The Language of Ice

When I came north,

I only learned that nilak is freshwater ice, for drinking.
No one told me the names of the ice

that will drink you —

igalaujait, the ice “which looks like windows”

qinu, the slushy ice by the sea

qautsaulittuq, the ice that breaks when tested with a harpoon

kiviniq, the dent in shore ice where the water has sat during the tide, and

iniruvik, the ice that refreezes over cracks the tide makes —

or refreezes over you.

No one told me there is no name

for the ice that speaks

the language of living

without bleeding

or breathing.

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Up Here

Looking back,

it seems all there’s ever been is Chukchi Sea ice

and enough of us to drill holes in it, fish through it,

fall in.

 

We forgotten ones, born

cold, in the days of night,

suckling fire, weaned onto moonshine

in our fathers’ fishing huts.

 

We who at two raised our first glass

to the poor bastards who would never

be us one day, those caught out

over freeze-up

 

All of us waiting

to understand the holes in the ice

and the cold ones under the frozen sea,

waiting to be the fish, the fire,

the water under everything.

 

Rose’s Diary, April 28, 2013

At five last night, our fish Fishie died.  At five this morning,

Rick and I drove our daughter Willa to the Greyhound

to a year learning to survive

on water and air,

among those who knew Thomas.

Home at noon, cleaning our empty fishbowl,

I could swear I saw Willa in a soap bubble, lying down like

last night when she should have been packing,

saying she was “relishing a last soft bed moment,”

laughing.

I didn’t mean to drop the bowl

or cut myself on the broken glass.

Spring in Kotzebue

It starts with bright yellow

garbage bags blooming in the back

of a dusty black 4 x 4 pick-up truck,

glares at us

until we put on sunglasses to keep from burning

our winter eyes.

 

We born of the old ways start to sleep

until the sun fades in late afternoon.

We dream of blueberries.

We stay up late, drinking beer,

watching the ice rise, waiting.

 

When the river runs again,

the white woman will paddle back to her cabin.

Lying alone in her wool underwear,

in her goose-feather sleeping bag,

she’ll shiver,

dreaming of the lost white boy

with the ponytail

and the big hands.

 

Me and my friends, we’ll line up

to work construction

over at the site for that new hotel.

The Man Named Thomas Siebold

There is always some truth

somewhere, if you can find it.

Thomas went looking.

He left Germany to circle the woods and rivers of Wisconsin

to be a seeker among seekers,

to teach others to open their eyes

while he flew up to the frozen woods and rivers of Alaska

to forage alongside the hungry bears

before hybernation.

 

He promised his friends he would walk from the cabin in Ulaneak

down to Kobuk,

and he would fly home.

On November 10, 2012, his plane headed south

with an empty seat.

 

Those who searched his borrowed cabin by the river

found his heavy parka, his guns, his dream

journals, his unfinished

letters, a map with a hole

where the north passes to Noatak

should have been.

 

In Kotzebue, they say come June,

the thaw will free him,

wherever he has frozen.

This is true.

It may not be the truth

he was looking for.

Toward the End

I dreamed I was Thomas

dreaming.

No snow, no fire, no ice,

only old man Thomas, sitting in smoke

barefoot

weaving black mukluks from raven feathers

singing the song of his own death.

 

I couldn’t remember the melody or the story

when I woke up, only the salt taste of

Chukchi Sea, Kuskokwim River, Dead Man’s Creek.

I never met Thomas, but something about the song

I couldn’t remember made me want to see

how long I could cry.

I once cried an entire summer

but summer is short here.

A Little Northwest Hospitality

Here in Kotzebue

come May, when it begins

to thaw, the sea ice

walks up our front steps, pushes

through our locked doors

into our living rooms,

parks itself down,

watches TV.

Last year, it got a good laugh from a Sears ad

featuring self-defrosting refrigerators.

This year, when the ice comes

I’m opening the doors wide,

setting out a meal.

Fish, mainly.

And leaving a chair waiting

in case it chooses

to bring Thomas along.

To Thomas

We stand in a circle

under the moon.

The trees of night

sweat around us.

 

No one touches anyone.

I wait for someone to say

It was his time.

No one says anything.

 

A wood duck wails, trails off.

Lette starts humming, quietly

“Camptown Racetrack,”

the tune Thomas always whistled

to keep a steady cadence

hiking uphill.

 

While Lette’s voice climbs up

“Goin’ to run all night,”

everyone joins in.

I shiver and step back,

then can’t stop.

 

The circle moves with me,

all steadily walking back,

humming.

A Prayer for Thomas

Not that he was a church-going man,

more one to live his truth alone in the forest,

far from trees

beaten down into kneelers.

 

Not that come Sunday, he’d mind a little

godly boogie woogie in the backwoods,

a samba for the saints

with his squirrel hides drying on the line,

a little slow dance on a cold night,

a two-step and a sway

around.  Lord, my back still burns

from the hands that man

wasted hugging trees —

 

Not that a one reached back to him

when he lay his body down

for a final baptism

in that ungrateful Ulaneak River.

 

Now I’m not a born-again kind of woman,

God forgive me,

but I wouldn’t mind

if he’d rise up like a stalagmite

from his damn bed of ice

for even half a minute,

long enough to bless me,

hallelujah,

with those hands.

Thomas, My Child

You who could start a fire

with just those big, scarred hands,

you who wanted to read books on fire,

on forest safety,

glossy pages that all burst into flames

when you held them.

You who were only safe in the water,

I could not stop you from paddling north, alone

into that cut in the earth

where the flooding rivers freeze higher

than mountains,

I could not stop you

from diving through the shelf of ice below

and sinking into the buried highlands

where, by now, the cold winds have blown

all the fire from you

into the ice blue land

and water and sky.