A brutal and beautiful book whose poems strain the lyric through concrete and confessional modes, translation, and unforgettable evocations of land and people burdened with—but not defined by—the legacies of colonial atrocity. Dark Traffic is a ravishing achievement—one of our best poets, at the height of her powers.
Whether by intellect shot through with feeling, or feeling sharp with intellect, Joan Naviyuk Kane’s Dark Traffic is a vigorous account of [Cold War] communication systems, complicity, and [self] inquiry. Rich with experimentation and a clear ethic of attentiveness, Dark Traffic is an indomitable, resonate book.
In Sublingual, Kane creates an earth on which all things are evidently their own opposites, endless and utterly bereft. These poems are catchy and thrilling and expose the violence of time and, inside it, our human vibrancy and violence. Every line—every word—is unexpected and exactly right. An encapsulation of a white landscape that bursts its capsule and gleams a thousand hues.
The poems in Joan Kane‘s SUBLINGUAL don’t flinch, display a fist. If a fist can be a heart and the arrow through it a pen. Kane’s images and language arrest and attest to a future, a present, a past that is melting against “vehement light.” There’s no need for fret or worry, however. However, it’s time to take note, to look back at what’s looking at you. Breathe these poems, be at mercy to the wind.
Joan Kane‘s chapbook Sublingual dissolves under the tongue like a pill, a medicine that tastes like melting glaciers and displaced cultures, except it doesn’t solve, it only soothes, and it’s a complicated soothing, making distinctions been “stress puking” and “party puking,” which like the poems here enact a push-and-pull of modes: urgent warnings and sinuous meditations and letters to friends and fragments of stories. It’s a fresh introduction to this important and exciting poet’s work. In Sublingual, Joan Kane is an Arctic Rimbaud who sees images of vivid defeat and unlikely persistence, and “inflects them with purpose,” investigating “how many rules of the brute’s brutish language” she can “break in one poem,” pursuing dark passages and open waters, disappearing forests, with a head “in its fine blank way an original, ”an adventuring Alice pursuing “what is left of the woods… what is left of me.”
A Few Lines in the Manifest
In Manifest, Kane, a poet from Anchorage and a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow who is on the faculty of the Institute of American Indian Arts, has written a four-part lyric essay about her Inupiaq family and their traditional home of King Island, in the Bering Sea.
After Alaska achieved statehood in 1959, the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the island's school and forced the children to be educated on the mainland. Without their children to help prepare for winter, adults and elders had no choice but to leave the island as well. Returning, even for a visit, isn't easily accomplished. Reading about it isn't easy, either, because Kane makes the experience intellectually and psychologically rigorous. The writing is somewhat frenetic and sometimes relentlessly fragmented; Kane often addresses the reader directly or makes other kinds of asides. The latter portions engage in a dialogue with Melville's Moby-Dick (and other classic texts), the meaning of which seems less relevant to a reader's understanding than the ability to absorb the linguistic kaleidoscope Kane employs.
Kane displays such an ease in her prose, able to twist and turn complexities across a rather large canvas, one I’m hoping might eventually be larger than the four pieces collected here. Through four interconnected essays, this collection very much explores the relationships between, as she suggests, culture, language and survival, and is an important conversation during an era that attempts to (or wishes to attempt to) engage with any kind of reconciliation.
Milk Black Carbon
The black ink of a strong, strong hand. A rare and real word-world, mind-muscled into serious relief, stopped into dream and meaning.
—Olena Kalytiak Davis
Milk Black Carbon is at once a brilliant work of lyric art and a decoding of knowledges written "in the dark cursive of a wolf / circling on sea ice." Kane’s is a vertiginous sensibility, chiseled into language in a precarious time, as the rising seas "rephrase us." She writes in English and Inupiaq Eskimo, toward a horizon of radical futurity, against nostalgia, with awareness that there is no turning back. This is a twenty-first-century poetry, urgent, necessary, and of its time.
Her latest book of poetry contains themes of motherhood and the relationships between land and peoples, and ever present is her unmatched mastery of form and language. . . . Unique to Milk Black Carbon is the palpable sense of urgency throughout the poems.
—Jen Rose Smith
Joan Naviyuk Kane is Inupiaq with family from King Island (Ugiuviak), Alaska, and her work reveals a hunger for the landscape, for a language embedded in the land and in the traditional lifeways of the people, her people, who have lived there. But Kane’s world extends beyond the boundaries of water and ice. The straits she navigates as a contemporary woman are churned by the pressures of multiple worlds. A Harvard graduate with a dazzling literary career, Kane writes with one foot in her cultural tradition and a second in the world of contemporary poetics. Her poems condense at the intersection of gender and race and power relations. With gorgeous, precisely honed language and arresting imagery, Kane interrogates love and displacement, identity and obligation, loss and home.
“Arnica nods heavy-headed on the bruised slope.” In these vivid, disturbing, and mysterious poems, written in English and Inupiaq, Joan Kane writes out of the landscape and language of the far north. Hyperboreal is situated at a threshold between cultures, between inner and outer worlds, and the poems are voiced with a “knife blade at the throat’s slight swell.” Her compelling vision is earned through a language that will dislocate in order to relocate and whose tonal shifts are exact and exacting.
Kane’s lyric voice is terse, lapidary; each of these poems is, as John Taggart would have it, a “room for listening.” There is an immense and insistent stillness here, “From / the forest / the wind / has all revised” to the “dreams inlaid with rigid marrow.” These are songs of ‘intaction,' of that which endures, poised against “the / long fermata of dusk / and its promised repetition.”
—G. C. Waldrep
I am mesmerized by these poems, their sonorous pathways across time and place; how they absorb and let me linger awhile in their stark beauty. Joan Kane has created a genuine indigenous poetic, irreducible, a point of reorigination and new beginnings. Hyperboreal will be remembered and celebrated.
The Cormorant Hunter's Wife
These poems are much more than verbal constructs, though their language alone is enough to keep you reading. Joan Kane’s mind spends much time with itself; her eye sees itself as part of the landscape, which in this collection is meticulously rendered, “a bewilderment of white.” She does not find metaphors for life in the wilderness, but rather observes patterns of nature that life bears out. Hers is a voice without cultural or self-reference, a voice without verbal-technics -- as rare and stark as the main climatic idiosyncrasy of these poems, “a year of two winters.’”
The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife is a groundbreaking collection of poems made of one long breath. The breath is enough to carry you the distance it takes to fly to the moon and return in one long winter night. I have been looking for the return of such a poet. Joan Kane crafts poems as meticulous as snowflakes. She is visionary and the poems carry this vision with solid grace.
These poems are original, unsentimental, plain, and mysterious. There is something of Lorine Niedecker’s Wisconsin, and something of Willa Cather’s Nebraska or New Mexico in Joan Kane’s Alaska. And something more, “on the border of speech,” which yet gives us a new sense -- or maybe retrieves an old sense-- of experience. Sometimes, in these poems, description, and what we cannot quite find words for, underneath it, are enough; in fact, more than we would have known how to ask for: a lost people -- a shaman’s voice -- the voice of a glacier -- of a shell? “In a room in which you’re found at every margin / Forgetting you is nothing but a long discipline.”
Joan Naviyuk Kane is Inupiaq with family from Ugiuvak (King Island) and Qawiaraq (Mary's Igloo), Alaska. Dark Traffic (2021) follows The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife (2009), Hyperboreal (2013), The Straits (2015), Milk Black Carbon (2017), Sublingual (2018), A Few Lines in the Manifest (2018) and Another Bright Departure (2019). Kane has been the recipient of the Whiting Writer’s Award, the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, the National Artist Fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, the American Book Award, the Alaska Literary Award, the United States Artists Foundation Creative Vision Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, the Mellon Practitioner Fellowship in Race and Ethnicity at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University, multiple Individual Artist awards & Artist Fellowships from the Rasmuson Foundation, and residencies with the School for Advanced Research, the Hermitage Artist Retreat, Lannan Foundation, Millay Arts and Harvard's Radcliffe Institute. She has held faculty appointments in creative writing and English at the University of Massachusetts (Boston), in the department of English at Harvard University, in the department of English at Tufts University, and in the graduate creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has also served as a lecturer in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism and Diaspora at Tufts University, teaching courses in Native American and Indigenous Studies. At Scripps College, she was the 2021 Mary Routt Endowed Chair of Creative Writing and Journalism. She has raised her children in Cambridge, Massachusetts since 2019.
Her essays, poems, and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Poetry, The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood, Before the Usual Time, Hick Poetics, The Hopkins Review, Yale Review, Salamander, FLAG + VOID, Thalia, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, More Truly and More Strange: 100 Contemporary American Self-Portrait Poems, 21|19: Contemporary Poets in the Nineteenth Century Archive, Shapes of Native Nonfiction, The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice, Syncretism and Survival: A Forum on Poetics, HERE: Poems for the Planet, The Guardian, Orion, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Poetry International, POETRY, Nat. Brut, West Branch, Territory, Drunken Boat, absent, Solastalgia: An Anthology of Emotion in a Disappearing World, American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide, The Norton Reader, and elsewhere.
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