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
IN THE BOOK, KANE 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.
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.”