Marie Tozier’s new book, Open the Dark, is a lyrical guide to the life in Northwest Alaska experienced by the Iñupiaq poet and her family. It touches on themes that can be universally understood by the careful reader and on others that need the cultural context that Tozier’s poetry provides to be understood. Like most books of good poems, it is also a gallery of images for revisiting time after time.
Many of the pieces in the first section of Open the Dark are narrative poems that end with a turn. For example, the first lines of “Grandmother’s Bible” describes how the poet’s grandmother ran her hand down the front page of her Bible, over the Iñupiaq names, birthdates, and deaths of family members listed there. By watching her grandmother, the poet learned who she and others of her generation were named after, “…Eskimo names given/To remember/Dear friends, siblings lost too young, esteemed/Elders.” For the poet and her grandmother, “There is no why,/Only who.”
“Grandfather Says” is a parable for teaching Iñupiaq children how to react to mistakes. The poem tells how, when the poet was 13 and at her family’s seal hunting camp, she made oatmeal for her brothers with ocean water. After they tried the oatmeal, her brothers spit it out and then laughed. Her grandfather closed the parable with a reminder that the brothers teased rather than scolded her for the mistake. Scolding…“wasn’t our way.”
Some of Tozier’s poems will resonate best with residents of communities that harvest wild foods. The first two stanzas of “Cache” describe the fish camp of her grandmother, which was located “near the ocean, where sand/turns into beach grass, long shards/that bite the bare feet of children.” In the final stanza, Tozier writes that even after her grandmother’s passed, “we return every summer,/spawning salmon,/finding that faint/scent of home.” With these few words Tozier conjoins the powerful pull of the salmon’s home waters with the cultural pull of her grandmother’s fish camp, where generations learned respect and how much depends on the seasonal return of the salmon.
The economical language of Tozier’s shorter poems pop out meaning. In, “Life Without Her,” she creates a lovely metaphor for life after her mother’s passing with kitchen cabinet images: “Mismatched china/Trying to pass/For a complete set.” “Fade” reads like a Zen koan, by asking “What’s inside/The space/Between laughter/And the memory/Of those you laughed with?”
Most of the poems in the first portion of the book are about things accessible to the general reader set in the context of Northwest Alaska: loss of a mother, childhood remembrances, the impact of a grandmother on the lives of her grandchildren. “They Tried to Teach Me History” goes to the heart of something experienced too often by indigenous people like the Iñupiaq —institutional prejudice.
“They Tried to Teach Me History” is organized around this racist quote by a US Indian Agent in 1886: “The parents of these Indian Children are ignorant, and know nothing of the value of education.” The poet creates a stanza for each word of the quote. The first two stanzas (THE and PARENTS) inform the reader that Inuit parents and grandparents pass the knowledge needed for survival in their land, demonstrating that the ignorant one is the Indian Agent.
The stanza following the word, “NOTHING” describes what is left after so much is taken away from the Iñupiaq by the Indian agent and others outside their culture that have power over them: “NOTHING/ Everything taken away./Our land/Our ways/Our children/Gone./Abandoned qasgri, sod house./Returning to earth.”
In the stanza, “VALUE,” the poet asks “What is the fair price/Of happiness?” and then reminds the reader that “Unacknowledged injustices/Are wounds left unhealed/Left to fester/Warm to the touch.” She teaches the reader that the first step for healing wounds of racism is to acknowledge their existence.
The poems in third section of Open the Dark are lyrical, compressed memories that hint at loss and love of person or place. “Siblings” is a great example where Tozier writes, “My grandfather/Tells me stories of his only sister,/Elsie. She died young./…Of her death,/He never used that word./To him,/She began to disappear.” That last line conveys so much about having to watch a much loved one slowly die. One exception to type is “For the Newly Elected School Board Member” —an all too accurate description of people who come to the Iñupiaq country to preach “love/If only we’d listen.”
Linda McCarriston, winner of a National Book Award for Poetry, calls Open the Dark “a book of understated lyric power.” She finds that “Tozier’s naturally gifted lyric voice, soft-spoken, as is her tradition, conveys unforgettably a culture of steep intergenerational knowledge and honor, as well as its swift losses.”
Elizabeth Bradfield, poet and author of Toward Antarctica, writes that Open the Dark is clearly “emplaced in family, community, geography, history, and the seasonality of animals and plants in Western Alaska.”
Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, will publish Open the Dark on August 11, 2020. Ordering information may be obtained by calling 800-252-7012 or by sending an email query to email@example.com.