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Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Casey Sanchez

Joan Naviyuk Kane

Not long ago, Iñu­piaq poet Joan Naviyuk Kane found her­self in the archival col­lec­tions of Alaska’s An­chor­age Mu­seum to view a drum her ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther had made when he lived on King Is­land, a re­mote lo­ca­tion in the Ber­ing Sea. It would be a hard mo­ment for any­one. But for Kane, a poet whose work deals frankly with the past and present re­al­i­ties of the Iñu­piaq peo­ple, it was a par­tic­u­larly vex­ing con­fronta­tion. The mu­seum came by the drum fairly.

“I knew the back­story,” said Kane in an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo. “My grand­fa­ther would some­times sell things of his to mu­se­ums just to get food on the ta­ble. I had to han­dle it with la­tex gloves. The cu­ra­tor was very ner­vous about the sit­u­a­tion. I was crying, think­ing how my kids will never get to play this drum,” Kane said. “It got me re­ally think­ing. Is it still a drum if it is never to be used again and re­mains only in a mu­seum’s col­lec­tion? Are they ob­jects or are they po­ems now?”

This un-nos­tal­gic look at the way time shapes our fam­i­lies and cul­tures in­forms many of the po­ems in Milk Black Car­bon, pub­lished in Fe­bru­ary by the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh Press. It’s Kane’s fourth book of po­etry since her de­but col­lec­tion, The Cor­morant

Hunter’s Wife, was pub­lished in 2009. Her work has at­tracted high-pro­file pieces in The New York Times and The Los An­ge­les Re­view of Books, and she has gar­nered a num­ber of pres­ti­gious ac­co­lades, such as the Whit­ing Award, the Amer­i­can Book Award, and the Don­ald Hall Prize in Po­etry, though she is still in her thir­ties.

Kane also men­tors a new gen­er­a­tion of poets as an in­struc­tor in the low-res­i­dency MFA writer’s pro­gram at the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts. She spends much of the year in Alaska, al­though she is no stranger to Santa Fe; she was the 2014 Indige­nous Writer-in-Res­i­dence fel­low at the School for Ad­vanced Re­search, where some of the po­ems in Milk Black

Car­bon were crafted and work­shopped. The book’s po­ems are both dead se­ri­ous and play­ful, en­am­ored of Arc­tic ecol­ogy and Inuit tra­di­tions but suf­fused with a feel­ing that our own age is in a dread­ful hurry, de­mand­ing new cus­toms and rit­u­als out of us. In “A Few Lines for Jordin Tootoo,” she be­gins the poem with a lifted pas­sage from the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Tootoo, the first Inuk player in the Na­tional Hockey League. His me­te­oric rise from a small Nu­navut vil­lage to hockey star­dom was marked by his brother’s sui­cide, a pub­lic strug­gle with al­co­holism, and his own emer­gence as a role model for indige­nous Cana­dian and Alaskan youth. “What do you see out there on the ice?/Per­haps some­thing dark, far off,/louder than the bel­low­ing head­lines,” Kane writes. She di­gresses from the hockey rink to fret over a home­land al­ready rav­aged by global warm­ing: “the ice of the Beau­fort Sea/split into blue leads three months early.” His­tory — even of the pleas­ant, suc­cess­ful sort — has es­tranged Kane from the land


that once cra­dled her older rel­a­tives: “In­stead, what I hold within/is the felt ab­sence of place. A land of great/fail­ure, abun­dance: it goes on with­out us.” But far from pin­ing over what is lost, she finds com­mon ground in fac­ing an un­cer­tain fu­ture. Kane ends the poem with: “Like you, in front of me is all I have./In the dis­tance, mostly, another world.”

At times, Kane writes in Iñu­piaq, though she cau­tions that she “never means for these po­ems to be de­fin­i­tive trans­la­tions.” She’s not a flu­ent Iñu­piaq speaker, so she con­sults with her mother and other tribal elders to sug­gest words and trans­la­tions. In the book, she places the Na­tive and English ver­sions of a poem side by side, less as a trans­la­tion ex­er­cise than a place for the reader “to ex­am­ine the grav­ity of dif­fer­ence, to look at the priv­i­lege in­volved in know­ing a word’s mean­ing,” Kane said.

King Is­land, the text­book def­i­ni­tion of re­mote, is a 12-hour trip by ten­der boat to the Alaskan main­land. Two years ago, Kane vis­ited the is­land for the first time. Her fam­ily left in the 1960s, pres­sured both by fed­eral as­sim­i­la­tion pol­icy as well as an in­ter­nal de­sire to find a more com­fort­able life for their chil­dren. It’s hard not to see the echoes of that voy­age to that aban­doned is­land vil­lage in “Iridin,” which opens her new col­lec­tion. “A coast­line, a tran­si­tional place/bears ev­i­dence of oth­ers dwelling://a house pit in the shape of a nest/another like a knife, a noose/ not lost not in time.”

Kane has lived many places. There was her child­hood in Nome, of which she said, “Nome is a gold town. It’s an in­her­ently racist town. The colo­nial no­tion of race is very much alive there.” Then there was col­lege at Har­vard, fol­lowed a few years later by an MFA in New York City at Columbia Univer­sity. But life since then has cen­tered around her fam­ily and her po­etry in An­chor­age. If her po­etry seems con­cerned with the cul­tural and en­vi­ron­men­tal loss of Inuit peo­ple, it’s also very alive to their fu­ture. “Green­land, Alaska, Russia, Canada — there are vast, vast lands that Inuit peo­ple con­tinue to oc­cupy.” Or as she writes in the hope­ful, if bit­ter­sweet re­frain that con­cludes her poem “An Other Lethe”: “Let us see dust risen into light, sub­tracted/into rain. Our springs run dry be­neath/snow on a land now arid, now seam/of ad­mo­ni­tion: do not solve, adapt.”

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