Human language

3 New Alaska-Related Poetry Collections Draw on the Natural World to Reveal Human Lives

“Water the Rocks Do”

By David McElroy. University of Alaska Press, 2022. 100 pages. $16.95.

“Fishing Dead Water Hard”

By Eric Heyne. Circus Press, 2022. 71 pages. $15

“Tales from afar”

By Andrew Gottlieb. Trail to Table Press/Wandering Aengus Press, 2022. 86 pages. $18

Poetry month may have ended last April, but poetry should be read and celebrated year-round. This spring brings three new collections with ties to Alaska.

With his fourth book of poetry, “Water the Rocks Make”, Alaskan David McElroy further establishes his position as a poet with vast worldly experience, intellectual acumen and emotional empathy. This new collection – which includes references ranging from wintry landscapes to disease and mortality, to historical figures like Darwin and Descartes and neighborhood dogs – probes the dark and light of the human experience. Poems set in Alaska, including remote areas McElroy has known since his pilot days, intertwine with those of childhood memories “just above the real scrabble of poverty” and trips to Mexico, Peru and Asia. The musicality of McElroy’s language demands readings aloud.

In McElroy’s last long poem, “Ars Poetica”, he pays homage to the original of this title by Horace by offering the advice of a poet. “If you quote, quote your best. / If you plant, plant your beauties nearby. / Not much art, not much grass. / Go for plenty, go for everything.” This brilliant poem travels the world of everyday objects and events, from foreign airports to tire rotations, medical records, washers and gaskets, landfills with rats and rot, and bear dreams in winter. At the end, “Let the spring stir and study the dump./Let the grass in the wind flow like water/To heal our souls and our soil/…”

“Water the Rocks Make” is also a beautifully designed book, with cover and interior illustrations by photographer Hal Gage.

Eric Heyne, a longtime English professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has always written poetry as what he calls his “side gig.” “Fish the Dead Water Hard” is her first upcoming collection in a long time. The poems here are set largely in Alaska, with references to seasons, darkness, and interior and exterior landscapes, although some reference times are in Greece and Spain.

In the poem “Sluggishess”, “The moose-chewed willows/That well into April still/Refuse to crach out catkins” lines up with “Silent meal and the sourded/Clatter of dish when the one/Whose turn it is around to this.” Other poems are more celebratory, such as when the speaker looks up to see “three vectors”: “a flurry of ducks, above them a V of geese,/and in the background of the sky a tick mark/ of cranes, all honking in their own dialects, but writing/a tongue on the sky, and you feel lucky and dizzy/analyzing the migratory air, this cuneiform revelation.

Heyne’s poems also touch upon small domestic scenes, short stories, and issues of aging and mortality. Their imagery is precise and revealing. In one poem, about the hunt, a rotting birch tree drapes itself over the ground “like a Dali clock” and “the soot-black aluminum bones of a dead camper’s chair frame a rectangle of dead moss”. In the poem from which the title of the book comes, “we hunt the timid silvers / with clatters and loud clanks / oars and loose gears as if / our drifting boat were a tin pan / we strike on it to scare a moose”. These two poems end in some way in failures, opening up to unexpected recognitions.

Heyne’s book is another magnificent production, with cover and interior illustrations by David Mollet.

Although not from Alaska, Andrew Gottlieb pays close attention to the natural world and his time in Alaska has included a winter writing residency in Denali National Park. After two poetry collections and numerous other publications, “Tales of a Distance” is Gottlieb’s first comprehensive poetry collection.

The first poem in the collection, “Winter in Denali”, captures the slowness of the season, the weather as “no light but layers”. “Sleeping, then warm, then sleeping / A lichen can thrive for a thousand years.” This poem seems to be positioned as a prolusion — its word — or a prelude to establish an atmosphere of contemplation, to favor a softness or stillness, a long view , to enter the sequel.

The following are thematic sections. The first, titled “Open Throats,” tackles an “Made West” of ranch life, coyotes, guns, a legless father, overworked women, and suggestions of violence. Open throats belong to crows and coyotes “place of preaching and brazen intent”. A falcon tears a rabbit apart.

Another section, “Flow Variations,” is made up of poems that refer to water in its many forms. Gottlieb clearly has a great knowledge of fresh and salt water fishing, but his poems flow more metaphorically into other aspects of life and thought. “The Evening Meal”, for example, oscillates between a “you” walking on water to cast your line – “such a simple script” – and the same “you” knocking over a spoon, relieving a fork, maneuvering these strange union tools” to feed your father.

The landscape of Alaska in winter makes a few more appearances before Gottlieb ends with the last title poem, closing the circle with images of an elk and the sense of boundaries, distance and the loss of a speaker, until the elk, in the intimate, lyrical language that pervades Gottlieb’s entire collection, plunges “safely into the jagged wild forest of unmeasured depth”.