New books of poetry by Alaskans affirm the national stature of their authors

“Late Summer Poem”

By Olena Kalytiak Davis; Copper Canyon Press, 2022; 113 pages, $17.

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By Sarah Elisa Johnson Milkweed Editions, 2022; 78 pages $16.

In her fourth collection of poetry, Olena Kalytiak Davis, of Anchorage and Brooklyn, New York, establishes herself as a major American poet, publishing with notable poetry journalism and being reviewed in The New York Times Book Review.

Late Summer’s Poem opens, perhaps thematically and in contrast to its achievement, with a poem titled “I Was Young,” a list in which the narrator sees herself as a young mistress, daughter, prior, thinker, mother, beauty, and Buddhist. Even, “My poems weren’t big / enough to make me / a ‘minor poet. As a collection, the poems draw readers into vulnerable and often very intimate circumstances.

While the content may be overwhelmingly depressing, one great joy in the book comes from its lyricism—the way words play off each other, lines form patterns, and disrupt patterns. For example, the poem “I’ve Been” begins this way: “Exhausted, indigestible. I refused/Tried and followed. But restless, restless, with restlessness/My legs. These are my symptoms, my poems.”

Other poems, showing Davis’ sharp wit and knowledge of literature, art, and the world of ideas, refer to cultural figures past and present. “About the Certainty of Brian” names poets Eileen Miles and Louise Gluck, writer Lydia Davis, illustrators Richard Diebenkorn and John Zurier, and a song by the Cave Singers, all within a rumination about the relationship and the paranoid life of the narrator. “Back in Alaska, I opened the window on / in the spring. / New ideas are pouring in, like students. Me: like students.”

The other poems are in the style of, or respond to, specific poets. “After Rilke” and “After Chekhov” are clear in their influence. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Tolstoyan Rite” pay homage to Tolstoy and his dark mood.

One section of the book consists of 29 sonnets. The tension and playfulness of these lies in the contrast between their classical Shakespearean form, with their elevated language, and their contemporary concerns. The first stanza of number seven says “So harmonious! My daughter echoed when she saw me / Shirtless I saw you still looked good in a bra / And in jeans (He once said that to me (once)) / But I’m done showing dread.”

Davis ends her collection with a lyrical prose work. “Chekhov, Baby” is a lighthearted story in the style of Anton Chekhov, about a woman named Olena Romanovna and an older man named Bruce Kinetovich sharing drinks in a back garden at the end of summer. Brus’ description includes, “There was a black handkerchief around his neck because of the present plague, which had reached all the provinces, even this one which was so far in the north and where the people were so far from the world and from one another, usually alone with the various and very specific infections.” As they talk, we learn of an art project involving “Eight Chests in Eight Kingdoms,” including one in the Fourth and E corners of their town, and, at a long digression, Olena’s very early sojourn with a young lover in an Italian villa.

[Book review: Action and introspection unite in an Alaskan’s war memoir]

Sarah Eliza Johnson, recipient of numerous honors including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, currently teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Vapor” is her second book, after her first book, “Bone Map,” which won the 2013 National Poetry Series.

The poems in “Vapor” are inspired by scientific principles and facts, from subtle cell mutations to wormholes and the moons of Saturn. In seven parts, the poems are grouped around themes or forms. Time and time again, the violence and transformation inherent in physics serve as metaphors for human trauma, loss, and recovery.

In the first section, the poem “Planktonic Foraminifera” begins with “Before microbes gather to shine / Like strange fish scales” exploring the time when plankton sank to the sea floor and fossilized. The movement moves into the human realm of dreams, language and touch, to find a future “written in basalt” and the message of the ocean, “a vibration you can still feel / when you press your forehead / towards anything / living or dead.” Other Poem Titles – “The Abyssal Zone” , “gravitational wave”, “Ctenophore transmission” – also expands on oceanography to shed light on human longing, pain or survival.

All of the poems in the “Amplituhedron” section are told, Johnson tells us on a helpful note, through a mathematical concept and geometric figure from quantum physics. These poems appear as blocks of text, possibly representing facets of jewel-like figures. Far from being intrusive, the template is peppered with images of “music made of glass,” “bees like a pixel from a dream,” and “the jewel buzzing inside my throat.”

The series of five poems, each titled “Vapor”, are all cataclysmic concerning death by poison powders carried by the wind. Deadly dust may have been caused by an asteroid hitting Earth, a nuclear accident, or war. The language in these is wonderfully vivid even as you speak of “black liquid seeping from the holes that were your ears,” the “poisoned veins” that “wrap delicately around the boughs of your bones and the trenches of the ocean,” and “only annihilation.”

Other poems by Johnson provide some respite from the violence and trauma inhabiting so many. Inspired by the methane lakes on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, the poems use images of fluids, waves, light, and warmth. The narrator floating in these lakes finds a way to the surface “Where you release / Wound you: the island / One day someone will seek life, try / Untie it. The lake / Ripples against you / And you’re grateful to hold it, / You ripple again.”

These new collections by Davis and Johnson will reward their readers with both the joy of language and the demonstration of the resilience of the human spirit.

[Book review: 2 new poetry collections lay the groundwork for reclaiming our humanity]

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