3 new Alaska-connected poetry collections draw on the natural world to reveal human lives

“Water the Rocks Make”

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

“Fish the Dead Water Hard”

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

“Tales of a Distance”

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

Poetry Month may have ended with the last of April, but poetry should be read and celebrated year-round. This spring brings three new collections with Alaskan connections.

With his fourth book of poetry, “Water the Rocks Make,” Alaskan David McElroy further establishes his standing as a poet with broad experience in the world, intellectual acuity, and emotional empathy. This new collection—which ranges in references from winter landscapes to illnesses and mortality, historical figures like Darwin and Descartes, and neighborhood dogs—plumbs the darkness and light in human experience. Poems set in Alaska, including remote areas McElroy knows from his years as a pilot, mix with those of childhood memories “just above the true scrabble of poverty” and journeys to Mexico, Peru and Asia. The musicality of McElroy’s language begs for out-loud readings.

In McElroy’s final long poem, “Ars Poetica,” he pays homage to the original of that title by Horace by offering a poet’s advice. “If you quote, quote your betters./If you plant, plant your beauties close./Not much art, not much weed./Go for abundance, go for broke.” This brilliant poem travels the world of everyday objects and occurrences, from foreign airports to tire rotations, doctors’ charts, washers and gaskets, landfills with rats and rot, and dreams of winter bears. In the end, “Let spring stir and study the dump./Let grass in wind flow like water/to heal our souls and soil/…”

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

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

In the poem “Sluggishess,” “The moose-chewed willows/That well into April still/Refuse to spit out catkins” line up with “Silent meals and the muffled/Clatter of dishes when the one/Whose turn it is gets around to Item.” Other poems are more celebratory, as when the speaker looks up to see “three vectors”: “a squall of ducks, above them a V of geese,/and deep at the bottom of the sky a check mark/of cranes, all honking in their own dialects, but writing/one language on the sky, and you feel lucky and dizzy/parsing the migratory air, this cuneiform revelation.”

Heyne’s poems touch as well on small domestic scenes, bits of news, and issues of aging and mortality. Their imagery is precise and telling. In one poem, about hunting, a rotted birch drapes over the ground “like a Dali watch” and “the sootblack aluminum bones of a dead camper chair frame a rectangle of dead moss.” In the poem from which the book’s title comes, “we drive off the shy silvers/with loud clanking and clattering/of oars and loose gear as if/our driftboat were a tin pan/we bang on to scare off a moose.” Both these poems end with failures of a sort, opening to unexpected recognitions.

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

Although not an Alaskan, 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 chapbooks and numerous other publications, “Tales of a Distance” is Gottlieb’s first full-length poetry collection.

The first poem in the collection, “Winter in Denali,” captures the slowness of the season, time as “not light but layers.” “Dormant, then warm, then dormant/a lichen may thrive a thousand years.” This poem seems positioned as a prolusion — his word de él — or prelude to set a mood of contemplation, to encourage a softness or stillness, a long view, for entering what follows.

What follows are thematic sections. The first, titled “Open Throats,” addresses an “invented West” of ranch life, coyotes, guns, a legless father, overworked women and suggestions of violence. The open throats belong to crows and coyotes “preaching place and a brazen intention.” A hawk rips open a rabbit.

Another section, “Flow Variations,” is made up of poems that refer to water in its many forms. Gottlieb clearly has plenty of acquaintance with fishing in fresh and salt waters, yet his poems flow in more metaphoric ways into other aspects of life and thought. “The Evening Meal,” for example, moves back and forth between a “you” walking the water to cast your line — “such a simple script” — and the same “you” “tipping up a spoon, easing out a fork, maneuvering these strange tools of union” to feed your father.

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

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