Since I’m talking about poetry and place, I need to define what place means to me. I’m wedded to the particulars of where I live. Denali not a mountain. Cook Inlet not an inlet. I want to know every detail I can about Alaska. This seems rather obvious and not in the least profound; however, it might not be that obvious. When I began teaching, I’d take my creative writing students to Elderberry Park at the end of 5th Avenue. Once we got there, I’d ask them to write about what they saw. They never failed to disappoint me because they almost always wrote about how they felt about what they saw, and often all they “saw” was how they felt about something that had absolutely nothing to do with what they were looking at. It seemed at times that the physical world was only there to express how they felt at the moment. They soon tired of my constant repetition of William Carlos Williams belief that there are no ideas but in things. I believed it then. I still believe it now.
When I decided that I was not leaving, I began to wonder what it means to be an Alaskan poet as opposed to a poet who lives in Alaska, if that question is even worth asking. For me the obvious answer was to know the place well and to get it down right. The rest would follow. As Williams said “no ideas but in things.” The first poem I ever wrote that might be considered an Alaskan poem is “Poolshark.” It combines both of the worlds important to me, and without knowing it at the time it pointed me in the direction my poetry would take.
He was an ancient gambler
long banished from the window table
where the game became a way of life.
Dim-eyed and reptilian, Willie Provencher
sat on his favorite bench near the door
and scanned the murky room for fish.
We came duck-tailed and dumb
from school to lose at nine ball
to that dank and wrinkled shark
who held a dime store magnifying glass
against one eye to line his shots
before he ran the table.
He took our quarters one by one.
A fingerling anxious for the light,
I left that world. There’s no small change
in this Alaskan city where I live.
You can see earth’s inviting bend toward Asia,
and at times the coastal mountains buckle
clouds that form a vast and empty moonlit
room above us. At times I long
to shine like bait in Willie’s hand.
I was becoming comfortable with Alaska as a subject. It was long after that I wrote the following poem:
The Wedding of Cecelia Demidorf
Waiting for the priest to arrive,
I marvel at how rain gilds the scene:
the wedding party
on the steep path from the village,
fishing boats in the harbor,
gulls over blue-green water.
The ceremony begins:
I listen to the deacon chant
the names of ancient saints and patriarchs
and see their kinship in the faces
of these Aleuts, fishermen who
number fewer than their dead.
Invited by the groom,
I have come to observe with doubt
this antique rite of golden crowns and ikons.
I know the genealogy of the Cossack names
and forced servitude in the name of the Lord.
When the bells peal in celebration,
we slide down the path–a scene from Gogol’s steppes:
white crosses, blue domes,
the priest’s black cassock,
now a billowing demon in the wind.
The bride rides beside her lover
in her father’s battered yellow pickup truck.
Warm rain on every tongue.
The marriage didn’t last, but I hope I’ve captured the moment in the poem. Looking back, I’m amazed to discover how many of the poems in The Bend Toward Asia are on one level about places in Alaska. For the past few years, I’ve been writing historical poems for lack of a better word. While my poems are still based on observation, I’ve tried to expand their range and subject matter.
Steller’s Sea Cow, 1742-1768
Steller took it as a sign from a benevolent God
when he killed the first sea cow. Commander
Bering was dead. The shipwrecked crew had
skin as white as the paper he used to sketch
“that marvelous beast that moves across a bed
of kelp the way a cow moves across a field
before it raised its head and snorted like a horse.”
Steller sketched. He would be remembered now.
They boiled its flesh to give them strength.
Scurvy was the ghost that haunted them.
Those who made it back to Siberia told
of a land to the east and a fabulous cow
whose flesh would feed a crew of otter
hunters for a year while they collected pelts
so fine and soft the Czar would envy them.
“Its flesh was tender veal, its fat was almond oil.”
Wounded, the last calf sank before it disappeared.
Tom Sexton began the creative writing program at UAA in 1970. His latest book, I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets, will be released by the University of Alaska Press in February 2011.