Poetry, Prose, Pataky: A Review of Leaving Resurrection by Eva Saulitis

Today we welcome Jeremy Pataky, a new guest blogger who has agreed to supply us with three winter blogposts in addition to this book review.

Jeremy Pataky directs the Wrangell Mountains Center, and lives in Anchorage and McCarthy, Alaska. He earned an MFA from the University of Montana. We are very happy to have him here. He also invites feedback via email: jnpataky@yahoo.com. Jeremy will be writing about poet Li-Young Lee next month.

Leaving Resurrection
by Eva Saulitis
Red Hen Press
$18.95 , 224 pages

ISBN: 978-1-59709-091-9
Published March 2008

Homer writer and poet Eva Saulitis elegantly probes the relationships between art and science in her first book of essays, LEAVING RESURRECTION: CHRONICLES OF A WHALE SCIENTIST, published by Fairbanks-based Red Hen Press. Saulitis, having earned graduate degrees in both biology and writing, is no stranger to the act of asking questions—as a scientist, she poses them, gathers data in order to discern facts, then articulates and tests hypotheses. As a writer, she’s able to explore her visceral subjectivities. Ultimately, her analytic and artistic impulses complement one another.

LEAVING RESURRECTION is the chronicle of one woman’s capacity to know in many ways at once, to hold contradictory truths in mind. She faces doubts about science which generate an epistemological vertigo when it seems that science can’t teach us to “stay true to [our] place in the local ecology” the way traditional native stories can. She fathoms the depths of place—mainly southcentral Alaska’s Prince William Sound, though other locales in Alaska and the lower 48 appear in the book. The book records this artist/scientist’s challenge to transmute scientific knowledge and human uncertainty into wisdom. Through the rigor of her work as a biologist and essayist, Saulitis engenders truths which register in both the mind and the gut.

The collection opens with a stunning short essay based on Saulitis’s task of removing the stomach from a beached killer whale on a Prince William Sound beach. At one point, Saulitis literally slips into the cavity she’s opened in the orca. Standing “shin-deep in blood and body fluid,” she is quite immersed in her work and the world. The essay is a fitting place to begin, scuttling any notions that the work of science is somehow abstract or removed from the physical world.

More than the land and seascapes of Alaska and its animals fall under the purview of these essays—Saulitis is concerned, too, with memory and dream, imagination and observation, history and the present, the nature of story and ecology, family and ancestry. And she devotes a great deal of the book to the people who have done much to enliven the place she has made her own—her friend and assistant, Mary Lou Freeman; the old man, Bill, who carries his burden of sorrow out onto a frozen wilderness lake with her; Dora and George, caretakers of a remote Prince William Sound oyster farm; her childhood family and teachers; her eventual husband and step-children. By making plain the intimacy between people and place, Saulitis imbues her work with a sense of community that makes her introspective forays into isolation or the mind seem anything but solipsistic.

The orcas of Prince William Sound remain the book’s touchstone, though. Her authentic struggle with the dictates and limits of science and her heartfelt attention to place limns a dynamic between science and art that behaves something like an ecosystem itself. Like the balance struck between orca and sea lion, science and art are fundamentally different yet interactive, constituent parts of our world views. Saulitis reminds us why science is important while realizing that our task as citizens of local and global ecologies is to actively and consciously strive to unite conscience with knowledge and to guard against those who would refuse any commingling of the creative and analytical modes, which share, after all, the impulse to ask questions about the world and ourselves.

Observing and asking questions as scientist and artist engenders a useful yearning: “The eye that searches for wolves, for spouts, for freedom, is desire’s eye and soon what it has seen becomes necessary to the body as a lung,” writes Saulitis. “In the end, looking for wolves, looking for killer whales, is more than an act of scrutiny or listening—it’s an act of patience, of devotion. It’s a long story of waiting. It’s a story of desire…. You hear the voice of your own longing, a trail, if you follow it, that leads your eye further into a landscape populated as much with absence as with presences.”

Following Saulitis’s voice as she breaks new trail through a growing corpus of Alaskan literature enlivens the places she writes about even as the journey reminds us that much is still unnamed in the literature of the north. And even as the blanks on the map fill with ink like a rock slowly growing lichen, the work of navigating the interiors of our own selves is often a process inextricable from the places where we find ourselves.

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