Inupiaq poet explores his homeland and history in two collections | Book reviews

As Americans, we do not like to think of ourselves as colonizers. It was the dirty work of Europeans in Africa and Asia, but certainly not here. This is our country. Not stolen, but given to us by our God. It is not colonization. But then we calm down quietly. And the Arctic was certainly not colonized. There were no wars for it. The Europeans simply fooled in and took possession. We do not think much about the people who had already inhabited the Nordic countries for a long time.

For native residents, of course, that’s a different story. For those who had long lived on the high latitudes and carved out their own history for centuries and even millennia, the arrival of the Europeans marked a sudden disruption. Their history was overrun by ours, and in our history books, largely erased and replaced by ours. And through our activities in the Arctic, along with climate change driven by human activities everywhere, the land, sea and ice where these forgotten stories took place have themselves been forever changed. A deep sense of loss pervades the vast areas of the Arctic.

This is the landscape that Inupiaq poet Joan Naviyuk Kane explores in her latest collection, “Dark Traffic.” Raised in Anchorage, where she lived for many years (she is currently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard), she sees the ghosts of the White Alice Communications System as her entrance into this tangled story. A remnant of the Cold War, White Alice Towers, part of the Distant Early Warning Line installed to detect incoming Soviet missiles, was once scattered across the Alaska landscape. Some still stand, threatening reminders that the Nordic countries now belong to distant empires. And some places are heavily polluted. The land that Kane’s ancestors once wandered and considered to belong to none other than themselves is now in places destroyed by people far away from it, for reasons that are completely unrelated to the lives of those who were there first.

Sixteen times in the first stanza of one of the poems directly addressed to White Alice, Kane repeats the Inupiaq word “sassaq,” which is translated as clock or an instrument for measuring time. In the second stanza, the word is repeated again 16 times, but in this case a line is drawn through each of them. It might be an analogy to delete the story.

Like humans everywhere, Americans are adept at deleting unpleasant stories. In the poem “White Alice Goes to Hell” she brings up and briefly comments on several places that were once part of the system. Delta Junction. Murphy Dome. Elmendorf Air Force Base, where, she says, a little-known internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II once was located. “Archaeologists working on the research used ancient / records to pinpoint the location of the camp in an area now / partially covered by a parking lot.” A historical mistake was simply paved and forgotten by those responsible. In the poem’s concluding line, Kane turns to Driftwood Bay, filled with toxic waste from his time as White Alice station, “a final report on profits.”

“How many Eskimo words are there for white people,” Kane asks elsewhere, considering those who came and took over their country. In “Counterpane,” she lists the returns that Indigenous people received for their lands. A dependence on external resources; orphanages; planes that sometimes crash and destroy villages; food falling from the sky in the form of western staples instead of being retrieved from the livelihood; “influenza pandemic in 1918.”

The famine also arrived, though it certainly persecuted the Inupiaq people long before the arrival of the Westerners. However, the influx of new residents offered things that were not very useful. “Rifle tobacco tea and cloth / free us from this time / where the foxes no longer come:” she writes in “The Hunger Episode”, “an abundance, and what are we to maintain?”

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

The desire to reclaim her home nonetheless persists. “Let’s lose our complaint / in large rafts as we translate the renamed alleys,” she writes in “Darker Passage.” And in the following poem she adds: “I no longer revolve around / the graves of the dead, those who demand / so much of the living.” And elsewhere, “at worst, radical emptiness reminds us / of our humanity.”

Sir John Franklin, whose missing expedition led to searches and floods of the Arctic by Europeans in search of him, shows a brief unworthy appearance. “” Our hero crosses his own heart on his way down to hell. “Honored in his failure by the British and possessed by countless armchair historians (including myself), Franklin looks very different from those whose lands and waters he entered uninvited and unprepared.

Many of these poems originally appeared in Kane’s award-winning cap book “Sublingual” from 2018, and it is worth reading the two collections in parallel. Some of the poems differ in subtle but crucial ways, which open these verses up for further investigation. In the last line of the first version of “Visitors,” about the perishability of human settlements, she writes that they are “tired of anyone small enough to block the exit.” In the review, fatigue shifts to “anyone small enough to block our access.” Our walls serve two purposes. “White Alice Changes Hands” is a completely different poem, only three lines in the previous book, it stands as both an introduction and a coda to the longer piece found in the other.

“A bad hangover and a bad book idea / amplifier without birds need to perform to expectations,” Kane writes in “Sublingual”, turning his focus to himself. She summarizes meandering soil and repressed culture in “Sometimes There Are Even Scars,” found in “Dark Traffic,” she writes words summarizing these two books. “& went night after night in an apartment, / dried out, I looked out the window in the dark / to catch a glimpse of what I have lost–“

David James is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks. He can be emailed at

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