Species, Families + Faultlines: Alaskan Inupiaq Poet Marie Tozier’s Open the Dark
Review by Corinna Cook
Boreal Books | 2020 | 72 pages
Alaskan Inupiaq poet Marie Tozier’s new collection Open the Dark challenges—but also aligns with—western notions of linear time. Early on, the collection announces a cyclic, wheeling view of time as it unfolds in successive waves across the land. In one poem “An abandoned snowmachine / Sunk last spring, sits exposed near the far shore,” while another asks, “What’s inside / The space / Between laughter / And the memory / Of those you laughed with?”
Returns like these complicate the idea that continuity denotes simple abundance, suggesting instead that a sense of loss can persist even within a larger understanding of repetitions and returns. Indeed, the collection is full of the rhythms of seasons and family and ancient narratives, but it is also about the open wound of residential school history.
Because Open the Dark finds the spaciousness across seasons to link past to present to future, it’s all the more notable that the collection also takes a keen interest in the fleeting moment. Tozier’s poem “Eli” does just this: “The best camera is your mind—, / Says the animated boy, / Who thinks he won’t forget.” Inside this moment the poem finds a full arc of human awareness from the boy’s youthful exuberance to the speaker’s seasoned and more tempered understanding that all memories eventually disappear.
Poems that isolate discrete moments and fleeting exchanges like this one are present throughout the collection, functioning as collected snapshots. Headlights cut the fog to reveal a single seagull, undisturbed. Fuchsia-colored fireweed “simmer in the field” as “fat bumblebees anchor themselves.” As these snapshots accumulate, tension rises between seasonal/cyclic continuity on one hand and a more fragmentary sense of time on the other. But if we think of Tozier’s snapshot poems working together as a photo album, the form ultimately points to resistance. Against the backdrop of aggressive assimilationist policies, a photo album is intensely subversive: it asserts strength and depth in precisely what the residential school system was built to demolish—the Indigenous family unit.
As happens in a family photo album, certain figures are continually present. A grandfather appears as a storyteller sharing tender memories of puzzling his way through childhood (fixing oatmeal in camp, gathering tern eggs while still too small to climb the cliff) and as a deeply sensitive speaker, as evidenced in one poem by an especially vulnerable phrase: he said his favorite sister “began to disappear” rather than that she died. A grandmother, on the other hand, figures into the collection more sternly. “She reminded me to be precise,” writes Tozier. “Use a ruler to be exact, / like her.” But the grandmother also leads by example, and sometimes it is an example of total relishing: “—If I were my grandmother,” says the speaker in “King Crab,” “The last sound would be / A long slurp as I drink and swallow / Broth from your shell.”
At the structural heart center of Tozier’s collection lies her longest poem, “They Tried to Teach Me History.” This poem interrupts and reworks an 1886 statement attributed to U.S. Indian agent John Ward. “The parents of these Indian children,” said Ward, “are ignorant and know nothing of the value of education.”
It is only one sentence, but it represents a great deal for North America. At minimum, readers need to know that the U.S.’s and Canada’s goal of extinguishing the continent’s Indigenous presence led both federal governments to enlist extinction’s rhetorically closest ally, “assimilation”—a major, institutionalized arm of which involved a state-sanctioned, church-run residential school system. This system was transparently designed to demolish the Indigenous family unit and thereby to dissolve Indigenous culture, society, and people. Or, as Canada’s 1879 Nicholas Flood Davin Report famously notes, “the aim of education is to destroy the Indian.” This is the genocidal logic that fuels Ward’s view that Indian parents are “ignorant” and “know nothing of the value of education.”
In between each of Ward’s discrete words, Tozier inserts whole stanzas. Thus interrupted, and thus overshadowed by the Indigenous knowledge he denies, Ward’s statement gives way to the poem’s exploration of loss and searching.
“They Tried to Teach Me History” begins not with colonial contact but with the inception of the universe. For this becoming, Tozier uses incantatory one- and two-word lines, like “Beginning” and “Declaring / What is. / Naming it.” This poem’s single example: “Oogruk: bearded seal.” It’s from the power of this cosmic foundation that Tozier’s poem then turns to look at trauma and its insidious damage. The speaker gestures toward collective grief, documenting “brown faces on the street / Corner, middle of winter, / Waiting for bars to open.” But pain is also personal, as the poem demonstrates. A later excerpt reads “ARE / Is better than were. / My brother was lost. / And now he’s gone.”
From the plural to the individual, in Tozier’s hands, loss doesn’t leave emptiness in its wake so much as it gives rise to philosophic searching. So it is that the poem is also filled with questions (“What is the fair price / of happiness?”) and reckoning (“We fill them up / Not understanding, / What’s useless / Can’t be poured out”).
Ultimately, the place of nourishment from which this multipage poem begins is also the place it returns to—suggesting that while there may be a great deal inside a moment, healing itself takes shape in cyclic return. In the poem’s longest and final stanza, a bearded seal is “Butterflied open / From tail to neck.” In cutting the meat, hacking the backbone, and braiding the intestines, all the rinse water runs “To wash away / The sin / Of being.” Judeo-Christian language and motivations blend here with Inupiaq cultural practices. Worldviews mingle while the foundation stands firm, unerring: every line rests upon the earth and the sea; tundra rich with berries, skies pulsing with gulls, and waves as rhythmic as the seasons.
Writ large, Tozier’s collection lands on mutual caretaking across porous boundaries. From the child who takes pains to place a small snail beneath a stick (“Certain he would survive”) to the adults quadrupling a donut recipe, the collection finds insight in nurturing, which grows into a touchstone for readers. “That could be defined as a Tozier thing—” as one poem puts it. “Wanting there to be enough for everyone.”
Corinna Cook is the author of Leavetakings, an essay collection (University of Alaska Press, 2020). She holds a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. Supported by a 2018-19 Fulbright Fellowship, a 2018 Alaska Literary Award, and a 2020 Project Award from the Rasmuson Foundation, Corinna’s current book project looks at Alaska-Yukon artwork and searches for ways to live with colonial history. More at corinnacook.com.
Header photo by David Mark, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Corinna Cook by Jeremy Pataky.