Hyperboreal by Joan Naviyuk Kane (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013 / Pitt Poetry Series)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
Joan Naviyuk Kane begins her collection Hyperboreal with a question: “June really isn’t June anymore, / Is it?” (3). It is a question that echoes, unanswered, as ice melts throughout Kane’s collection, creating a steady, solemn drip that reverberates until the very last poem. It is a collection of survival, of singing, and a collection dedicated to place — specifically, the ancestral land of the poet.
Kane’s collection is named after the Greek “hyperborean,” the name for a mythic group of people who inhabited the extreme north. Kane is Inupiaq, a member of an Inuit tribe that once inhabited King Island and Mary’s Igloo, Alaska, though both villages have since been abandoned due to lack of economic opportunity and a dwindling population. This knowledge, of course, makes the title of the collection sting – the landscape of Kane’s poems feels barren, as if her own people were in fact mythic, leaving behind only a language few people can read, wood shavings, a mask.
This theme becomes particularly clear in poems like “On Either Side,” when Kane writes:
At the rim of the world, the aching world,
a fault of snow and shadow.
She predicts sense yet I find none:
nothing, in fact, but the edges of things,
in the wind and the movement of animals.
Through dreams inlaid with rigid marrow
at last I grew to grasp her fear:
it was to have been a survivor
when there were no others.” (30)
Survival runs through Kane’s collection, as does singing – the two seem intertwined, one dependent on the other. Kane writes: “What construction to lend me / In the moment when I would not / Recall the song I was to sing.” (35), and in many ways this book reads like the Kane’s survival song, a record transcribed first in Inupiaq and then translated into English in a way that preserves the long, multi-syllabic nature of the original language. As the collection goes on, the Inupiaq language begins to take over, slipping into poems and sometimes taking over entire sections, so the reader is startled into a foreign landscape of consonants and vowels, forced to sound out the language, to allow the song to enter their own mouth. This moment of dissonance calls back another line of Kane’s, from “Etch,” when she writes: “Handed me the eardrum of a bowhead whale – / Veined and furrowed. / Listening, I began to know so little.” (22).
In this collection, Joan Naviyuk Kane finds herself again and again listening for the voices of her people, echoing them back, finding them in the tumultuous relationship between mother and daughter, between human and landscape. This stark collection is full of both loss and hopefulness, and eternally aware of the way the world around us shifts, throwing us into new and unfamiliar places. There are stories here, which sing in a way that is perpetual, undying, as in the first section of “Procession,” when Kane writes a sleeping beauty character who sleeps but does not die:
Several arrows embedded her chest,
But she did not die.
It is said that she had her eyes closed,
But she did not die.
She got up from where she slept;
How long she slept she did not know,
But she did not die. (43)
In this collection, Joan Naviyuk Kane does more than preserve and record a language. She gives us a song, which tells the story of not only what she comes from, but also who she is now; as a native, as a woman, as a person grieving the loss of ancestral land and learning how to build another home.