Mary Odden | Old Guns, New Guns in AQR

Editor’s Note: Please Join us in Anchorage on Friday, November 15, 2019 at 7 PM at The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Café in Anchorage. 49 Writers, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Center for the Narrative & Lyric Arts present two engaging and provocative stories from the new AQR edition: Lee Conell’s “Ex Party” and Debbi Urbanksi’s “Hysteria.” Artist Amy Meissner, poet Tara Ballard, and writer Kathleen Witkowska Tarr will perform, and AQR Editor Ronald Spatz will MC.

Volume 36, Summer & Fall 2019 issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review is a beautiful book. It contains a stunning photo-essay, “The Lonely Islands” by Nancy Lord and Irene Owsley that juxtaposes Lord’s essay of Attu and Kiska islands during the Japanese invasion of World War II with Owsley’s photos of the overgrown detritus from those years. Surreal and haunting—forty-some glossy photos devoid of humans suggest, like an empty chair, the most precipitous of human aggressions. Remains of ships and bunkers—a material history of war eroded nearly unintelligible—made grimmer by a rotting shoe, guns stripped of gunners, spent and unspent ammunition—are all mute and subsumed by desolate beauty. A tiny lake framed by lichens and cotton grass, fog-draped rising ground beyond it, reminds only with its perfect roundness that it is a bomb crater.

“The Lonely Islands” by Nancy Lord and Irene Owsley

The photos surround the written narrative, as if even history struggles up through grass and wind and fog. Lord starts at the beginning of human time, with the lost and transformed names of the islands. The narrative lands on and occupies the islands with the Japanese, recounts the numbers of dead and injured on all sides in the re-taking of the islands. It describes the losses dispassionately, which only amplifies the spaces surrounding the hopeless assaults, the accidents, the suicides. The essay is spare, like the photos, but punctuated with haiku—that sparest of forms—opening tiny windows into the human cost, the history-subverting stories that can no longer be carried by voices:

Japanese doctor, dead.
In his pocket, a list – friends
trained with in America.

Other ghosts are here too. Lord reminds us of the capture and displacements suffered by the Attuans and their post-war relocation to Atka, where they joined Atka villagers who had been returned to their razed and rebuilt homes after internment in southeast Alaska. Villages emptied, villages lost. The essay asks, “What did we learn?” Together with its mesmerizing photos, it also asks who and what is absent here, from this assuaging, incessant green. 

“The Lonely Islands” is worth the price of admission to the journal. Once you have been admitted, don’t miss the journalistic essay, “Icon,” by Richard Adams Carey, about a New Hampshire hate crime in 1997, before the language of mass murders was so commonly on our lips. 

Carey, who also wrote Raven’s Children: An Alaskan Culture at Twilight, unpacks a rural man’s disintegration into hatred, his murdered victims’ dissolution into martyred icons. The depth of Carey’s examination displaces truisms around the gun debate: that a gun can make you safe, that rage is incomprehensible. Guns are tactile in this essay, both the defensive pistol and the murdering assault weapon. The central victim is ordinary as she is admirable. Carey examines this early event in the context of our innocence, making it harder for us to turn away from.

“Icons” would have been very at home in Harper’s, where I would have looked for it and would have been glad to find it, because a long and careful essay like this helps to make intelligible the hurt that is flickering around us now in all of our American places. There is no “regional” America now, no backwater, no place untouched. There probably wasn’t, ever, any such place. The breadth of this AQR issue reminds us of that. 

Mary Odden’s essays have appeared in The Georgia ReviewNorthwest ReviewNimrodAlaska Quarterly Review, and in a collection of writing and art, Under Northern Lights, edited by Frank Soos and Kes Woodward. Her book of essays, Mostly Water: Rural and North, will be published by Red Hen Press.

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