Photo Taken in Livingston, Montana sometime around 1900, this bear stands up perfectly straight on hind legs, with his paws together, up over his head like maybe he’s clapping, like maybe he’s praying or pretending to pray, really hamming it up, but I’d say probably praying,
probably praying directly to God, yeah, praying hard, directly to God. It is a sunny day. The photo is grainy. The bear is shuffling about in the dirt street. Dragging his hundred pound chain. Squinting into the sun. Acting quite naturally. Totally clueless as to how a man might pray.
Bluebirds I’m sitting in my brown chair. I have dirt under each of my fingernails. Except for the pinkies. I remember hearing of the gorgeous town blonde who told reporters she’d never date a man with dirt under his nails. It’s a poet’s job to be dragged by an ankle through town. A poem shouldn’t require a lot of book learning to understand, I once wrote, and Tina leaned over my desk and said, To understand what?
I didn’t say anything. Trying again I wrote in capital letters THE READER CAN ALMOST BE DUMB REALLY AND STILL GET MY POEMS. Tina nodded her head. The ankle caught up in the stirrup of a galloping horse. I slump over in my chair. It’s like I’m covered in bluebirds. Little brilliant ones. And when I say this, “little brilliant ones,” I lisp a little like a man who’s been punched hard in the mouth but still wants to talk bluebirds.
El Agua Zurita knows what the water knows--.Martin Espada
...and what does water know flowing over rocks, exposing evidence of the last forty or forty-thousand years? What does water hear, filling the earthâ€™s dry potholes soothing welts on a wordless tongue? You drop your hands, two stones, into the sea full of dishes and foam. You have imagined a body without water, a land without lakes or rivers, the dried beds shrinking, fish gazing skyward, imagining legs and wings, the urge to rise up, the need to fly.
Garden Party Sunday at two, potluck, Jack said.
Golden dabs of dying leaves still cling fiercely to birches, others line the woodland floor behind the house. Yesterday the red line rose only to thirty-seven. Last night’s first hard freeze trailed after unexpected sleet and rain, leaving icy disks in the leaves of the cabbage. At Jack’s, friends collect his crop remains, pick the surviving beans, fill grocery bags with carrots and turnips torn from the earth, and stack corn neatly by the wooden fence. We overflow the tiny living room ripe with memories of the eighteen years he spent with Sharon. Cold drafts blow as doors open again and again. Standing on the kitchen stoop, Jack looks tired. He smiles and hugs all who approach. It was Sharon’s garden. She loved it. I knew she’d never make it through this winter.
He laughs as though to shake the chill and introduces her first husband, another friend to share the grief. Creases left by years of smiles grow wet as he talks of her last six hours. She passed peacefully. We pumped the morphine every ten minutes. She didn’t feel any pain. I was right there when she went. In the kitchen, women quip, cut squash, potatoes, and yellow Russian turnips for stew. Outside, men scrub bright orange roots, trim the green tops for compost. Have one, Jack offers, as a colander of carrots goes past. It’s all organic, grown naturally. Eighteen years ago we met and never were apart, not even for a day. Bowls heaped with food crowd the counters, aromas fill the spaces left in her kitchen: butter beans and ham, black-eyed peas and side meat, thin sliced moose steaks, chicken fried at home, and biscuits bigger than Jack’s gentle fist. Macaroni salad, Sharon’s recipe, Carmela says, teary-eyed. I never made it before. She would have served it if she’d been here, so I made it just like hers. Football plays on the color screen in the living room, while in the yard, men in worn jackets gather round the lifted hood of Jack’s truck, discussing engines. Inside, Jack shares years of garden photos, of harvests, of a smiling Sharon in her straw hat, kneeling between mounded rows of dark soil. Take vegetables with you, as much as you want. I can’t eat them all alone.
Mountain Lion All day following your tracks through untrodden snow, the crunch of my snowshoes, the silence of your passing. Past ice cascades of aqua, and moss hung spruce, your prints leading slowly, patiently, your glance in the shadows. Crossing the avalanche into the clearing; the frozen tarn in a cirque of winter peaks cut white before a brightness of blue. You disappear, then come again, your fur and mine melding in a glistening light.
Again Winter Still and again, the quietude of winter, a bowl fulll of snow rhymed with cobalt. Caribou drifting, pawing the lichen, shaping the tundra. The scent of fox, musky, forbidden; the lingering damp of wet wool. In the woodpile, ermine, her tiny tracks link dream and doorstep. I chop wood, listening to sound split the silenceâ€” bells across the frozen river. Winter comes deep in the bones, staking a claim beneath the ribs. Inside, I light the lamps, and sit in silence, quilted and quieted, still and again.
Accretions The stiff white world built by two months’ growth of hoarfrost and no wind sheds a new color each hour in the sun sneaking up from the south. But one day of chinook and
it’s all gone to black, the spruce shedding water and swallowing light. So the winter’s burden dissolved in the south wind’s shade before we knew how much we wanted to stay frozen.
Found (“Fetters of a burning chain”—Julia Ward Howe)
Stained white bark grows around links rusted to the color of earth, one thick hook wedged into place, the other end buried in leaves, held to the ground by willow and horsetail roots. Something was anchored once to this tree, hauling itself from the mud it was stuck in, or else the tree itself was marked and bound for falling. Whichever it was, the arms that looped the logging chain around this birch forgot it, like Frost’s well-made woodpile abandoned to rot, far from the fire it was meant to feed. Ochre flakes of dust on my hands smell like death, like the other end is fastened to a grave I have dug myself.
Winter Ptarmigan Dappled snow erupts feathers startling toward sky each stuttered wing beat dusting my trail with crumbs of light.
The Hunter I wake alone and early to await the sun and his herd of yellow birches All is ready I have prepared my net of hope and want Come back, whoever scattered dry leaves
among pale roots I’ll press my hand against cold bark transcribe the map into my flesh I’ll trace the path It’s all I ask Come back
whoever hid a treasure
Sunday, 12/19/04 7:45AM already up an hour dark dark ice sheen silence out there on the street and for days/nights now hovering just at/above/below freezing more rain than snow more spring than winter more slick than soft or solid walking and yesterday slipping out at work onto the deck sneaking smoke when nobody watching or even up yet and i mean spring like more than a metaphor blue sky break your heart with fullness of it freshness some openness of out from under winter blankets air in your face expansiveness like something growing somewhere something growing inside your head your heart some knowing of how wide the world how endless windows wide open to everything your whole body shifting down into underdrive no tension of anticipation of shiver no weight of bulk of multi-layer shield yourself from cold only brisk envigorating welcome of air sky light on your skin illusion of months ahead uninterrupted of the same and even though knowing it is only foolâ€™s gold false spring just enough to fool your body remind your body replenish your body take you to that place that time that willing suspension of disbelief surrender to content no contention no counting the gift-horseâ€™s teeth no calculating estimated time of departure just accept the gift gladly say thank you. thank you. and this morning open window stick your head out more of the same add holy sunday morning silence of the only one up on earth watch sparse sparse spread-out pointilism of pin-prick snowflakes slowly slowly slow descending float turn to raindrops just a moment before they hit the sidewalk plunge silent into surface of the puddles well worth sticking head out of window again again again again. again. breathe deep. savor air. again. say thank you.
Anchorage - 12/19/04
Amy Otto Larsen
Norma's Cove "Solid stone is just sand and water, baby.... and a million years gone by. " --Beth Nielsen Chapman
The peaks across Kachemak bright white in the lessening light, tide a gentle lap on stones. glimmers on the Spit wink on, a talkative eagle drifts overhead. Pam's white jacket a beacon ahead of me. Anthracite slips underfoot. Sea, beach, bluff: a microcosm. Steep stairs clamber up to houses tottering on the edge, decks hang in space, netting and birch logs adorn the banks. Challenging wind and water: four yards too late.
Fool's Lake The sun in going down the last dying sparks of the day dazzling on the water. The dock is still warm beneath my bare thighs. You said I had the greatest-looking legs in the whole county. A whippoorwill cries from across the lake, a canoe bobs gently at its moorings, wood smoke wafts from the campground. The moon will rise soon. Where are you?
Old Tom Brings Water into the World Old Tom Walking along a beach He feels thirsty He remembers a bossy old neighbor Where he once lived In those days when he lived in a house: Family Children Warmth Food
Sorts through all the dogshit Knocks on the old neighbor’s door Invites himself in, sits around for a while Until his neighbor falls asleep Runs outside newspaper in hand Picks up some dogshit, runs back inside Smears it on his neighbor’s pants Laughs Waits Keeps his eye on the trunk
Anyway that know-it-all neighbor He always had a bottle he kept in a trunk Next to an old brown couch Slept on that couch, one hand on the trunk Inside of which was always that bottle
That old neighbor finally wakes up Smells the dogshit, sees Old Tom Laughing at him, hollering Look at you! You shit yourself! Look at you! Minutes ago, that neighbor was high-toned Now he’s more like a yelled-at dog Runs to the back of the house Holding his dirty pants
Old Tom Walking along a beach Thinks hard about that bottle He thinks hard about that bottle Not so much About his own house next door Family Children Food Warmth Staggers over to Village Street
Old Tom grabs the bottle from the trunk Runs outside takes a drink Expecting wine or at least stale beer But Old Tom tastes fresh water He runs into the woods up the hill Over the path through the trees Beyond the treeline past the snowline Spitting out water the whole way Spitting out water to the world
Old Tom’s Hands Old Tom’s hands are crusty with need He keeps those nails short Old Tom’s hands are pungent with life He takes comfort from the smoky touch Old Tom’s hands are peeling and torn They stand up to whiskers and booze He uses his hands to break salmon in two With his hands he tempts Tide Woman Old Tom’s hands hold the bottle and shake
When they carry it to his lips Below the tide, sea lions sweep the streets And carve dreams into their screens While hunters idle and medicine won’t heal One simple wound from a pious stranger Old Tom’s been broken by those cuts But he can tempt that tide one more time He can summon warriors with one glimpse Of his working wine-stained hands
Tribute for Vedran Smailovic
I. After bombs burned the national library to the ground, after shrapnel hit the breadline and scattered bodies lay still as loaves, after then one day and then daily the cellist offered a musical prayer for peace. Playing in the ruins, bombsites and graveyards the man with the strings sat in full view of snipers' scopes. White gloves, bow tie and tails, he drew his bow slow, drawing out sound from wood, music pouring from him like tears, he played a deep vibration he felt in his cells. Sound that originates before Sarajevo, sound that travels; far from Sarajevo here, and now hearts hear a plaintive melody crying, a call to the dead and the living: How many more? The bullets, if they come his faith deflects. II. Those who followed Carthage and the conquistadors also reconstructed on the ashes of sacred places, with a small heap of wampum, built Manhattan towering skyscrapers now reduced to rubble called The Pile,
a newly sacred place, made so by so many ashes. III. Under the blue October moon inside the house I burrow under blankets with a book. My body is tight, tense muscles holding up the bones, which are chilled because the house is cold. The house is cold, there is a hole in the wall on one side, heat blasted out in September shortly before fall. Shortly before fall, four flights last rites now the house is cold, my body is tight, a fight between bones and corpuscles, cells and blood jarred into action by alleged invisible forces some are calling evil. Some are calling evil forth to fight the cold that seeps inside the house through the hole in the wall that chills my bones, makes my body tight a fight in the night, invisible forces, evil and good, opposite sides, the same coin. The same coin, capitalism, Islam, black and white, right and wrong, long or short fight between invisible good and evil forces. Fall approaches winter, Taliban hurl widows into graves, their stadium is not for fans unless you consider execution sport. Sport stopped in September for a moment
stadiums made empty by fear, now Congress is empty, my heart is empty, blood spilled like tears at Ground Zero, blood chilled like my heart in the house which is cold. In the house which is cold, the mail room is empty as Congress, resolve melted like steel at Ground Zero, bones chilled by blood sport between rivals inside and outside the house, a hole in the wall in the fall a chill enters my body is tight, tense
muscles contracted in cold. Contracted in cold in the house I'm not bold, bones chilled by blood sport, I burrow in the bunker, hunkered down under blankets with a book to soothe my soul under the blow of blasting implosion, bombs far away exploding under the same blue October moon, the same blue October moon, the same blue October moon which beams like a beacon on the beleaguered.
Sean Patrick Hill
Freezeout Creek Dorian was his name. Bought land on Freezeout Creek ten years back. People thought it strange he surrounded himself with cyclone fencing. Too much to maintain. No reason to keep deer out when crops won’t grow. Claimed he was a merchant marine part of the year. The rest he might have worked in town, or on a ranch. No one remembers. But folks recall the truck he drove was missing its handle on the inside passenger door. No one gave it much thought. They all drove beater rigs. When the agents showed up, they found skulls all along the footbridge. All different kinds of animals. Firewood piled like an ambuscade. The cabin bolted and padlocked with iron. There was a girl who drove up this road around that time. She must have hiked the ridge to Hell’s Canyon. She thought to call her parents from the Imnaha Tavern. That’s how they found her car. They never found her. They locked him up, but inmates killed him. Who knows who bought his land, if anyone. The creek goes up to the saddle. Cuts through volcanic ash. If you dig around arrowheads sometimes get exposed. You never know what you’ll find in a bank.
Out the Back Window Snow falling, cold. Redpolls shiver snow from feathers in dim, morning light. The birdfeeder the hub of the hub-bub. Clear, warming. The sun pulls over the mountains. That damn squirrel swings from the spruce boughs. Magpies catcall from the rafters. Breezy, bright sun. Fireweed tops out. Yarrow: orange, red. Purple monkshood, bee balm, beaked geranium. The racket in the shed â€“ a squirrel rips out insulation. They say the cost of heating oil is going up.
Storm A kick-ass crash-and-boom rain slams the glass, pelts down the pane, sheets from the sill, splays off the hard pan, till, worn out, the soft mist, the slow drip off the pine,
Windy, cool. the quiet. Someone dims the lights. Wing beats thrum south, the sun rolls up summer. Celebrants depart. Now everyone can get some sleep.
Nesting Chronology Later, you would have liked me Despite the rain that filled the night air With white sound, unison. Yet I recommend that you get on, And follow the sandhill cranes, Abundant in the long arc Of their migration. From flattened sedge The clutch hatch after A late spring. They dig For roots with heavy bills, Flightless. Soon They will aggregate, And stage. Soon I will Kneel by brackish water, Watch them circleâ€” Gain altitude, and
Move directly eastward. Their calls will settle In the hollows of birches, Deep and constant. It is their duty to warn you: I, too, would listen.
Nothing dry accumulates. An assay of a blown glass Bird, the unfastened Patterns of fluted beads, Silt and sand, or Something fractured. Talc, panes scattered, A heavy vial, and then whole Clear pharmacies, jars And bottles. It does choose What it does not break.
September 12, 2001 The sky quiet and hardly anyone in the stores. Make Afghanistan the 51st state hand-lettered across the dusty rear windshield of an SUV in the lane ahead, its edges browning with rust. A row of 747s lined up at the airport like an orderly flock of giant seagulls waiting for the storm to pass. We’re out to see, not in any hurry, and take the old highway, now a bumpy road that winds by houses tottering on uncertain permafrost.
Coming toward us as we round a curve is our friend Ruben on his motorbike. No helmet, just sunglasses and a leather jacket and jeans, leaning back in his seat. He passes without seeing us deep in thought, riding under a blue sky that doesn’t hold a single plane.
Pushing Off at Dusk Our silver pea pod boat floats on water dark and deep that mirrors back the evening sky. No need to look up. The wide pink swath of a long-passed jet, arced like a comet’s tail, lies chalkstroke bold beside the boat. No need to look up. The contrail lingers in the sky and on the bottom of the bay. It disappears into the hills that waver when our paddles dip. No need to look up. A heron rises from the shore, the water rests still as ink, the hills have turned to silhouettes. Look up. Find the current. Steer.
Majesty Gone The gaunt moose moves stiffly, nibbling bare lilac twigs gratefully, his beard shaking like a wattle. No wolves or cars in a fenced yard. Winter-chewed mountain ash, willow not yet fluffed with catkins or new leaves, birch still bare. He rests on old grass in spruce shade then stumbles to near woods: an elder of his race, majesty gone.
Perspectives My stepdaughter calls â€” the one who speaks to me â€” another lifetime bubbles up. I blink at her bittersweet words. She remembers what, for me, never happened. Like circus parade watchers, she on one side of the street, I opposite, we see one another through clowns and tiger cages.
Climbing Lazy Mountain 1. 5. Over the trail my feet paddle the dry earth and parch pieces where the land is steep and man has quietly stepped. When the rains come, water will rush downhill by way of these veins cut into the mountain. Now dry, it leaves little to erase the powdered mist that rises with each step, each digging of toes. Thick clouds click long and hard inside our mouths as saliva mixes with silt and the quiet rush of your voice brings me back to our journey.
Yet we move on, lifting each other through falling rock and loose earth, rising again because we know by the end the peak looks out over the valley. There’s peace in this, a peace that slows the moments when the dry earth cracks and the September rains come. We quietly go in that direction.
2. Are we almost there, you pant. 3. Maybe it’s because I want you to love me more or maybe this damn mountain isn’t really lazy but more like you and I, broken limbed trees lining a path to railroad ties and a picnic table. But we’re together and we must rest to drink water and soothe our rusty throats. 4. And I want this feeling to end, the guilt and strain of walking trails through alder and fireweed. False peaks where your heart grows and your head shadows the rock face.
In Your Snowflake Dream You relax and fall with falling snow. From dust you come, a tiny speck coated with ice drifting fast in cirrus around a dome of high pressure stalled over the Beaufort.
To and fro in regions of the wind your crystal grows more ornate, your path complex, your corners spiked, branched, or feathered like no other.
An Aleutian low with bad behavior gyres north with enough vapor and heat to mix things up. The H2O’s stick and so you grow falling as snow.
You’re falling into big country, a bench of black spruce along the Sheenjek. You’re a smokejumper again, and your crew is all in tuxedoes--
It takes certain kinds of falling, cold, and water to build on. Electricity in your smallest parts shapes your hexagon, and you relax, this falling into grace.
elegant for once. You sway down in parachutes landing softly standing up. All ok, you sing out your names, but from a distance they all sound the same, wild, like geese in spring.
In My Deli Dream
For what your eyes do imagining us in San Francisco, I’ll be your Jamon Serrano, your ham on sfillatino. For your full-bodied kiss of house red and dip of garlic chanterelle,
You find me as you did years ago on a bright spring day shoveling horse manure into the pickup for our garden of potatoes and simple salads.
accept my gorgonzola with sun-dried tomatoes in drawn butter turmeric, salmon paté, and prawns in mustard Creole. So begins a little commerce under fir rafters and drumming roof of cedar.
I’m not a knight’s squire nor peasant in rubber boots quick to know I shovel paradise for weeds, but in this dream you say again, “Stop. The day’s too nice, let’s go fishing.”
Too soon good dreaming dissolves on loving. With nonsense dreams are famous for, it turns in good taste to moose moving on the mountain, bear swimming to our island,
Still without child, we drop everything and go, and it clouds up, and we’re skunked. We rent a cabin without fixtures or heat and pee in the rain and mud.
the sharp and earthy odor of leaves on the hill in the rain and even after. It turns prodigal to the garden and child our garden grew. Oh, let’s dream it rich again,
In our sleeping bag rich with the history of human sleep, we bargain and trade, banter and barter, my little dolma, hungry in the rich market of love.
and for your soft kiss of port, my dark-eyed partner, and hard years as mother, I comfort you as best I can with apples, pomegranate seeds in a blue bowl, and something fancy, on good china this frangipani torte.
April, Austen, Anchorage “The air is full of spices,” I read what Austen wrote. Silver limns the sunrise; I watch the brightening shore. A raven climbs warm rising currents, wing and wing, to float. The raven chuckles, burbling; I see his swelling throat. I wondered why he sang out then, as if we’d met before. “The air is full of spices,” I read what Austen wrote. I hear the working of his wings, his ruffling greatcoat. The mudflats glisten, disappear beneath the tidal bore. A raven climbs the rising currents, wing and wing, to float. Scents of bracken, wrack, and rot, warm rustling sea oats, the winter thaw, the sea – all perfumes that I long for.
“The air is full of spices,” I breathe what Austen wrote. The raven banks, and flies toward me, repeats a quarternote as if to mark the day and me, our traveling rapport. A raven climbs the rising currents, wing and wing, to float. The sound of wings at sunrise is difficult to quote. Winter turning to the spring fuses moments I adore. “The air is full of spices,” I read what Austen wrote. A raven climbs the morning currents, wing and wing, to float.
How Spring Travels in Alaska I consider the buttons on my blouse: each nacreous button glints in light at the top of the world cold, tiny, not insignificant. Carved from linings of shells, ferried through the skin of the sea by a bronzed teenage boy, lungs bursting, at the edge of a Tahitian storm. The cloth of my shirt has traveled from Mumbai, mapped in my mind with elephants, fire-colored silk, rice, curry, and fresh spinach. My leather shoes, assembled in Mexico. I want to assemble in Mexico, ride a rocking boat
where billfish spear the teal-toned sea. Dinner, gathered from remnants of last summer’s fishing and my favorite Asian-Alaskan grocery: brined salmon eggs on rice with pickled ginger, wasabi and shoyu; an icy, sweating Coca-Cola; one huge, globular Florida orange. Frost fingers the window behind me. The radio voice announces it is 47 below zero, five degrees colder than yesterday. Under snow, the river seems to heave and breathe, steam rising at dusk. It talks to me in the midnight: crackling, static, ready to break its dam.
The Place Where We Live Ruby walks across the lawn in Daisy Duke Shorts, a boy scout scarf tied around her throat. Her short bleached hair is knotted in ponytails. We live in the gut of the house bought with money from her rape. Her mom said they are still waiting for the rest of the settlement. Ruby taps
her cigarette ash over my vegetable starts. She is 19 and back from NY. It didn’t work out with the rich guy she met at Burning Man. The walls of our apartment are orange and purple. We can hear Ruby’s mom shout through the low ducts. There is a wet bar. It is stocked with vodka and bitters.
A Memorial Perhaps Hauled up by a crane, bright saxophone girders erect themselves in sky, the steel untwisting like an awakening god, and on the unfolding floors carpets unroll, the odd desk appears, and workers materialize and rally around the coffee machines. A file drawer opens releasing a puff of smoke. Each cubit of air recalls the tremor but not the flames, the shouting or shortness of breath, and through this transparency a man stands on a platform, wiping his eyes and stretching into space. There’s nothing below him but morning (no rattle of jets), as a flag goes up the pole. Building down from the top, we’ve reached the 93rd floor, where several aging veeps roll up their sleeves and sip their 9 a.m. dram of satisfaction, while how many knives in back rooms sharpen for action and how many cattle are driven to corporate slaughter? (Nothing is bogus here, nothing made up.)
And everything’s in plain view to the old cleaning woman in the twin invisible tower a bucket of suds at her side. The stench of burnt fuel sponged off, and only the white and blue of empty floors below her like some hopeful saw (repent? forgive?) that might turn the world around, which a wand like a thought can pass through. When the supports gave way, the upper floors came down intact. For fifteen seconds weightless, they fell, like an elevator with a snapped cable, on top of the pancaking lower stories which crushed everything below, but while this was happening, they were above the disaster and rode it down to the ground.
Counting Caribou Crossings—Prudhoe Bay, Alaska after R. Glendon Brunk
Tundra to the horizon peppered with lakes, aswim with pintails and loons. A fox lopes by. The sky’s aslant with jaegers, rough-legged hawks. I’m paid to tally caribou, a science guy. Behind me a maze of pipes, pumps, drillpads, gravel pits, and sludge-smudged drums, and everywhere the reek of corporate oil.
But hey, I’m here to count the herd, which comes (if they come at all) too fast to count, then mill when they hit the pipe. They mass and twitch, until one coast-bound leader steps up, lifts her muzzle, sniffs, while baffled calves and mothers nuzzle, just as a truck roars by, blaring its goddamn horn and they stampede away. I hate this job.
Falling I should have known
pull you back to my chest,
you could stumble and fall
just before the second ledge,
when I was only two steps away.
at the top of a bigger face,
We just wanted to kill time
a longer fall this time.
before the parade.
I don’t let go when we hit bottom.
How foolish of me to
You are still in my arms
put you down where
when we slide into a thicket of alders and stop.
salmon berry bushes
There isn’t a sound.
crowd the trail,
I see the bruise on your cheek.
camouflaging steep cliffs.
You start to cry.
You start to roll.
I stroke your face, and hear your mom
I grab for your little sweatshirt and miss,
screaming my name from above.
dive and gather you into my arms, but we’re already over the edge, funneled down a rocky avalanche chute, me on my back, head first, arms holding you tight to my chest. We accelerate into a blur, branches and brush and loose rocks clawing at us, drop over the first ledge, airborne for an instant before my shoulders take the blow on loose rocks. My grip loosens, we brush a boulder, you bounce from my arms, I reach out, feel you with my right hand,
The Wedding Night As night strengthened The sharp edges of the mountains cut The pink sky; I can still see it, as pink as an electric blanket covering an old Gray woman again remembering the man she long ago said no to marriage To because he seemed fanatical and actually believed. With those primitive knives around us we felt defended. I cuddled her full contact bare naked in an old Yukon arctic eider down bag As the fire crackled and spit its red seeds into the darkness. There is a great energy with a new wife completely naked in A freshly deserted northern B.C. campground. Massive bears had scared everyone away, And whether we were fence post stupid Or just too ignited to fear, we built an intense fire. And there in flames, with the mystified Grizzlies watching from the darkness, silent, invisibleâ€”pushed back By our circle of hot lightâ€”we conceived The first of seven sons in ecstasy.
green lake Like that time I was tripping in the park on a painfully beautiful day and I sat down to rest on the perfect greengreen grass right in a pile of dogshit.
And now, you-
Or that time again thirty years later and it seemed like nothing had changed or moved from where it used to bethe sunshine, the dogshit, the people walking around the lake.
the need the force the desire for a net I can substitute this for that and still there is no this but that-
All the painful beauty was still there, where I left it. I felt the same as I did then. I felt deranged. I probably looked that way, too with a can of apricot soda resting on my shoe eating the salt of pretzel sticks from my shirt pocket. I sat there and watched it all go by: pretty girls as big as planets pendulous mommies on the jog three Winona Ryders with zits woman like salmon woman like shrimp endless sweaty thighs and rosy cheeks an oily sheen of sunlight on green lake.
You need a break. I understandâ€Ś
these bright moments coming from nowhere a procession of angels reeling against the hours holding nothing back kissing everything at once floating above the past suspended in the gift outside the grip connected
And I saw myself feeling the way the worms work underneath it all unseen and silent while the sky falls over a girl with tungsten hair.
a moment when life comes with a smile when the world exhales and throws a halo on your head a moment when just being here under the sun is triumph enough when dreams dance with faith and each breath sustains the potential of all things
In a wall to wall painting with ice cream bells in the background.
when the ritual of observation becomes a miracle to behold
It was three oâ€™clock and I hit the lull. I found a shady bench and zipped up my jacket. More people worth watching were passing by but I had to pass on that pleasure and close my eyes
because its all true-
Sure. I can understand. Whatâ€™s not to understand? Cain broke with Able Nietzsche broke with Wagner Jung broke with Freud Dean broke with Jerry John broke with Paul
she crossed her legs on this very bench a million days ago and where I sit now a bird has landed and a song plays and over there, along the fence dormant bulbs lie rumbling.
spaghetti western sergio pins a tin star to the nearest salami and sends out a posse for chianti and bread giancarlo mounts his gucci has a doppio and rides off to round up the meatballs ennio grabs a cactus and a hunk of cheese and strums a tarantella until the water boils thereâ€™s a big shootout with garlic bullets olive oil banditos charles bronson and lots of splattered tomatoes fat angelina sets the table the apache bring cannoli the navajo anisette lino builds another coffin and stirs the sauce
Wreck Beach Take the path down the hill from UBC1 through gentle forests of fern and evergreen. Follow it down to the beach and find a garden. Women sprout nude from white sand, grow, and ripen in the summer sunshine. Breasts emerge from stifling bras, forsake taunting behind obscene nylon, and breathe the cedar-scented air.
Donâ€™t be a voyeur! Unbutton your inhibitions. Slip out of your shorts and shyness. I hear the sound of motors. Quick, get dressed! A hovercraft lands on the beach. Men in the black uniforms step onto the sand. Dozens of naked Polynesian women walk toward Captain Cookâ€™s sailing ship bearing gifts of flowers. 1. University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
Pentimento When I climbed down the cliff by rope, a heron fished from a boulder below, stretching her neck the way a monk in prayer leans toward a page of chant. A seaplane, blustering animal, took flight, but did not distract her, nor did I, nor the migrating clouds, the massed choir of pines. From their nest of twigs a pair of eagles rose, hovered in wind over the stone crest of the hill, and like the presence felt in a room where someone has died, I almost glimpsed what I was before entering this world.
Eriophorum 68 degrees north latitude June The white intent of the tundra
Beastly Night A sea-born gale howls through the beastly night, spraying our coastal tundra with false tears siphoned from moving pinnacles of foam streaking the surface of an Arctic sea.
The exhalation of a bowhead whale, emerging in this frothy tempest for a stolen opportunity to breathe, won’t warm the icy fingers of this wind. Like polar bears smashing through smooth white roofs of ringed seal nurseries, her freezing blasts pound brutally across our crystal land, never counting the bodies of the dead. The sharpness cuts into the backs of wolves near musk ox huddled in the blowing snow. Thrusts pierce their battlement of horn and fleece to finish off a trembling wounded calf. Like emissaries from the dead, the gusts invade my room. Their empty whistling masks the rhythmic beating of a heart spilling its warmth onto our cold bloodthirsty plain.
I cannot sleep. Outside, the siren wind, now keening for the slain, mimics remorse. Wrapped in a wool blanket, my body feels encircled by her silken web of fear.
Brown Mare The dark brown mare stands with her colt, head high, left forefoot raised, poised to run. A girl’s soft hands smoothed the blanket, positioned the heavy saddle, cinched the girth.
Now a mother, her strong hands remember the pull of the reins. Legs know rippling muscles, body the familiar sway. Her son’s chubby hands clutch the mane. He gallops across the carpet, charges into battle. A carved ebony mare stands with her colt, left forefoot broken in forgotten play, poised to run.
Aid and Comfort Some days even the sun failed to move her, bed a horizontal prison where she lay fighting for breath between sheets of metal, afraid to speak for words can fall to earth, crush the innocent, there’s no telling what terrible damage can be done and never undone, never, the weight even of thoughts can bruise an arm purple. A person can work black magic without meaning to. Souls seared clear of feeling line the wall, blood-drained trophies. She squeezes her eyes shut, and a voice pierces the silence. “Mom,” he says, “Mom, can you get up? I can’t reach the counter.” Gravity shifts. Her chest rises. She forces her feet to the floor. “Yes,” she says, “Yes, honey, I’m coming.”
Remembering Harding Lake You know that lake that round, ripple-skinned lake that bowl-bottomed lake that's lined with grass? Would you meet me there to shed our personalities at the shore along with our skin color parents and places of birth to dip soul naked into the deep and risk coming out just human?
The soul like water, will find a place to go I. And so the Migrant Woman - the woman who was not Tlingit, not Tsimshian, not Eyak, the one who is not of this place, who has no tribal clan, no tribal mask, no Eagle or Raven name - she went to where wind meets the sea at Ocean Cape, as often as she could. 2. Everywhere she turned in Yakutat: waterâ€”water frozen water free running. Water seeped and spilled into glacial streams, rivers, salt-water lagoons, wetlands, bogs and sloughs. Rain fell hard. Gales blew. Storms swept in. Winds battered. It's rough out there, fishermen said. And then the North Pacific hurled and dumped a few more hemlock logs like Tinker Toys along the beach; boulders crushed and hammered to bits. 3. Seawind tussled her copper-red hair. She daydreamed. The prophet mountain loomed over her. Perpetual rain-sounds beat against her heavy, yellow jacket. A shaman chanted and drummed. Something stirred. 4. Beauty is exhausting here in the Grand Wash of the neverresting ocean. Don't leave me here; please don't leave me here.
I wore cowboy boots to work today I wore cowboy boots to work today And I listened to country music on the radio As I drove the four-lane lone prairie. In a mood. Listening to the lyrics Acting like I shot your dog. You left me. I left you and Your cheatin’ heart. I own a pickup truck, But it’s tricked out for a dandy. No gun rack or eight ball for the gearshift knob.
Bucket seats where there should be bench. And it’s clean. I don’t chew tobacco although I tried it once and ended up sprawled on the floor, My head spinning like I’d Been bucked off a mechanical bull. The boots caused a stir in the office. At the end of the day my feet hurt, although The buttery leather caressed my Soles as if they believed my life would be more interesting If I wore them more often.
Eve in Homer, Alaska You be Eve, he said, handing me a peach because they were on sale at the Safeway, and he was a man of thrift and common sense with a pension plan and health insurance and nylon socks rolled color to color in his third drawer. Peach juice sliding down my lips, another man would have licked it off, but he took a napkin, dabbed my mouth with the sureness of a mother, those pale, smooth hands intent on casting out my sins. So I was forced to invent more, nights the sun barely set and the waves pounded the shore, my blood aching with a thirst he couldn’t swallow as I roamed
the beach dreaming of motorcycle rides and men with wallet-chained pockets, my skin suffering the bruises of their slaps, each one welcomed, treasured. In the mornings, I told him the marks were from falls. Like Eve, I understood the enticement of a lie. I was wicked and ungrateful, longing not for the serpent’s bite but its teeth tearing my flesh as I burned and gasped. Let the damned apple rot, I wanted it all: blood, bone, the white teeth of muscle shining my skin with the fallen grace of salt.
Destruction Bay, Yukon Fog across the water, it’s hard to see the mountains, we’ve been camped here for days, your body so familiar it feels like my own skin, ordinary, warm, the surprise of no surprises, we swim through nights without darkness, wake to eagles down the beach, bear prints around the tent, we hang our food from tree branches, drink dirty water, sit on the shore for hours losing our capacity for words, mouths, meanings, out here with the wind, the waves, the long cool stretches, and wild.
INTERVIEWS Mary Huyck Mulka
Kelsea Habecker Hollowed Out
Kelsea’s chilly words crept into my subconscious in ways that I didn’t even realize until, days after I put down the poems, I found myself blinking against the sensation of tears freezing in their ducts and the sting of incisors piercing my skin. Now, far removed from that first reading, I’m still haunted by the image of a bowhead whale pushing its skull through spring ice and this warning from the collection’s namesake poem: “the elders tell me to walk with my mouth / shut tightly against the rivering wind / or the weasel, an opportunist, / will launch into the current’s lift / toward my dark throat / and tunnel my belly, / hollowing through the meat of me / along the canal to my navel and out / again into the cold blue world.” If I had told Kelsea this, that her poems have touched me in a way that too few poems do, she probably would have laughed it off in disbelief, just as she defers to humble embarrassment about the praise others have already offered, including former Poet Laureate Charles Simic, who selected the manuscript for publication as a winner of the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project. Simic (a poet whom Kelsea considers “mesmerizing”) has not only called Hollow Out the best writing about winter, snow and human solitude since John Haines’ Winter News, but has also called it “beautifully written, supremely intelligent and consistently rewarding” and “one of the most moving and original books of poems [he] has read in years.”
I’ve been thinking about weasels lately—brown and oily weasels with gleaming, curved teeth ready to scrape every last ounce of muscle from my ribs. I’ve been thinking about polar bears, too, and flailing arms carried off into the shadows of an icy night. And about the possibility of the sun failing to break the horizon tomorrow morning. It’s dark, I know. It’s Kelsea Habecker’s fault. In her debut collection of poems, Hollow Out (New Rivers Press, 2008), Kelsea has painstakingly recreated the isolation and desolation she experienced and witnessed during the five years she spent as a preschool teacher in an Inupiat village north of the Arctic Circle. The effect is devastating. As I read,
Kelsea, however, has remained incredulous that her “little book” has garnered any attention at all beyond her guaranteed audience of seven relatives; to her, it seems, these poems are still little more than the cathartic leftovers of coping with the bleakest facets of Inupiat life, from child abuse to teen suicide. (As an alternative to screaming fuck you at anyone and everything around her, she says she turned to writing, where she could at least take some control over difficulty.) When I spoke with Kelsea, this bleakness
lingered in our conversation, as if living in proximity to these poems again was difficult for her. Even if she has now come to terms with their subject matter, she says she couldn’t bear to look at these poems for a full year after she moved back to the Lower 48. And although Kelsea says Hollow Out is comprised of neither the darkest nor the angriest of the poems from the years she spent “up there”—those, she says, will stay in the drawer—the collection is nevertheless a heart wrenching journey of loneliness. Faced on the page with an unending white where goggles are necessary, splashes of coffee freeze in the air, and blizzards hit in April, it is impossible to imagine landscapes and broken relationships ravaged worse than those Kelsea renders in Hollow Out.
Arctic Circle. At first, when everything was falling into place and it was looking like Alaska was going to be the best place for me to go, I was disappointed; I had wanted to go abroad. But the village where I was is so remote and isolated, that even though it’s a part of the United States, it felt much more cross-cultural than, say, living in a big cosmopolitan city in Europe. Even though Alaska wasn’t remotely where I thought I’d ever end up, I found that the ice, snow, storms and austere beauty of that environment were incredibly inspiring, and in many ways metaphoric for my life and experiences. I suppose if I’d ended up building wells in the desert, I probably would have found the same metaphoric value, but the arctic ended up being a really rich environment for me to be in. MHM: Why did you stay for so long?
Mary Huyck Mulka: You have said that Hollow Out “chronicles a descent into hopelessness” but that “by the end, it celebrates a tentative and tenuous reclaiming of something that might resemble hope.” Do you consider yourself a hopeful person? Kelsea Habecker: Now I do. I certainly wasn’t at the time when I was writing most of this poetry. I thought that pessimism was more intellectually honest and realistic, but it was emotionally and psychologically devastating to approach the world that way. My return to hopefulness started when I was writing these poems, and then it happened more fully as I was working on my second book about Alaska, which is nonfiction. But I don’t think I can say which approach— optimism or pessimism—is more honest or more authentic. For me, it simply came down to a matter of which approach allowed me to feel more possibilities, greater faith or deeper fulfillment in life. Hopefulness, which is still often a willful choice more than an innate instinct, has become the clear choice for me. MHM: I would think it takes quite a bit of hope to even consider embarking into the Arctic. What compelled you to become a teacher in Alaska? KH: After college (at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College for a B.A. in English and Spanish, and Lynchburg College for teaching credentials), I wanted to live in a place where I was a minority, where I would be pushed outside my comfort zone, and where I would be intensely challenged. I had envisioned myself in a jungle somewhere or living in a grass hut, but I ended up getting offered a job in this tiny little village in the
KH: I had a yearly contract, and I kept renewing it, probably for longer than I should have. I was burnt out by the end and should have left early. Maybe that was the part of me that kept trying to be hopeful. Even as I was dealing with all the student suicides and everything else, every year when it came time to sign on again, I’d sign, hoping that the next year could be better. MHM: You dig into difficult moments incredibly candidly in this collection, including the problem of teen suicide in your village. In “Jewel Box,” you write: “Last night a young girl / pulled a string of robberies, / stealing only jewelry, / cheap pieces to beautify her life. / Later she swallowed a string of pills.” What were your intentions in broaching such painful subjects? KH: I don’t know that I had intentions. The poems are so rooted in my immediate experiences during those years (1999 – 2004), that those topics were just a natural—or unnatural, given what they were—offshoot of dealing with different situations. The poems in Hollow Out represent specific moments where I was struggling to come to terms in a formal, structural or aesthetic way when a dilemma or grief was too large and too overwhelming for me to approach in any other way. But I do think people should be aware of what’s going on up there. There are a lot of issues up there that should be addressed more widely. I had an impulse to help with that. Cut, Then Chase It is spring and light again takes up residence
in this frozen curve of earth. Sea ice, passed through December’s dark and the dim sunrise of February, is now piled in violent slabs against the shore. The men front axes. To cut to the raw exposed face of the spring ocean they splinter and hitch away the clutches of ice, carve a road out of drifts and fragments to the lead of opening water. The long days finally stretch the miles out to sea, like a river running up ice, the way cleared to pass, to haul boats and set in once again to chase the whales, oh my life, that rise to the surface.
MHM: You don’t delve into any large-scale ecological or economic issues directly in Hollow Out, including global warming and the debate whether to start drilling Arctic oil fields discovered under receding ice. How were these broader issues impacting the lives of the Inupiat people in your village? KH: The community where I was wasn’t opposed to opening new oil fields, but it was concerned that the end of oil up there is in sight. There’s a lot of anxiety about the end of Alaskan oil, but global warming is by far the biggest issue, and it’s not a hypothetical or future issue. It’s real, obvious and happening quickly. The media says the effects are more amplified the further north that you go, and it’s true. Every year that I was in Alaska the sea ice arrived later in the fall and melted sooner in the spring. I think that that reality played a role in the hopelessness that I developed up there, because what is still just sound bites down here in the lower 48 is really visibly happening up there. The elders in the community where I lived are extremely worried. Their whole way of life is threatened, and the habitat of the animals that they depend on is disappearing. They’ve lost so much already in terms of culture and societal autonomy that confronting the loss of their environment… to say it’s adding insult to injury is an understatement. It’s just catastrophic. MHM: Do you believe poetry is a viable avenue through which to change these situations? KH: This is a chance for me to be hopeful and optimistic. I’d like to say yes. I think poetry is incredibly powerful and provocative, and it certainly has lots of possibilities. But I think our culture is largely
unprepared to reckon with poetry seriously enough for it to wield as much power as it could. Even though I had touched on the subjects through poetry first, when I left Alaska and was compelled to do more to expose the issues up there, I felt I needed to do it in prose, in nonfiction form. I feel like a traitor saying this because I’m a poet first and a prose writer second, but prose in our culture today simply has more potential to reach more people. More people are open to it. MHM: That is a huge understatement. KH: I’m trying to be diplomatic. MHM: What do you hope this book will achieve? KH: I think most people tend to think of the Arctic as a blank—a great big void on top of the earth. I think that’s partly why it took global warming so long to make it into our active consciousness. If it were happening somewhere “more important,” then maybe we would have paid attention sooner. I hope this book will give people an expanded image of the Arctic. It’s dark in some ways, but vibrant and abundant in others. MHM: Do you still feel an intense connection with your village and its people? KH: It has faded—I feel it. For the first couple of years after I left, whenever I’d watch anything that was set in Alaska, I’d get overwhelmed. I was watching Salmonberries (Pelemele Film, 1991), starring k.d. lang as an outsider living in an Eskimo village. I just started sobbing. It was so evocative of the place where I’d spent so much time. My dog started howling; she heard huskies in the background of the film, and she just went nuts. But I do still feel strongly connected and think I always will. That’s partly why it’s so hard to know that the environmental destruction up there is so severe. MHM: Criminal charges brought against hunters in Point Hope for “wasting” caribou while hunting recently brought the tensions between the Inupiat people and “outsiders” into the media spotlight. Do you have any insight into this issue as an “outsider” who has worked closely with the Inupiat? KH: I’m not sure I want to venture too deeply into the waters of this one, actually. I know so little about the specific event. I read a bit about it online and had mixed emotions as I did. I’d want to go deeper and try to understand the motivations for the actions—of both
sides (the hunters and the agency officials and media who are running with the story). I just know how easy it is to make a sweeping judgment about something, and I don’t want to do that. Those types of judgments have been flying between the white culture and the Alaska Native culture for over a century. I do know that when I was in the village, the elders were worried about the fact that many young people didn’t seem to be interested in learning or adhering to the traditions that had guided the culture for centuries. This clearly seems to be at the heart of this recent news item, and it is another instance of the great death that is still occurring up there. I feel sadness over that. I cringe at the thought of heedless slaughter. And yet I know I’m culpable of extravagant waste in my own life. Even though I try to live simply and carefully, the infrastructure it takes to sustain my daily living in a large city is, I’m sure, far more wasteful of natural resources than the drastically simpler lifestyles of the community in Point Hope. So, even if there was heedless waste, who am I to judge or condemn that? It gets messy. I’m not saying I support what seems to have happened—if it indeed did happen—I’m just saying that there could be a whole lot of the pot calling the kettle black. It’s so easy to lob blame around. It’s so hard to choose compassion as a first response rather than condemnation. MHM: You’ve mentioned that you’d like to send copies of Hollow Out to the village where you were teaching, despite the fact that you’ve—often angrily—exposed some real families’ secrets. In “Parent-Teacher Conference,” you write, “‘Tillie says her uncles sleep in her bed with her,’ I / want to say. I want my words to fly toward her, peck at her bosom.” Are you worried at all about how the community will respond to its portrayal? KH: I’m a bit worried. The Inupiat are very sensitive to how their culture is portrayed, and because I didn’t shy away from dealing with some of the more challenging realities of life up there, it could be upsetting. I think about that a lot, actually. It was a prime issue when I was writing—how will this effect them? I don’t mean to sound like I’m presuming that my little book will have any major impact on anybody, but I do worry how it is going to make them feel that I’ve represented them in this way. It makes me nervous. I think it would be different if I were still there and able to have conversations and dialogue about the book instead of sending it from afar. I hope that, despite the definite darkness, there are also glimpses of the beauty up
there, both in the landscape and in the culture, and an underlying sense of my deep attachment to that place. The kind of pain and psychological darkness I experienced during those years can only be experienced by someone who cares deeply about the place, the people, and the community. I really did love the village in so many ways, but those don’t come into focus as clearly in this collection. I focus on them much more in my next book (of prose). MHM: You’re yet to do a Hollow Out reading in Alaska. Does that have anything to do with the cultural tightrope you walk in some of the poems about the Inupiat? At the End of a Hard Day They’re hauling a car off the ice tonight after loosening the driver’s frozen hands from the steering wheel and packing his body onto a plane to the nearest coroner several hundred miles away. But this evening doesn’t want to be about loosening fingers or chronicling calamity. After a few too many sorrows the solid ocean looks like the widest highway you’ve ever driven and no tomorrows to stop you. This evening wants to feel a softness around the edges, a fraying. Something like a detour that weaves out and in but never arrives with any point to make. Please, it wants to say, don’t feel this. Just let it ride.
KH: In April, I visited Alaska for the first time since moving from the state five years ago. I was really happy to be back, and being in that landscape once again evoked a lot of creative energy in me. I didn’t get to the village on that trip, however. I tried to arrange a reading when I was up there in April, but the stars didn’t align for that. I actually feel less like a cultural tightrope walker than I have in the past. I know that a lot of what I’ve written about the village and the community I lived amongst was bleak or harsh, but it really does all stem from a feeling of great solidarity with the community. As I said earlier, I wouldn’t have grieved as hard as I did if I hadn’t loved as much as I did. The great devastation I felt was founded upon the great tenderness I felt toward that community. I think I have more trust now than I used to that that
tenderness comes through in my writing. It does in my more recent writing, at least. MHM: Do you still keep in close touch with anyone? KH: I do. I taught little ones who have long forgotten me, but in an attempt to make a small impact against the problem of teen suicide, I started working with older students as the leader of a peer-counseling group, and I still keep in touch with some of them. They’re the students that influenced me the most; they’re the ones that taught me about strength and resiliency, and ultimately, hope. But because it’s not a place that I can visit easily, the continuity in relationships hasn’t been there as much as I’d like it to be. It is a 4-hour flight on a bush plane from Anchorage, and there are no roads connecting the village to anywhere else. It is very remote. MHM: You develop that isolation thoroughly, particularly through the landscape, from the “green braids of the night sky” to the “cold blue world of ice / slowly moving toward us.” Is there anything you left out? KH: Yeah. I never spent much time there in the summer. As a teacher, I was free during the summer, so I hightailed it out as quickly as I could. I think there’s a whole other dynamic, ecosystem and environment that happens in the summer, when it’s constantly daylight and relatively warmer. My book doesn’t really evoke that mood, but I captured the experience of the environment that I had up there. It really did play an enormous role in my life; the spaciousness and degree of austerity, and the severity, changed me. I hope my reverence and appreciation of that shows in my poems. MHM: Because the landscape you painted was so austere, I was surprised when recognizable landmarks appeared, like the Korean restaurant. Where you surprised, too? KH: I was happy to see familiar things when I got up there—a restaurant, a store, a laundromat. I remember feeling really happy to see a red truck driving down the road, that there was something that looked familiar. What surprised me was the actual physical environment. It’s so startlingly different—there are no trees, no tall buildings. There’s nothing to block your view to the horizon anywhere. As much as I’d read about what it was going to be like, you can’t really wrap your mind around it until you’re there. You sign your contract to teach at a job fair in Anchorage, so you
have to commit without ever seeing the village. There are stories about teachers who fly in, stick their head out the airplane door, turn around, get right back in their seat, and renege on the contract. MHM: When you touched down in the village for the first time, did it cross your mind to stay in the plane? KH: No. I was excited. I’d been in Anchorage for a few weeks shopping for supplies, and I thought I’d dressed warmly, with several layers of fleece, neoprene and Gortex. I got off the plane in the Arctic, and the wind just pummeled me and it was sleeting, and I remember thinking, oh, my God, this is August. I was freezing. It didn’t occur to me not to stay, but I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. The principal was on the airstrip to meet me and the other new teachers, and he said, “Welcome to the Arctic.” I thought, yes, this is the adventure I wanted. Usually when you go to a new place, you feel a little uncomfortable and unsettled at first, and then become more comfortable as time goes by. I had the exact opposite. It was definitely strange the first few weeks— it was still daylight all the time, so there was absolutely some adjusting to do—but I loved it. I really thought that I’d found this little utopia where everybody knew each other and I could walk everywhere I needed to go. I loved knowing that people would recognize and talk to each other in the post office. I even loved the harsh environment. I remember being so excited the first time there was a real blizzard, and my house was just shaking in the wind. I loved feeling like I was at the mercy of the natural world. That kind of exposure and vulnerability made me feel more alive. But it definitely faded. It became harder for me as I became closer to the community and developed more friendships, as students started opening up about some of the bleaker things that were going on at home, and as I understood more of the grief from chronic unemployment, the loss of their identity as a culture, and everything else that their parents were dealing with. It wasn’t that I got tired of or burned out on the cold, the weather, or isolation so much as it was that the social issues became so difficult to deal with. These poems were written late in my time up there, and so they’re more reflective of that growing sense of disease rather than the earlier happy days when I thought I could stay there forever. MHM: What exactly appealed to you so much about the lifestyle up there?
KH: One of the things that was so amazing up there was the amount of time that I had. I could walk everywhere I needed to go. At the end of each summer, before returning to the village for the school year, I’d spend three days in Anchorage shopping for the groceries and supplies I’d need during the next nine months in the village, so there weren’t errands to run. I’d get home at 4 o’clock after teaching and have nowhere to go, nothing to do until the next morning when it was time to go back to school again. Weekends were wide-open space, too—I didn’t have to go to the bank, the grocery store, the gas station, anywhere. The downside was there were no theaters or bookstores or other entertaining distractions, but I remember feeling like I could just sit at my window and watch the snow falling, completely snug and comfortable in my house. I felt at ease, that I had time and space to savor the experience up there. At first, when everything was happy and great, that was a real luxury. MHM: Clearly, the luxury of time like that is one any poet would envy. While you did earn your MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars program during your years in Alaska, had you expected your time up there to serve as material? KH: Poetry for me often springs from a strong sense of a physical location, so when I moved to the Arctic, I thought, OK, this place is so unique and evocative that if I can’t come up with some decent poetry up here, I’m really in trouble. I wanted to leave Alaska with a body of poetry that evoked that place for me. On that level, I feel like I have accomplished what I set out to. MHM: Has your perspective on Alaska or the subject matter of the poems in Hollow Out changed since the book was published? KH: I’ve softened. The grief I felt when I lived in the village has healed. I still feel grief, but it’s less visceral. The despair is gone; it’s replaced with a strong motivation to stay connected, to stay involved, to keep telling about my experiences, to keep sharing the stories. Any blame that I felt—toward others and most of all toward myself—over not being able to handle things differently, is long gone. And now when I talk about the village, I hope what comes through is the love for it. Now that the anger is gone, the love is what remains. I love that village. It’s a constant presence in my life, even if only through my own psyche. My favorite image of the village is when I would fly back into it in winter, and after flying over hundreds of miles of ice, I’d finally see up ahead of me a tiny grid of light,
surrounded by vast expanses of snow and darkness. The village glowed. I love that image, and it’s the one I turn back to most often. It’s a beacon. Most of my writing is still predominantly focused on the Arctic. Of course I’ve picked up some new topics based on life experiences since leaving there. I spent the last year working closely with a group of women living on the former municipal dump in Juarez, Mexico, and I’m beginning to do some writing about them. But the majority of my creative energy is still homing toward the Arctic. I’m tunneling through a narrative nonfiction book, a sort of memoir, about those years, but I’m finding that really slow-going. In the midst of that, I’m writing a screenplay about the village. That’s coming along nicely and I’m quite enthused about it. I’m also scheming up creative projects that could allow me to go back up to the village to work with the community again, though for a shorter duration than my last stint up there. I’m fantasizing right now about doing a documentary film project with the older students, and I’m working toward that by collaborating with a nonprofit organization, The Viewfinder Project, that does that type of work. We’ll see how it all pans out. MHM: So you haven’t met your limits of snow? KH: I grew up in Michigan, so I love snow. That’s part of what drew me to the Arctic, but I used up almost all my tolerance for snow in those five years. I am definitely more inclined now to the warm and sunny—the opposite extremes. I still love winter, though. I wouldn’t want to live long term in a place that didn’t have four distinct seasons, but I like winter to start two weeks before Thanksgiving and end right after New Year’s. MHM: Do you think you’ll ever revisit the Alaskan landscape through poetry again? So Now Then In August the barge arrives like a carnival of plenty and is anchored off shore a week while supplies— flour barrels and dried beans, canned peaches, boxes of books— are unloaded. The barge’s departure marks summer’s sudden end. All that remains in the year is winter and its slow steady elegy.
Because I want to make my life a barge of particular moments heavy and floating, I will remember this one: my husband asleep in the next room, the new pup on my lap and the attentive sun of late Arctic summer turning it all, gravel and grass alike, to gold.
KH: I haven’t written a poem about Alaska since I left… though images from the Arctic definitely still appear in my poetry. My more recent poems are no longer exclusively focused on that landscape, but the deep
effects that place had on me will be with me—and in my work—for a long time. Kelsea Habecker is currently an adjunct instructor at Empire State College, writing tutor, and freelance editor and writer. She lives in Wheaton, IL. Mary Huyck Mulka is an editor, teacher and student in Fargo, N.D
Ann Dixon: Ann Dixon lives in Willow, AK where she works as a school librarian. She has written nine books, as well as poetry, for children. Her poems for adults have appeared in Ice Floe and the anthology Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment..
Alexandra Appel: Alexandra Ellen Appel's work has appeared most recently in Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment, University of Alaska Press, 2008 and PenHouse Inc. Vol.5, 2007. She has yo-yoed back and forth between Alaska and northern California, but her heart always remains in Alaska.
Sherry Eckrich: Sherry Eckrich holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her poems and essays have appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 50 Poems for Alaska, and several small journals.
John M. Baalke: John M. Baalke lives part-time in Seattle, WA, and part-time in Pedro Bay, AK where he works as village administrator. He has writing forthcoming in Web Del Sol Review of Books. Scott Banks: Scott Banks lives in Anchorage. His poem “I Wore Cowboy Boots to Work Today” was the runner up in the 2009 Harold McCracken Endowment Poetry Contest. His essay "Rink Rat" will appear in the anthology Cold Flashes to be published by the University of Alaska Press. Marilyn Borell: Marilyn Borell has an MFA degree in poetry from the University of Alaska Anchorage where she is employed as Academic Coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences. Her poems have appeared in the Anchorage Daily News and the anthology North of Eden. Marion Boyer: Marion Boyer's poetry and essays have been widely published. Green, Boyer's collection of poems, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2003 and her newest book, The Clock of the Long Now (Mayapple Press) is a nominee for the 2009 Pushcart Prize. Randol Bruns: Randol Bruns came to Alaska to canoe down the Yukon River. He built a cabin on the Talkeetna River and has taught in Yup'ik Eskimo communities on the Lower Yukon. He is currently building a house on the Little-Susitna River. His poems have been published in Ice-Floe.. Vic Cavalli: Vic Cavalli’s poetry, short fiction, and visual art have been published in various literary journals in North America, England, Australia, and New Zealand. He is currently living in the mountains of Mission, BC. Marjorie Kowalski Cole: Marjorie Kowalski Cole, from Ester, AK, is the author of two novels, Correcting the Landscape (which won the 2004 Bellwether Award) and the forthcoming A Spell on the Water, and a book of poems, Inside, Outside, Morningside. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including Grain, Antigonish Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Room of One’s Own, and the Seattle Review. Michael Earl Craig: Michael Earl Craig is the author of Can You Relax in My House (Fence Books, 2002) and Yes, Master (Fence Books, 2006). A new book of poems will be published by Wave Books in 2010. He lives near Livingston, Montana where he shoes horses for a living. Gretchen Diemer: Gretchen Diemer studied at the University of Montana and completed an MFA and teacher certification program at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1994 she was hired to teach in the Alaskan village of Noorvik, followed by positions on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs. Her poems have appeared in Ice-Floe, Poetry Northwest, Willow Springs, Fine Madness, and Cutbank. Her poetry collection Between Fire and Water, Ice and Sky was published by NorthShore Press in 2008. She lives outside of Wasilla, AK.
Carolyn Edelman: Carolyn Edelman is a longtime Alaskan who currently lives in the Southeast Alaska community of Gustavus. She publishes the Fairweather Reporter, a monthly community newspaper. Jeff Fair: Alaskan author and field biologist Jeff Fair is currently writing a biography of Larry Aumiller’s thirty years as manager and bearinterpreter at the McNeil River Sanctuary. In 2007 Fair received a National Press Club award for his story about Aumiller and McNeil in Audubon magazine. Erling Friis-Baastad: Erling Friis-Baastad’s poetry collections include The Exile House (Salmon Publishing, Ireland) and Wood Spoken: New and Selected Poems (Northbound Press/Harbour Publishing, British Columbia). He works as an editor with the Yukon News in Whitehorse. Jo Going: Jo Going writes and paints her way around the circumpolar north. Most of her imagery is based in her life in the wilderness of interior Alaska. Rebecca Goodrich: In 1994, Rebecca Goodrich left California's glitter for a houseboat in Dutch Harbor. She's been a bookseller, a journalist, and won some writing awards. Now in Anchorage, she's active in Alaska’s dynamic literary arts community. Kelsea Habecker: Kelsea Habecker is a poet and writer. In 2009, her book, Hollow Out, was nominated for a PEN Literary Award and the Griffin Trust Award for Excellence in Poetry. She was a finalist for the 2003 Ruth Lilly Fellowship in poetry and received the 2002 John Haines poetry award. She received her MFA in poetry from Bennington Writing Seminars and her BA from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. She currently lives in Indianapolis, where she teaches graduate creative writing seminars, undergraduate art courses, and is working on nonfiction and a screenplay about Alaska. Ernestine Hayes: Currently assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast, Ernestine Hayes is a Kaagwaantaan woman of the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska. Her book, Blonde Indian, an Alaska Native Memoir (University of Arizona Press, 2006), was an American Book Award recipient and a finalist for the Pacific Rim Kiriyama prize and for the PEN nonfiction award. Eric Heyne: Eric Heyne has been teaching English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks since 1986. He is the editor of two special literary issues of the Canadian journal The Northern Review, and has published poetry in Ice-Floe, Alaska Quarterly Review, Big Tex[t], and Eclectica. Robin Hiersche: Robin Hiersche currently lives in migration between a village in Alaska (her home of 27 years) and a village south of the border. Service, creative energy in any form, and the transitions and connections between them are her life's work. Sean Patrick Hill: Sean Patrick Hill graduated with an MA in Writing from Portland State University. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Hayden's Ferry Review, Exquisite Corpse, Willow Springs, RealPoetik, New York Quarterly, Copper Nickel, and Quarter After Eight. His first book, The Imagined Field, will be published in 2010 by Paper Kite Press.
B. Hutton: B. Hutton first discovered written language in the Sunday “funnies” in the mid-20th century on a cloudy industrial grey morning in Detroit, Michigan. He is still working on his own collection of thought balloons. Rick James: Rick James grew up and has lived on Canada's West Coast all his life. He has worked at various jobs from commercial fisherman, smelter worker and tree planter. He finally went back to school at mid-life and is currently an unemployed field archaeologist. In his spare time he researches and writes about West Coast maritime history. James attempts to document old car junkyards. Joan Kane: Joan Kane is Inupiaq Eskimo, with family from King Island and Mary’s Igloo, Alaska. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Harvard College and received her MFA in writing from Columbia University. Kane received the John Haines Award from Ice Floe Press in 2004. In 2009, she was selected as a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Fellowship and was named a Whiting Writers’ Award Winner. Her first book of poetry, The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, was published by NorthShore Press in 2009. She lives in Anchorage, AK with her husband and son. Susheila Khera: Susheila Khera works as a technical writer and lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her work has appeared in Ice-Floe, Inside Passages, Catamaran and WoodenBoat Magazine. Sandra Kleven: Sandra Kleven’s writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Oklahoma Review and Topic Magazine (NYC). She is the author or The Right Touch: A Read-aloud Story to Help Prevent Child Sexual Abuse. “Jaden is Calling” won 1st Place in nonfiction in the 2008 Anchorage Daily News/UAA Creative Writing Contest. Amy Otto Larsen: Amy lives with four cats, one dog and one husband in an underground house in Wasilla, Alaska. In her free time, she works as a Platting Technician for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. On summer weekends, she rides madly around Alaska on a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Classic with her husband as chauffeur. Deb Liggett: Deb Liggett is an essayist and poet. A Denver native, Deb Liggett spent much of her professional career with the National Park Service. Since retiring in 2005, Liggett lives with her husband, Jay in Anchorage. Her work has appeared in Pilgrimage, High Country News, Indian Country Today, the Casper Star-Tribune and the 2008 anthology 50 Poems for Alaska. Janet Levin: Janet Levin gave away her snow shovel before she realized she wouldn't be leaving Alaska for good. She picked up a camera a year ago following years of resistance no therapy could alter. Her poetry's been published in Ice-Floe and various other journals. For many years she produced KSKA's Alaska Reader program, and worked with homeless families via Anchorage School District's Child in Transition/ Homeless Project. She lives half the year in a coastal Mexican village. Nancy Lord: Nancy Lord, Alaska's Writer Laureate for 2008-10, is the author of three short fiction collections (most recently The Man Who Swam with Beavers, Coffee House Press, 2001) and three books of literary nonfiction. Her most recent book is a collection of essays/memoir, Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life, published by the University of Nebraska Press. "At Sea," her first play, was included in the Play Lab at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, AK in 2005 and presented on stage there the following year. Marie Lundstrom: Retired librarian and teacher Marie Lundstrom has published articles in Alaska Women Speak, Capital Times (Madison, WI), and Cambridge (WI) News, and had some poems in
Inklings and Understory at UAA. She currently works part-time as an editor of National Guard magazine articles. Her poems appeared in the 2008 anthology 50 Poems for Alaska. Jason Marvel: Jason Marvel teaches English at Palmer High School and lives in Wasilla, AK. He received his MFA in poetry through National University in 2007, has been published in GNU and is one of 150 Freedom Writer teachers whose stories are featured in Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers (Broadway Books, August 2009). David McElroy: McElroy’s poems have appeared in many national journals and anthologies. A book of his poetry, Making It Simple, was published by Ecco Press in 1975. He lives in Anchorage and works as a professional pilot in the Arctic. Buffy McKay: Buffy McKay has been published in the Anchorage Daily News, Anchorage Press, the 2008 anthology Crosscurrents North, and Explorations. She won the 2008 Anchorage Daily News Editor’s Choice Award for her poem “How Spring Travels in Alaska.” and has received scholarships from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the Key West Literary. Her poems have appeared in the 2008 anthology 50 Poems for Alaska, and Buffy's personal mission is "to see the world in as many ways as possible," and this includes living in Anchorage. Rachel Mehl: Rachel Mehl lives in Bellingham, WA. She has an MFA from University of Oregon. Her poems have most recently appeared Alaska Quarterly Review, Portland Review, and Willow Springs and her manuscript Why I Hate Horses was a finalist for the 2009 Snake Nation Poetry Prize. John Morgan: John Morgan moved to Fairbanks in 1976 to teach creative writing at UAF. He has three collections of poetry, The BoneDuster, The Arctic Herd, and Walking Past Midnight. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New Republic, The Paris Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Prairie Schooner. His new book, Spear-Fishing on the Chatanika: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Mary Huyck Mulka: A former TV news producer, Mary Huyck Mulka now writes, edits and teaches in Fargo, N.D. Recent poems can be found in PANK Magazine and Blood Lotus, and her first chapbook, Tacklebox, coauthored by Julie Walnum, was released by Spooky Girlfriend Press in November 2009. Mark Muro: Mark is a poet, playwright and performer who has been seen on and off stage in Anchorage for the past twenty years in a variety of roles, most notably as "himself" in his own one-person shows: “Dingoes on Velvet,” “Saint Alban's,” “Love, Sex and All That Comes Between,” and “Apocalypse When I Get Around To It,” opening soon at Out North Theater in Anchorage. As a winner of the Alaska State Poetry Slam competition in 2001, Mark represented the state in national competition. N. Q. Nguyen: N.Q. Nguyen is a multimedia artist who enjoys writing, filmmaking, painting, and photography. Debbie Nigro: Debbie Nigro has called Fairbanks, AK home since 1982 and is privileged to have studied birds, mostly north of 68 degrees north latitude since 1989. Doug Pope: Doug Pope is a writer living in Anchorage and Hope with his wife, Beth. His first poem, “Enigma,” was published in 1962 in The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner when he was 17. Peter Porco: Peter Porco is an Anchorage-based writer and former newspaper reporter whose play "Wind Blown and Dripping," about
Dashiell's Hammett's years in the Aleutians during World War II, opened at Cyrano's Off-Center Playhouse in Anchorage in January 2009.
contest in 1992. Her series of haiku poems entitled “Raven Greets Spring” was performed by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra in February 2002. Her poems appeared in the 2008 anthology 50 Poems for Alaska.
Pamela Porter: Pamela Porter won the 2005 Governor General's Award for her verse novel, The Crazy Man. She lives on Vancouver Island, Canada, with her family and a menagerie of rescued horses, dogs and cats.
Nancy Woods: Nancy Woods was born and raised in Central Alaska, where her family had a cabin on Harding Lake. She now lives in Portland, OR, where she edits a community newspaper and works as a writing instructor/coach.
Cinthia Ritchie: Cinthia Ritchie lives in Alaska where she works as a journalist to support her poetry habit. Her poetry and prose can be found in New York Magazine, Water-Stone Review, Under the Sun, Rainbow Curve, Ice Floe, Gin Bender Poetry Review, and Wicked Alice. Her essay, "Pig Road," won a grand prize at Memoir magazine and received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2006. Bill Sherwonit: Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of 12 books. His newest is Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness, published in fall 2009 by the University of Alaska Press. Jim Sweeney: James P. Sweeney writes short stories, poems and is currently writing his first book. His stories and poems have been published in Alpinist Magazine, The Anchorage Press, and The Anchorage Daily News. He lives in Hope, Alaska with his dog Alute. Kathleen Tarr: Kathleen Tarr received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh. She works as the Program Coordinator of UAA’s Low-Residency MFA Program and teaches creative writing at UAA. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Airlines Magazine, and is forthcoming in Cold Flashes: Literary Snapshots of Alaska. “The souls like water, will find a place to go” is her first published poem. Steve Taylor: Steve Taylor lives in Oakdale, CA with his wife, kids, and The World's Greatest Labrador Retriever, working as a therapist to support his hunting and fishing habits. Stephen Delos Treacy: Stephen Delos Treacy led 17 fall whale migration surveys over the Beaufort Sea before moving to Port Townsend, WA. His poems have appeared in Ice-Floe and one appeared on a Borealis Brewery beer label. His play, Winter Bird, set in Alaska, won an Honorable Mention in Virtual Theatre Project’s 20082009 "Pen Is a Mighty Sword" playwriting competition. Russ Van Paepeghem: Russ Van Paepegham holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly, Camas, and Antipodes. He lives and writes in Missoula, Montana. Jon Wesick: Jon Wesick has a Ph.D. in physics and has published close to two hundred poems in small press journals such as Pearl, Pudding, and Slipstream. Two of his chapbooks have taken honorable mentions in the San Diego Book Awards. His poem, “Bread and Circuses,” won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists contest. Paul Winkel: Paul Winkel is a retired engineer who wonders what he will do when he grows up. His poems appeared in the 2008 anthology 50 Poems for Alaska . Tonja Woelber: Tonja Woelber is a gardener and fisherman and spends as much time as possible outdoors. Her poem “After Wang Wei” received 1st Place in the Anchorage Daily News Creative Writing
How to Submit to
Cirque Cirque, published in Anchorage, Alaska, is a regional journal created to share the best writing in the region with the rest of the world. This regional literary journal invites emerging and established writers living in the North Pacific Rim—Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Yukon Territory, Alberta, and British Columbia—to submit short stories, poems, creative nonfiction, translations, plays, reviews of first books, interviews, photographs, and artwork for Cirque’s Summer Solstice 2010 Issue. Issue #2--Summer Solstice 2010 Submission Deadline: April 30, 2010 Submission Guidelines: --Please send your best work and a brief bio. --Prose, no more than 10 pages; 2-4 poems; artwork, photos in JPEG. --Electronic submissions only --please attach a Word document to email; use 12pt font in a common, easy to read typeface (Times, Arial, etc.) --title your email "poetry submission," "fiction submission," "play submission," "non-fiction submission," etc., otherwise it will go into SPAM Submissions will be recycled. Send Inquiries and Electronic Submissions Only to: firstname.lastname@example.org Replies average two to three months
A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim