Hyperboreal by Joan Naviyuk Kane
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013; 65 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman


Vincent Van Gogh’s late work is marked by electric color, deliberation of brushstroke, and a lasting, fresh portrayal of landscapes and humanity’s relationship to them. I’m thinking specifically of the painting “Wheatfield with a Reaper” (1889), in which late afternoon turns the Provencal sky lime green, silhouetting the mountains of Saint-Rémy, and making the expansive wheatfield gleam as it swallows the exhausted yet eager reaper. The painting survives as a luminous record of this person’s toil, the elements wrestling with him, their intimacy, and the air of southern France. The Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam upholds the painting as exemplary of Van Gogh’s “handwriting,” a staccato signature style of “vigorous, powerful strokes.”

* * *

Joan Naviyuk Kane’s Hyperboreal, winner of the 2012 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry and published as part of the Pitt Poetry Series, demonstrates the poet’s own vigorous and powerful lyric strokes, galvanizing and preserving an ancient relationship between humanity and the most northern landscapes of Earth. Kane’s language, images, and lines are electric and deliberate—lasting impressions of “a thousand / Summer days in extravagant succession.”

Strokes of Inupiaq as word, phrase, or whole poem (“Maliktuk,” “Nunaqtigiit,” “Ilu,” “Mother Tongues,” “The Dissolve of Voices,” “Muġŋatuŋilana/I am not tired,” and “Akkumin Qanituq/Swift Descent”) commingled with English, share a Native culture’s living sound with a world outside northern Alaska, and challenges readers to become familiar with a form of communication beyond the familiar. Kane’s work transports the reader to this hyperborean location and experience, as most of Van Gogh’s work immerses viewers in the landscape and life of Paris or southern France.

In the poem “Gorge,”

We beg a precipice,
A great gulf.

A small practitioner of earth,
I am learned from this—

This a stray, a hunt riot,
The custody of a wilderness.

And in “Fugato (2),” Kane brushes another swift yet potent experience in the northern landscape:

Another light, another answer—
Pith of the moon visible through low cloud.
Worry treads gray circles somewhere else.

Thinking he is lost,
He shall remember that this is the sky

With everything in it.

Hyperboreal accomplishes a great deal: it paints pastorals and impressions of uncapturable experiences with striking concision; it serves as a wire, a satellite transporting the life and culture of the Inupiaq people to the rest of the world (and transplants the rest of the world, for the duration of the book and in readers’ memories of the book, to the world of the Inupiaq people); it offers a confident and impressionistically lasting poetic voice; and it portrays a philosophy of humble coexistence with nature—“Listening, I began / To know so little” (“Etch”), and “I may never know who I am” (“On Either Side”). Hyperboreal reminds us of these truths in the context of our earth, and invigorates that remembering.