Seasons of Migration and Change

Mar Ka’s poetry collection Be-hooved focuses on Alaska. Mar Ka (previously published in literary magazines under the name Mary Kancewick) has spent many years living and working in the vast forty-ninth state where “context is everything.” As the opening poem instructs the reader, roads cannot be taken for granted in Alaska. The seasonal trajectories of migrating caribou, with their “felted underfur” and “pert, fluffed codas, trilling down stick legs where the tremolos / of arteries and veins track side-by-side, like ensemble sections” prove more reliable. Nonetheless, the poet draws our attention to the climate change that threatens the beautiful landscapes inhabited by the “‘bou” and other species.

Through a mix of autobiography and ecopoetry, Ka takes us from exterior world to interior and back again. In one poem, the speaker’s daughter asks what she is if not a Christian with an “Atheist dad, agnostic mom / brothers who favor / the Greek pantheon….” The answer to this is another question: “What sum minds, or matters, / in these trees?” Ka’s contemplative practice roots this collection in an expansive spirituality as well as in the natural landscapes of Alaska.

Annual arcs of dark cold and bright luminosity run through these pieces. While largely narrative in tone, they contain deeply lyrical moments. Ka describes a landscape where:

The moon each month grows new antlers,
drops velvet into the night and,
under foot-thick river ice, sleek beaver fur
parts the dark to carve stars of birch limbs

These poems evoke and spring from specific places, and the poet is deeply familiar with Alaskan geography and peoples. One of the strengths of this collection is the poet’s use of vivid imagery to depict the state — its native villages, its ridges, the stark beauty of its dark woods and frigid rivers, its wildlife. The reader follows along with Ka into a “cold / gold day among the trees” and along river ski “trails leading everywhere / in gamey loops.”

The poems vary in form and length. Ka uses a different style for those pieces that focus on caribou migration and behavior. In these, she uses italics, prose poem style line lengths, and the forward slash. The effect of this is to create an external voice that is distinctive from the one that Ka uses in the majority of the other pieces in the collection. It struck me that in these caribou poems the author seeks to create the visual effect of a migrating herd. Her structure uses numerous slashes to create pauses midline that evoke motion, as well as pause, because they are reminiscent of the thin legs of caribou:

Cows no longer lactating, / bulls no longer sparring, / herd no longer moving, / south-of-the-tree-line snow/ easily pawed from ground lichens…

Ka’s other poems tend to default to lineated forms of stanzas and couplets. The perspective across those pieces feels largely consistent. With few exceptions, the poems in Be-hooved radiate with deep empathy, well-crafted language, and insights drawn from close observation of the world. Mar Ka is a musician, and I had the opportunity to hear her read “When the Birds Stop Singing” to the musical accompaniment of the Sally’s Kitchen Singers to whom she dedicates this poem. It is clear that she takes great joy in song. Several of these pieces, such as “Transformation” reveal that in the sonic elements of their cadences and rhythms. Additionally, other composers and musicians have musically adapted several of her pieces.

Short lines and slower rhythms allow the reader to linger in many of the poems. Ka also makes alliteration and assonance a trademark of her work:

Pails flush with fruit rest in redolent mist. We watch each
fingernail leaf—drip. Languorously. Luminously.

Mar Ka works as an attorney focusing on indigenous rights and she received her MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is familiar with Alaska Native myths, legends, and histories. In “About Skies” she gives her own shimmering take on a Yupik story about the vision of a shaman. The speaker in this poem draws the imagined sky down over her children “like quilted covers.” There are a few pieces in which the adoption of a persona felt less authentic to me. Generally, I found these poems allowed space for both the author and this particular reader to engage in the ethically important work of interrogating one’s own positionality as a white person. In “Citizens of the USA” the poem’s Lithuanian-American speaker searches for commonalities with an Alaska Native woman. “Braids, traditional to both our cultures, / swing to the same point on our backs.” The two women ask each other about the languages of their grandmothers, and discuss “occupiers’ aggressions, oppressions / of language, of culture” Here, Ka uses the speaker to allude to the perils of assimilation and appropriation:

the attempts to transform another into oneself
when it—when we— cannot just be bzzzt out
of being using some version of bug zapper…

Be-hooved is Ka’s first collection, and the poet pays tribute to a number of other poets and writers. Through numerous “in response” or “after” poems readers are invited into a journey with the poet into the genesis of her craft. Ka finds a place to “ascend from the river” in the works of Czesław Miłosz, Garcia Lorca, Jane Draycott, and others. She dedicates pieces to her children, to friends, and to organizations, such as the Eagle River Nature Center, as a means of tribute and of drawing community into the act of witness. Although Alaska may have a reputation in popular culture as a place dedicated to rugged individualism, Ka’s collection shows how interconnectedness and communal values carry us through the long Arctic nights. It is well worth journeying with her and the caribou, as she does.

Written By
More from Ray Ball