As Americans, we don’t like to think of ourselves as colonists. This was a dirty job done by Europeans in Africa and Asia, but certainly not here. This is our land. It was not stolen, but it was given to us by our God. This is not colonialism. Or so we calm ourselves down. And the Arctic was certainly not colonized. There were no wars for her. The Europeans simply flocked in and took over. We don’t think much of the people who have inhabited the North for a long time.
For Aboriginal residents, it’s a different story, of course. For those who have long inhabited the high latitudes, carving out their own history for centuries and even millennia, the arrival of the Europeans was a sudden turmoil. Their history has overshadowed our history, and in our history books, it has been largely erased and replaced by our history. And through our activities in the Arctic, combined with climate change driven by human activities everywhere, the land, sea, and ice where these forgotten histories lie are forever changed. A deep sense of loss pervades the vast Arctic regions.
This is the scene that Inupiaq poet Joan Naviuk Kane explores in her latest collection, “Dark Traffic.” Growing up in Anchorage, where she has lived for many years (and is currently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard), she looks to the ghosts of White Alice’s communication system as her entry into this intertwined history. A Cold War relic, the White Alice Towers, part of a remote early warning line installed to detect incoming Soviet missiles, once dotted the Alaskan landscape. Some still stand, looming reminders that the North now belonged to distant empires. Some sites are highly polluted. The land on which Qin’s ancestors once walked and considered it to belong to no one else is now in places that have been destroyed by people far from them, for reasons completely unrelated to the lives of those who were there first.
Sixteen times in the first stanza of one of the poems addressing Alice White directly, Kane repeated the word Inupiaq “sassaq,” which translates as a clock, or instrument for measuring time. In the second syllable, the word is repeated 16 times, but in this case a line is drawn through each of them. It is an analogy, perhaps, to erase history.
Like humans everywhere, Americans are adept at erasing uncomfortable dates. In the poem “White Alice Goes to Hell,” she highlights and succinctly comment on the many locations that were once part of the system. Delta Junction. Murphy Dome. Elmendorf Air Force Base, where, she tells us, there was a concentration camp unknown to Japanese Americans during World War II. “The archaeologists working on the research have used / ancient records to locate the camp in an area now / partly covered by a parking lot.” A historical error has simply been smoothed over and forgotten by those in charge. In the poem’s concluding line, Kane takes refuge in Driftwood Bay, riddled with toxic waste from his time as White Alice Station, a “final report on surplus.”
“How many Eskimos words are there for whites,” Kane asks elsewhere as he thinks of those who came and took their lands. In “Counterpane” you count the return the natives received for their lands. dependence on external resources; orphanages; planes that sometimes crash and decimate villages; Food is dropped from heaven in the form of western food items rather than obtained from subsistence; “The influenza pandemic of 1918.”
Famine arrived, too, although it certainly haunted the Inubiac people long before the arrival of the Westerners. However, the influx of new residents introduced items of little benefit. “Tea and cloth tobacco with a gun / Deliver us from this time / When the foxes are finished:”
Land and sea change rapidly, making “water over water where we once found ice,” as she wrote in “Dark Traffic,” the haunting poem from which the book derives its title. “Before it stops, the ice breaks easily. / There is no day without symptoms.”
However, the desire to restore her home persisted. “Let us lose our grief / In big rafts as we translate the renamed Strait,” she wrote in “Darker Passage.” And she adds in the following poem, “I no longer encircle / circle the graves of the dead, those who cast out / So many of the living.” and elsewhere, “At worst, a radical emptiness reminds us/of our humanity.”
Sir John Franklin, whose lost expedition led to searches and the inundation of the Arctic by Europeans in search of it, makes a brief sordid appearance. “Our hero crosses his heart on his way to Hell. Revered for his fiasco by the British, and for being obsessed with countless armchair historians (myself included), Franklin appears very different from those who entered their lands and waters uninvited and unprepared.
Many of these poems originally appeared in the 2018 Kane Prize-winning little book “Sublingual,” and it’s worth reading the two collections in tandem. Some of the poems differ in subtle but crucial ways that open these verses to further inquiry. In the last line of the first edition of The Visitors, about crossing human settlements, I wrote about them that they were “tired of anyone small enough to block the exit.” In the review, the fatigue turns towards “anyone small enough to block our entry”. Our walls serve two purposes. “White Alice Changes Hands” is a completely different poem, just three lines in the previous book, that serves as an introduction and code for the longer piece in the second book.
“Bad hangover and bad book idea without a fly/double need to perform as expected,” Kane wrote in Sublingual, turning the focus on herself. Surveying scattered lands and repressed culture in Sometimes There Are Scars, found in Dark Traffic, she writes words that sum up these two books. “And as I walked night after night in an apartment, / Dry, I looked out the window into the dark / For a glimpse of what I had lost …”
David James is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks. Can be sent via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.