Sexton's latest collection traces Alaskan landscape

Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2009

In his latest collection, former Alaska State Writer Laureate Tom Sexton deftly guides us through a magical yet familiar landscape, with microscopic attention to detail and imaginative journeys inspired by natural objects. "For the Sake of the Light" contains 53 new poems, each with their fingers tracing the contour of the land as if reading a Braille history of life in places of rugged beauty, like Alaska and Maine. Also included are a fine selection from Sexton's seven previous collections, making this edition a very practical Sexton Reader and an unrivaled gift for the poet in your life.

In "Redpolls" we are captive to the foraging of the wondrous small birds as they search the snow for alder seeds, "on the breast of each male a bit of pink / like that of a petal glimpsed falling from / a rose. This is where we live, in this small / frenzy of beating hearts."

Sexton's verse is simple in form, Zen-like in its praise of life's overlooked pleasures - a bowl of blackberries, an albino deer and the song of tugboat engines as they maneuver a barge against the tide. From Fairbanks to Southeast, Sexton's verse is as diverse as the Alaskan ecosystems he explores. While the poems of the natural world remain timeless, some revisit characters of the Yukon gold rush, fur trading expeditions in Ontario and childhood summers spent on the Maine coast.

If one poem can be read as a metaphor for Sexton's careful celebration of simple language, "The Man Who Learned Dena'ina" would work wonderfully. In it, a quiet student, who has spent the winter listening to the songs and stories of the Athabascan elders, is given the opportunity to speak, "to try a few of their words in his throat." Having done so, the student experiences a transformation of perspective, leaving the classroom and seeing, "that the ice was gone and the lake was covered / with shimmering scales. Dilah Vena, he said, / and it moved its tail. Dilah Vena, Dilah Vena." In this way, the world according to Sexton leaps from the page, filling not only the eyes, but the ears and mouth of the reader. In Sexton's world, one cannot help be swept away by the power of a single image, which becomes a poem within the poem, "sitting by the window watching night's / long limousine drop the stars off one by one" (from "Signs of Spring").

True to Eastern poetry traditions, the poems capture the often disregarded passing of time and changing of seasons, an essential element to Haiku and other short forms. When gentle rain begins to fall in "Reading Wang Wei" the reader tucks the book of eighth-century Chinese verse into his jacket and, re-acquainting his eyes with the surrounding world, notices, "Spiderwebs are on the grass / for the first time this summer. / Highbush cranberries hang / like glowing lanterns on their stems. / For a moment / I'm too insignificant to be unhappy." Which leaves this reader questioning what could have caused even a threat of unhappiness, perhaps the water stains upon the damp pages of the book or perhaps the rain on a summer's day? Regardless of this insignificant detail, there are too many revelatory moments collected here that make one rejoice that we can call this land, this Alaska with all its terrible weather, brutal isolation, unique people and resilient plants and animals, our home.

"For the Sake of the Light" will serve as a strong addition to any Alaskan book collection (despite poems collected here set in other locations) and should be prized and carefully studied by any student of poetics.

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