New book from an Alaska Native poet is a lyrical, forceful look at a changing culture

By John Morgan, Alaska Dispatch News - March 20, 2017
Poet Joan Kane lives in Anchorage. Photographed on February 16, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Poet Joan Kane, an Inupiaq with family from King Island and Mary’s Igloo, lives in Anchorage. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Joan Naviyuk Kane’s fourth poetry collection, “Milk Black Carbon,” is just out in the distinguished series issued by the University of Pittsburgh Press. An Inupiaq with family from King Island and Mary’s Igloo, Kane lives in Anchorage. She has received numerous awards for her writing, including the prestigious Whiting Award, the Donald Hall Prize and fellowships from the Rasmuson Foundation. According to Kane, her poems “transfer between self-portraiture and imaged representations of how difficult it is to repatriate oneself to an irrevocably changed homeland …”

“Milk Black Carbon” begins with a poem entitled “Iridin,” a word that I had to look up. It’s a chemical derived from certain flowers and is used as a purgative. It can also be poisonous. The poem unfolds as a graceful observation: “A coastline, a transitional place/bears evidence of others dwelling …” Presumably this is the former homeland Kane is trying to reconnect with.

Fragrant in June heat & a field of confusion

       nothing like metaphor: moss campion,

       minute orchids …

The title, then, is not just a metaphor, but an actual presence in the flowers observed in the scene. But iridin’s medicinal use and its potential danger also suggest that the attempted return to a past way of life carries both rewards and dangers. This is a theme that runs through the book.

In the poem “Update on J.” we get a look at the poet’s view of herself, her desires and regrets, offered in the third person. “She would wish her arms and the arms/of her children to be fortunate.”

And we see her struggling against unspecified temptations: “On no day does she not comprehend/what is forbidden to her.”

The poem is written in two-line stanzas, with the exception of one line that stands by itself toward the end: “The things she has done are not in despair but …” That ellipsis creates a sinister pause from which the poem pulls back with the couplet “Language transforms her thoughts./Thoughts, apprehensible to the senses.” The transforming power of language indicates the solace Kane takes from her writing. It’s a moving self-portrait.

The most openly political poem in the collection, “HEADLINE NEWS,” is a found poem, taken from headlines in the Nome Nugget between 1901 and 1976. All in capital letters, as were the headlines, this poem ranges between bitter sarcasm and broad humor as it exposes the paper’s naïve and sometimes reprehensible portrayal of Alaska Natives. It begins:


ABOUT WOLVES.                              FATHER TOM SAYS


Through her skillful selection of material and the way she organizes it on the page, Kane controls the tone of the poem, even though the words aren’t originally hers. When the newspaper makes an attempt to find common ground, the best it can do is the headline “BOTH ESKIMOS AND WHITES ARE SUBJECT/TO COLD WEATHER.” Moving beyond its comic moments, the poem takes on alcoholism, rape, suicide and radioactive contamination. “HEADLINE NEWS” ends with the line “ESKIMOS VISUALIZE HELL AS FINE PLACE TO LIVE,” underscoring the painful depth of misunderstanding between the two cultures.

Kane’s powerful poem “A Few Lines for Jordin Tootoo” explores the difficulties of holding onto traditional values. Tootoo, a professional hockey player from Nunavut, Canada, is quoted in the epigraph speaking about his drinking problem and how it related to his performance on the ice.

In the body of the poem Kane writes of attending a lecture in Barrow about retaining “the old ways.”

“What I wanted to hear was a reassurance,” she writes, “instead, what I hold within/is the felt absence of place.” When invited to witness an animal being butchered, she shies away: “I didn’t want to see where it was/they found the heart, if they ever did.” As a Native who grew up in Anchorage and went on to Ivy League schools, Kane has absorbed a lifestyle and a set of values that make it difficult to recover the traditional culture. Addressing Tootoo at the end of the poem, she offers a powerful intimation of what has been lost: “Like you, in front of me is all I have./In the distance, mostly, another world.”

“Milk Black Carbon” is a book that will reward multiple readings and provide pleasure to those who care about lyric poetry. It will also be of interest to anyone concerned with how a talented Alaska Native writer views her changing culture. We are fortunate to have Joan Naviyuk Kane as part of the remarkable generation of younger Alaska writers illuminating this part of the world.

John Morgan, professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is the author of six books of poetry, including “Spear-Fishing on the Chatanika: New and Selected Poems.”