AQR: More Important To Me Than I Could Have Guessed
A lot of the things that happen in the north could happen anywhere. I remember driving a gravel piece of the Alcan Highway behind a motorcycle that fishtailed in the deep gravel then crashed, flinging its rider upside down in the air. We watched her land on her head and shoulders. When we stopped, she was a crumpled form, breathing but not responsive, covered with dust and gravel. As we had been taught, I held her head motionless, talked to her. Her husband had left his motorcycle far ahead. He was in shock and nearly as silent as his wife. He walked the road edge, came back to look at his wife, walked the edge again. There was a road grader parked nearby with no one around it. My husband got in the grader and pulled it out into the oncoming traffic lane to give us space, then directed the sparse traffic around us. A woman in fancy clothes from a passenger car came to help, brought a blanket, took a pulse, tried a useless cell phone. A truck driver stopped, somehow got word to the Mounties to send a helicopter. We would wait for the helicopter a long time because we were a hundred miles from anywhere. It was starting to rain, so the truck driver brought a tarp and covered us. The woman breathed, her husband walked the side of the road, and the three of us sat in the gravel and held on to the woman under the tarp. Finally, the helicopter and its medic crew landed on the road and put the woman on a backboard. When she and her husband whirred off into the sky the other strangers and I wrapped our arms around each other and stood in the road like that for a long minute. We did not exchange histories or even names. I’ll never know if we were as different from each other as we appeared. But I remember silence, and the green distance in every direction, and an overwhelming love that for once escaped the boundaries of my body.
Things that change you can happen anywhere, but we have these distances, these riches of space and silence. They make us feel like we are the first when we are not first, new when we are not new.
What’s weird of course is that we even gather ourselves under an idea of place. Just trying to belong here, a theme of mine, insists wrongheadedly that “north” is somewhere. My mom, who wanted me to come home, told me there’s “nothing worse than a convert.” My favorite UAF teacher Frank Soos advised justifiably wonderstruck Alaskan writers to proceed cautiously, to do our work beyond the shiny appearances of stars and fires. Outsiders’ eagerness to know us or entrepreneurs’ eagerness to sell us gets played on cheesier and cheesier instruments from Northern Exposure to reality show stereotypes of the stereotypes. It’s Beethoven on an elevator midi file, a prayer paraphrased for an advertising jingo.
Like the squirmy maggots chewing on my cabbages, my impulse is to go deeper and chew harder. But I remain wonderstruck. And somehow, after decades, I do belong here if I belong anywhere.
When I’ve had a piece published in a literary magazine over the years, I sometimes figured it was because I could help satisfy that hunger of elsewhere people to know about us, whatever it is we are. It took me over twenty years to submit a piece of writing to the Alaska Quarterly Review, and when Editor Ron Spatz took it for the Winter/Spring issue I was surprised, probably because I thought he already knew anything I could say.
Alaska Quarterly Review cares about where it lives, but it’s a literary magazine that’s not just for us or about us. That’s a pretty good trick, given that it lives in Alaska and is subject to our dicey hall of mirrors.
Appearing in the pages of AQR has been more important to me than I could have guessed. It meant that my “March” essay got read by folks I’ve wanted to commune with in spite of physical distance. It meant that some people who don’t read a lot of literary journals still read this one because they care about this place, whatever this place is. Friends found my work, surprising them and surprising me.
Best, I was invited to read my essay at the Great Harvest Bread Company in Anchorage. I am a really cheap date as far as that goes, since I live in Alaska and on the road system. AQR and 49 Writers publicized the event; the net they threw brought in people I would have invited if I’d been able to. Overwhelmingly, they were people who knew what I was talking about. I could see my words reach them and I could feel their thoughts flow back toward me. They had walked in the season I described. My writing is always for those people, but I don’t usually get to deliver it in person.
After the reading, some people brought their AQR books up so that I could sign my essay. I was fairly overcome when people, northern people, did that. I apologize to you if I wasn’t aware of whether I scribbled your name or mine.
Mary Odden’s essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, Northwest Review, Nimrod, Alaska Quarterly Review, and in a collection of writing and art, Under Northern Lights, edited by Frank Soos and Kes Woodward. A book of essays, Mostly Water: Rural and North, will be published by Red Hen Press.
This post is third in a series of four celebrating the 35th anniversary edition of Alaska Quarterly Review.