sea ice

Dark Traffic: Poems
by Joan Naviyuk Kane

Review by Mary Cisper

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University of Pittsburgh Press | 2021 | 88 pages

Dark Traffic: Poems by Joan Naviyuk KaneThe story that isn’t translatable is still a story with sound—muck, hummocks, kelp. And the atlas of resonance knows a chamber in the body can be hooked by traffic as soundscape threaded through the broken, through the scar. “Rookeries” is the first poem in Joan Naviyuk Kane’s fourth full-length collection, Dark Traffic—a birthplace, collection site, launching point: “Though its birds // lose our trust, we might learn / their language.” Language, an ear for what the throat offers, raven syllable, worked sinew. Here, into the end of the open lead, that is, uinġum izua (between “pack ice on one side and shore-fast ice on the other”), we find ourselves in crisscrossing, crackling terrain.

In “White Alice Goes to Hell” I heard one language bleed into another:

its wild horses hard on the island: kelp-fed &
hummocks of tundra gnawn thru muck/h    

Laura Kolbe writing recently in Poetry: “We too need room to babble, to keen, to wail, to rib, to rankle.” From Kane’s earlier collection, Milk Black Carbon: “I would not form the words / with softer syntax.” 

In voicing drift and scour, the author’s sometime “classic” diction—“The rift lake, too, refuses coherence of any sort” (“Seiche”)—jostles with fragments, aphasic space. The poem “Imaq” thrust me into icy water. Immersion means wetsuit, embracing the bone under flesh. Imaq, ice-free ocean; auksaaniq, hole melted into floe ice; iziq, frost smoke—finding some but not all its Inupiak terms: my halting translation, my visitor’s headlamp. Don’t poems begin, first, with having no words? In a 2014 interview, Kane states, “As someone who’s always been aware of switching between languages, this other feeling—” In static, the search for words.

Ice collapse, warming: “The fire veins as sap does, / translating stands of beetle-killed spruce to crackle / and torch”; environmental felony: “diesel drums corroding over / the corridors of disorder”; physical and sexual violence: “land where women bleed all the time”; severance, exile: “We tread the paths of myth, grown /sick”; heartsickness: “Am I going to go back?” Crises, the landmarks. Perhaps a line from the title poem summarizes: “there is no day without a symptom.” Dark Traffic’s unsectioned stream braids sonnets, open forms, collage and list poems, quoted material, punctuation experiments, and hints of children’s rhymes like a chain of earthquake sensors. 

Or the White Alice network. During the Cold War, the USAF constructed 80 radio stations in Alaska to support military telecommunications. The facilities were abandoned in the 1980s, most of the materiel removed. In abandonment and dispersal, there will be gaps and melt-holes, say these poems. In clipped, cryptic tones, “White Alice Gone to Hell” calls out locations like entries in a dictionary of ghosts: “ANC   ANCHORAGE    misnomer, magician”.

In that same interview (with Malena Mörling at the School for Advanced Research), Kane notes the last of her relatives left their subsistence life on Ugiuvak (named King Island by James Cook in 1778) for the mainland in 1965. (School closures on the island, assimilation pressure.) She speaks of making plans for a visit. The hazardous voyage from the mainland could take 24 hours. The poet-pilgrim’s task, translating inscriptions at memory sites. From “The Sea” (which I read as a mirror to “Imaq”): “Here we stop. Hear the seals / breathe.” 

“I Am Chopping Ivory or Bone” begins in casual intimacy—“ ‘Mom,’ I ask, after a good interval— […] ‘is there a word you know for seabird?’” and ends in absence:

tiŋitkaa: it blew away
                                 a particular constellation containing many stars: siġupsiġat
siġvauraq: young guillemot
                                                  it is empty: imailaq
imiktuq: it is echoing

Is language a skin that faces wind and ice and forgetting? Two thousand speakers keep Inupiak alive: “Consolation may turn out to be a guttural / practice, after all, the small gesture // of sound lodged deep before it glides / without warning downward” (“Dark Traffic”). If indictment works the spit of language in “Wellhead,” “On Never Looking Upward in Battle” summons invocation, and by extension, renewal:

broke & feverish with my children shining & vital I throw every window open to
bring in the odor of the un-groved tree
               & invoke its decidence through the avenues & colonial tangle
& call gale & rain into the river near
                                      for we are not lost in such rapid changes
                                      for the ways in which our contusions pound
                                                    pulse us to outlive those who would harrow   

If these poems are sound stages erected within/against losses—environmental, cultural, personal—they’re also inquiries/adaptations conjuring resilience. The poet’s sometime use of crossed-out text may signal not yet erasure. (Kane’s work is included in When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, Joy Harjo, editor.) 

In Cedar Sigo’s supple Guard the Mysteries, its opening essay, “Reality Is No Obstacle,” quotes Audre Lorde’s insistent lines, “So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive”—a synchronistic reminder of poetry’s epigenetic transmission across sea ice and city by the linked chain of survival words. Dark Traffic’s conjure voice: “Such drops // of blood form speech” (“Direct and Proximate Cause Stele”).  

Kane’s choice to interrogate the wound and not to dress it is political and acknowledging of self, a bulwark against illusion: “I do not exalt with great nimbleness.” In which I hear the excavation of diction, and in “Upon Learning that She’s Hung a Fox Pelt,” an artist’s statement: “Breach lyric. Split time.” These poems’ “jangle of emergency & poise” navigate turmoil through catalogue and invocation, through image and curation:

Some objects I slipped from their brackets.
Others we concealed from all seers, save
the skulk of polar foxes in their blue morph

who may soon inhabit what yet stands
of the house as we abandoned it.

                        (“Rehearsal for Surveying the Ruins”)

There is much to appreciate in this collection—its mythic cast, its political and aesthetic questions, its welted but fluid tongue. As I was finishing this review, I picked up Lewis Hyde’s classic book on creativity, The Gift. Maybe what Dark Traffic gifts us are hunting poems—that is, reconnaissance—for finding a way through harrowing. In grief and its shades, the poet’s embodied voicings keep strength and confidence. Leaving land, the phalarope heads out to sea. The more I dwelt in Dark Traffic’s umiak (skin boat, still used in Alaskan whaling villages), the more I admired Joan Naviyuk Kane’s deft hands: “I muddle the yarrow / into marrow”. I don’t know if this collection tells me about hope, but it offers art, an essential tool for survival: “I cut a prism of dark light from the sky & realized / recognized it as a poem” (“Shot in Sobriety”). If it catches in the throat, it also travels out.

Kiŋikmi Sigum Qanuq Ilitaavut, Wales Inupiaq Sea Ice Dictionary (Winton Weyapuk, Jr. and Igor Krupnik, compilers)


Mary CisperMary Cisper is the author of Dark Tussock Moth, winner of the 2016 Trio Award (Trio House Press). Her poems and reviews have appeared in Annulet, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Newfound, Lana Turner, and elsewhere. A former analytical chemist, she lives in northern New Mexico.

Read poetry by Mary Cisper appearing in two poems, one poem, and two poems.

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