Two Roads: A Review-in-Dialogue of Joan Naviyuk Kane’s “Dark Traffic”
Dark Traffic by Joan Naviyuk Kane
VICTORIA CHANG: You really are quite good at deflection, even if it is your turn to start us off! But I think you actually do a good job mapping out some of the things that Kane does in this book. Admittedly, I had a lot of questions while reading this book and sometimes when I read the blurbs on the back of the book, I get more clarity, but in this case, the blurbs really didn’t aid me. This book fascinated me, though, in that while I didn’t understand what many of the poems were “about,” to use that dreaded word in poetry, I still had a sense of tone, much like an abstract painting might have a wash or tone but not actually be recognizable in the way that a realist painting might.
Interestingly, despite the book’s difficulty, some themes still poked through, which I found to be helpful in providing a loose anchor to the poems that were mostly anchorless. Themes such as environmental destruction, mental health, the colonization of the Alaskan Indigenous people and culture that led to economic and natural exploitation and cultural violence, language, and misogyny emerge in this book, despite my often not knowing where I was physically located within a poem, who was speaking (pronouns are abundant and constantly shifting), or what the narrative was. In fact, this book seems to intentionally and unapologetically resist the conventional notions of narrative.
The first poem, “Rookeries,” is one of my favorite poems in the book and perhaps is a good example of the promise of a narrative unfulfilled. The poem begins:
All men knew a secret of the northern part
of an old world, a less perfect
idea. For the bicornuate women,
it was an island.
The men here are not specific, but a general and widespread “all.” They knew a secret, but we don’t know what secret. The secret is of a landscape that is “of the northern part / of an old world, a less perfect // idea.” I had to look up “bicornuate,” which means of two branches (sometimes used to refer to a woman’s uterus which more typically has one branch). We’re not certain what “it” refers to, though, even when we do understand the meaning of bicornuate. And the poem keeps going in this manner and style.
In reading Kane’s poems, I’m struck by the beauty of the language and also the strangeness and unfamiliarity of some of the vocabulary itself (e.g., cincture, maculation, apoidea, oxlip), along with the askew collisions of these words into seemingly common and conventional syntax. What I appreciate is Kane’s resistance to facile explanation, as if refusing to give the reader the satisfaction of easy epiphanies or conclusions.
Recently, I was reading something by a reader about a poet’s book (it may have been about the middle section of my own book, OBIT) and they had written something about the poetry being too difficult to understand. This reminded me of Kane’s poetry and how a certain kind of reader may respond this way, but I personally enjoy poems where I might feel the gust of wind, but not have any idea where the gust is coming from or whether it is even wind at all. Given how this book is actually tackling difficult themes, I think overall, it’s an interesting approach to the “political” poem.
I’ve gone on too long and now want to toss it back to you — I’m curious to hear your thoughts on many things, but you had posed an interesting question when we talked that I can’t seem to get out of my head, which is: Who do you think Kane is writing for?
DEAN: As is so often the case, it is as though you have looked into my soul! I wanted to talk with you about this very notion of narrative that you mention at the end of the second paragraph above, and I think the best way to answer your final question is actually by way of that observation.
I agree that Dark Traffic has a “plot” of sorts, or at the very least a kind of arc — it is rhetorical. It makes arguments. There seems to be a protagonist/antagonist, “White Alice” (which I’m sure we will get to later), and, as you say, there are recurring motifs. The book’s unconventional narrative structure, the setting in Alaska, the metaphors of toxicity and the aftereffects of settler colonialism, remind me of Leslie Marmon Silko’s wonderful short story “Storyteller,” in which a Yupuk woman enacts revenge on a white shopkeeper for poisoning her parents with tainted alcohol. That story is narrated in a gloriously nonlinear way and is on occasion overlaid with another story about a hunter tracking and killing a bear. To me, “Storyteller” and Dark Traffic are profound texts of resistance. Both take place in settings and amid histories that try to erase or eradicate Indigenous realities, but both assert agency, sovereignty, and survivance — what Silko calls “the telling which continues.”
One example of this resistance might be Kane’s “White Alice” poem, which is actually titled thusly:
Those five sets of words make up the title, suggesting of course, that the title is always in the act of being erased or censored or redacted or rewritten. Then, the poem is composed of one word, sassaq, repeated 16 times in stanza one, but formatted in a way to resemble an arrow tip or a triangle on its side, pointing to the right. The second stanza is the same word, repeated 16 times, in the same triangle shape but now pointing to the left, built this time with sassaq entirely struck through. In Inupiaq, sassaq means “clock.” So, I read this poem as a meditation on and repudiation of time, at least linear Western notions of time and “progress.” Time moves forward, but time also erases.
Another poem, “Imaq,” is written entirely in Inupiaq and cascades beautifully, diagonally down the page from the upper right corner toward the lower left. For me, these poems do important work because they work against attempts to silence or ignore this language.
However, to your question, “Imaq” is not a poem many readers who pick up this book can “read” or “understand.” So, I don’t think I know how to answer your question, which was also, originally, my question, except to say that Kane’s project is for all of us, everyone. But, Dark Traffic is a book that seems to me very comfortable being a different thing (and a different experience) for each reader.
One thing you and I both talk about often is how frequently literature written by people of color is often read for its “aboutness.” When it comes to Indigenous American literature, I often find that readers tend to come to Native writing believing they are encountering tribal “culture” or an “authentic Native American experience,” rather than interacting with a work of art. Dark Traffic is masterfully imagined on the page and is clearly asking readers to consider it through an artistic lens. Do you have any thoughts about these issues?
VICTORIA: Ah, I love your readings of these poems and your observations are interesting. Your reading of the “White Alice” poem is really beautiful. White Alice is actually in so many poems, either as directly the title and/or in the content of the poems. “White Alice Gone to Hell,” the one you mention with the crossed out words, “White Alice,” “White Alice Changes Hands,” “White Alice Goes to Hell,” “White Alice Changes,” to name just a few. If we just read the titles of these poems that are sprinkled throughout the book in this order, one might also find a loose narrative here too.
I had to look up White Alice on Google and learned that it stands for the White Alice Communications System, and it was a US Air Force telecommunications network with 80 radio stations, built in Alaska during the Cold War (courtesy of Wikipedia). The purpose of White Alice was to enable communication between remote Air Force sites in Alaska. Sometimes civilians used the system for phone calls. Satellite communications technology in the 1970s made White Alice obsolete.
It’s important to note that constructing White Alice cost hundreds of millions of dollars and had negative effects on the environment, as did the abandonment of the various sites where fuel leakage from storage tanks occurred.
Once I learned about the background of White Alice, the poems and the titles of the poems seemed to have greater significance and meaning. The two “White Alice Goes to Hell” poems have various acronyms such as “AKN-KING SALMON” or “DEJ-DELTA JUNCTION,” which I believe are codes for the various sites. What I find interesting about these poems is how they approach the political by restraint in information/fact and also restraint in tone. Note that there are no notes in the back of this book. As a reader, I’m left wondering now whether I should have even looked all of this up. I think Kane was intentional in not feeding the reader “subject matter” and background facts for precisely the reasons that you mention above, to avoid the conventional “aboutness” of the white gaze.
And note here in the second “White Alice Gone to Hell” poem how the writing has a kind of factual restraint under the “DEJ-DELTA JUNCTION” section:
cast off my table & workdesk next the subterranean
missile silos my life changed, I changed
everything O or: how rocket fuel does deteriorate
in arctic conditions
Or in the first “White Alice Gone to Hell,” under the “AVM ANVIL MTN” section:
a correctional center bled there, weathered in w
Also under “EDF ELMENDORF AFB:”
otterless Otter Lake apprehended
offroad was she
raped am I
The writing in all of these poems is fractured, to use your term. We only get small hints of information with words such as “change” or “deteriorate” or “Lockheed Martin” or “otterless Otter Lake.” The speaker is also a ghost-like apparition with small hints such as “my table” or “workdesk” or “raped am I yet.” What we’re left with is every other heartbeat, or every other other heartbeat — the lingering effects of these rhythms, the washed-over tone of abstract painting that I referenced above.
While I think this kind of writing can be challenging for a certain kind of reader, I also find it refreshing in many ways precisely because of this “aboutness” expectation that some readers might have when they are reading work by BIPOC writers or those from other marginalized communities, which are obviously very diverse communities. It seems like Kane clearly has subject matter within this book, but she’s presenting it in a way that doesn’t spoon-feed the white gaze. In this way, I think Kane is subverting traditional notions of suffering and voyeurism.
I happen to be reading an essay by W. D. Snodgrass called “Tact and the Poet’s Force,” published in 1958, and he writes:
[I]t is a poet’s business to say something interesting. Something so interesting and so valuable that people should stop whatever it is they are doing and listen. […] Unfortunately, people prefer writing that is dull, so most writing is intentionally dulled for its reader. Its real aim is the domination of that reader’s spirit by the writer. […] That is best accomplished by being dull and so stultifying the reader’s intelligence, his ability to discriminate, to make his own choice.
While thinking about Kane’s poems, I might add that “something interesting” might be more flexible than Snodgrass intended. Kane’s poems are interesting in their gaps, what they leave out.
Do you have more thoughts on these White Alice poems, which, in some ways, seem to serve as a kind of spine of the book? And to keep going on this metaphor, I find it interesting how a spine is inside the body — we can’t see the spine. And that the pain emanating from back pain (as someone who suffers from this affliction) is often very difficult to source. I’ll stop with the spine metaphor now.
DEAN: You are a good reader of Kane’s work. Your take on White Alice and the white gaze is so smart. I’m even won over by your spine metaphors …
As I was reading Dark Traffic, I kept thinking about that title: Dark Traffic. I wondered how the book — and the experience of reading (and the experiences of decoding these poems) — would be different if the title of the collection were White Alice. So much is contained in that title: the defense communication system that you mention for sure. But for many readers, “White Alice” will make them think of the white Alice of Alice in Wonderland (an obvious if unintentional allusion) and all other associations with that book, a surreal landscape, the subtext of danger, and violence. The poem “White Alice Goes to Hell” (which you mention) almost literalizes this connection.
These poems and the book also ask larger questions about whiteness, which gets echoed in a poem like “The Erasure of Colonial Shape,” which begins: “How many Eskimo words are there for white people?” Stereotyping, reification, and the objectification and reduction of the colonial project are all bound up in these poems. Everything is loaded.
Along these lines, the White Alice poems do some interesting work regarding gender, race, and the female body, which, again, you expertly address. The dark traffic seems an inversion of white Alice, and yet they feel like two sides of the same map. What terrain are they charting? What histories do they record? What is the cartography of erasure?
Over the course of the book, Kane personifies White Alice; she Frankensteins the DARPA-esque communication system into a person, or at least a figure. Consider the very short but very effective “White Alice Changes”:
Was there once a live, green tree?
White Alice, will you look at me?
White Alice, why would you come back?
Sure, the poem could be addressed to the vast and vastly inhuman communication system, but it feels more personal than that. I don’t know that I can put my finger on exactly what is going on, but I don’t really need to. I love the odd indeterminate space these poems occupy.
Speaking of the personal, I wonder what you make of a poem like “Shot in Sobriety,” which appears to make an intense turn inward.
VICTORIA: In my notes I wrote: “Who is White Alice?” White Alice is multitudinous and therefore really hard to pin down, yet, like you say, the effect of White Alice is oddly clear: pain, environmental degradation, loss, racism, colonialism, misogyny, and abuse. Obviously, the original meaning likely refers to the whiteness of the landscape, but it takes a poet to figure out what language has that kind of accordion metaphoric flexibility, and then to effectively deploy it in a poem or in this case, a book.
I’m going to quote Stéphane Mallarmé (you’re the one who pointed me to this quote that I love): “Paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces.” In fact, I love this quote so much, I put it in a new poem recently. I think Kane does this and does this well — she doesn’t write about White Alice as much as she writes the effect (the harm) of White Alice (going back to the tonal wash I referred to above).
I also think it’s fascinating that White Alice is “White” Alice — it actually feels redundant in that for me personally, at least, I associate the name “Alice” with the fairy tale and whiteness, white women. Adding the “White” adds another layer of whiteness onto an impossibly overwhelming whiteness already, again, the phrase evokes that additive overwhelming feeling versus overtly stating the meaning.
And yes on the title of the book — ”White Alice” as a title is simply too easy for Kane. I admire Kane for avoiding the easy as we’ve already discussed above.
To answer your question on the poem “Shot in Sobriety,” I think you are right on a relative basis, that this poem takes a turn to the personal (just look at the title and one can guess what the poem is navigating in terms of subject matter). However, I still think this poem resists meaning (which could be exactly what you are leading me into). Incidentally, I marked this writing with a star:
I cut a prism of dark light from the sky & realized / recognized it as a poem /
the way it was lit gold and hued like night, too.
It’s lines like these that make me appreciate Kane’s lexical and imagistic talent. She’s plainly a good writer. What are your thoughts on “Shot in Sobriety”? I’d love to hear them.
DEAN: My thoughts about this poem, like my thoughts about any “personal” or “autobiographical” poem, are complicated and mixed. I do think that the title, “Shot in Sobriety,” and the poem’s notably personal subject matter ask the reader to read it through an autobiographical lens. But, the poem stops short of a traditional confessional poem à la Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton. The poet does not openly confess alcoholism, and so I think we are to read it slant, taking our cues from the poet.
Dark Traffic could be seen as a companion book to Kane’s previous collection, Milk Black Carbon (there is that darkness again), which also interrogates colonialism, Indigenous removal in Alaska, motherhood, and cultural and linguistic eradication. There is much to admire about that book, but what comes to mind is a great poem, “A Few Lines for Jordin Tootoo.” Jordin Tootoo was the first Inuit to play in the National Hockey League and is a beloved figure among the Inuit, especially the youth. He has also been open about his alcoholism and how his substance abuse affected his play. In this poem the speaker (Is it Kane? Maybe. Probably? At least a version of Kane.) seems to empathize and identify with Tootoo but only obliquely. A different poem written about the same time, “A Few Lines for Sherwin Bitsui,” dips its toe in the waters of addiction but, like “Shot in Sobriety,” does not take a bath.
In an interview for Broadsided Press, Kane says, “[T]he lyric invents its audience as much as it invents its speaker.” I love that observation so much because it suggests that a poem determines its audience; rather than a reader determining the “meaning” of a poem. Or, put another way, how much a poem gives or withholds actually creates, at the moment of reading, its audience. I often tell my students that we think about poetry and “meaning” all wrong. It is not the reader who finds a meaning in a poem; rather it is the experience of the poem that gives meaning to the reader’s life.
To me, this realization is critical for “Shot in Sobriety” and, truth be told, Kane’s entire book. Readers who come to Dark Traffic looking for a linear meaning or a tidy message will be disappointed. But readers who come to this book eager for an experience in which history, politics, race, aesthetics, memory, and metaphor converge will find this book utterly compelling.
I am so glad you mention that W. D. Snodgrass essay. I read that piece, the Robert Bly essay, “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry,” and several others from Claims for Poetry in my first semester of graduate school. I remember telling myself to heed Snodgrass’s advice: Rader, do not be dull. Do not dominate the reader’s spirit.
His and your point about poets having a responsibility to make something interesting is really key for entering into Kane’s aesthetic. I think Kane is doing important work in that she gives us just enough information about White Alice and Alaska and Inuit history to bring us into her visionary world, but she also leaves plenty of space (literal and metaphorical) for us to puzzle our own way toward illumination.
Victoria Chang is the author of OBIT, which received the Los Angeles TimesBook Prize, the PEN Voelcker Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Her latest book is Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief. She lives in Los Angeles and is the Program Chair of Antioch’s MFA Program.
Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books. His debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book.
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