Leavetakings

Corinna Cook’s Leavetakings brings to mind the sharpness of line drawings so extraordinarily crafted that we reach for the page to feel the fineness of feather. From Alaskan landscapes to human relationships, Cook tests the edges where exterior becomes interior.

—Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers

“…a truly original voice.”

—Sherry Simpson, author of Dominion of Bears

Leavetakings collects ten essays set in Alaska. They ask, what can coming and going reveal about place? Might wandering serve not only to map new regions but also to map the most familiar ones, like home? As the book travels to and from people, memories, beaches, and forests, it also studies the ebb and flow of empathy and alienation that makes friendship, like place, a complex of closeness and distance.

“A stunning debut.”

—Jericho Parms, author of Lost Wax

Excerpt from “Traverses,” the collection’s first essay:

Breathtaking….  Every chiseled, staggeringly focused experience becomes a window into history or myth or science… This incantatory, elegant book broke my heart in the best possible way.

—Michael White, author of Travels in Vermeer

It is this simple. I am crossing the continent to look at its shape.

Of the continent: it’s unbelievable that road infrastructure overlays so much of it. Unbelievable that a whole plate of the earth’s crust has a net of asphalt threads laid atop it. Unbelievable, the nonchalance this creates. Crossing the continent to see its shape is less an expedition and more a comfortable contemplation. I will ford no rivers. I will search for passage through the mountains not for survival, but simply to walk my dog, Pep, study the game trails, and enjoy wayfinding on unfamiliar ground. 

I will watch the continent change as I go north in early spring. Then in late summer, I will watch it change in reverse. It is important to go both directions. It takes repetitions to see where you’ve been. And things look different when you’re leaving: even the air is different. Often, what I’m leaving is Alaska, though in my heart I am never absent from the place and my departures probably reflect more obscure schisms. At least the place is a marker, clear enough that I can count the days until I return. When the number is small, I announce it: Dog! I say. We’re going back! She knows exactly where.

[…] It’s mid-May. It’s spring in a place where the land’s memory of winter is strong. I’ll be driving out well before breakfast, well before anyone else awakens. Eventually the day will open behind me; the sky will go from rose to blue. Later, summer will come. People—southerners—will begin trickling through; I’m ahead of the RV roadtripping curve, but it’ll follow soon enough. Visitors to will come, then they’ll go, and then the days will zip up tight into fall. That’s when the swampy land all around will blush once, hard, a quick bright red before the snow. I don’t even know if you like winter. I do. It’s very quiet. That’s what will come next.

This lovely book teaches us how to examine and cherish the places where we find ourselves, no matter what rivers carried us here.

—Joni Tevis, author of The World Is On Fire

Advance Praise for Leavetakings

What does it mean to love a place? In Leavetakings, Corinna Cook explores this question via her own unique alloy “of humor and holiness.” Salmon otoliths whisper secrets; teenagers at calculus camp joke “Kiss My Asymptote”; a winged outhouse rises into the air. This lovely book teaches us how to examine and cherish the places where we find ourselves, no matter what rivers carried us here.

—Joni Tevis, author of The World Is On Fire

In this, her first essay collection, Corinna Cook draws for her reader an x-y axis and invites us to journey alongside her—on and off grid—as she plots stasis and change, leaving and returning, meditates on salmon bones and sourdough, friendship and solitude, and the ever-present landscape of Alaska. More than a collection, Leavetakings is a book of curated findings, evidence of a vast and changing northern terrain and the intimacy and wonder it engenders. With clarity, whimsy, and wisdom, Cook speaks to the body, charts under-explored regions of the heart, and presents a unique topography of human experience. A stunning debut.

—Jericho Parms, author of Lost Wax

Again and again I found myself astonished by the incandescence of Corinna Cook’s essays. Her accounts of people and place are thoughtful without pretension, witty without affectation, and poignant without sentimentality because she doesn’t write about Alaska so much as she is inhabited by it. I emerged from the intimate dreaminess of Leavetakings grateful to have encountered a truly original voice.

—Sherry Simpson, author of Dominion of Bears

Corinna Cook’s Leavetakings brings to mind the sharpness of line drawings so extraordinarily crafted that we reach for the page to feel the fineness of feather. From Alaskan landscapes to human relationships, Cook tests the edges where exterior becomes interior.

—Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers

Corinna Cook’s breathtaking Leavetakings is an unclassifiable hybrid of environmental writing and personal memoir—set mostly in the author’s native Alaska—that reads, on the sentence level, as pure poetry. Cook doesn’t write of or at a subject, she writes through it. Every chiseled, staggeringly focused experience becomes a window into history or myth or science . . . This incantatory, elegant book broke my heart in the best possible way.”  

—Michael White, author of Travels in Vermeer

The Shadow of Pandemic in Alaska Literature – Denali Sunrise Publications

I wrote a review of Mia C. Heavener’s new novel with Red Hen Press, Under Nushagak Bluff. This is an important new addition to the field of contemporary Indigenous novel because it is gorgeously conceived and written, its historic setting bucks an established trend in Indigenous literature, and it cracks open Bristol Bay’s history of epidemics—a history of eerie relevance to today’s coronavirus pandemic.

A couple short excerpts from my review:

My take: Heavener’s novel asks, precisely how does historic understanding erode? Where does the past, personal and collective, get mis-placed, mis-taken, coded, and ultimately concealed?

Seagulls swoop and dive, crying in the salty air. The waves of Nushagak Bay crash on sandbars and rocky shores. Machines rattle the warehouses on the cannery side of the village “where the beach flattened and the boardwalks grew tall.”

So many sounds; so many stories. Yet as I page through Mia Heavener’s new novel Under Nushagak Bluff under the long shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the novel’s subtle and steady investigation of silence that most captivates me. 

Denali Sunrise Publications arranged my review alongside a beautiful array of historic photos, maps, and contextual historic commentary. Full review essay available here.

A Fabric’s Entirety – Artists of Alaska: Through the Eyes of 49 Writers

The Artists of Alaska series is an ambitious, statewide project curated and coordinated by the Rasmson Foundation and 49 Writers. The project pairs Alaskan writers with Rasmuson Foundation grant awardees. The result: a growing compilation of narrative-driven artist profiles of and by Alaskans. 

Here’s an excerpt from my profile on Chilkat weaver Ricky Tagaban:

Ricky Tagaban kneels on his studio floor and reaches under the table, ripped jeans making it easy to maneuver. He hauls out a gray tote bin and plunges his hand into the coarse white fur that fills it: unprocessed mountain goat wool.

Strong, long guard hairs are integrated in tufts and clumps of undercoat, and a few bits of bark and dirt fleck the richly off-white wool with dark specs of forest and mountain. Tagaban rests his forearms on the edge of the bin, letting his hands land on a clump of wool. “If you have this mountain goat wool, you’ve got to pull all the guard hairs out,” he explains, reflexively beginning to do just that. “And if there’s poop, or slugs, or sticks, or moss, or grass — that all gets thrown away too,” says Tagaban. “The undercoat is the really wooly part. That’s what you want.”

Full profile here.

Cartographic Convergences – Yukon North of Ordinary feature

Though Yukon North of Ordinary doesn’t typically post content online, the editors generously supplied this PDF of my Kohklux Map story. You can thank Yukon North of Ordinary for supporting our cross-border Alaska-Yukon connections by subscribing here.

Story excerpt:

Deep in southeast Alaska’s Chilkat valley, three people bend over the blank back of a coastal chart—discussing, drawing, shading, remembering. They are Chilkat headman Kaalaxch’ (Kohklux) and his wives. For three days, they pool their memories, experiences, and deep knowledge of the land stretching all the way from Klukwan to Fort Selkirk, a one-way journey of thirty days. They are mapping the way inland for a newcomer, American government surveyor George Davidson. Davidson and his party are here to observe a solar eclipse calculated to reach totality at Klukwan, and Kaalaxch’ has guided them here into his homeland. Now, Kaalaxch’ and his wives work together to draw each day of the month-long journey inland. They do so from memory. It is August, 1869.

To the south, the Takinsha Mountains and Chilkat Range rise from sea to sky. Below them lies Lynn Canal, a tempestuous but rich Pacific fjord. Upvalley, the trio draw pencils across the page and alongside them flow the frigid, milky waters of the Chilkat River. Hooligans, or candlefish, seasonally swell its current. To the north, the sheer rock faces and year-round snowfields of the Takshanuk Mountains stand hard against the sky. 

Looking back from the present day, former Territorial Archivist Linda Johnson imagines arriving as a newcomer into the Chilkat Tlingits’ homeland. “If you were George Davidson and others coming up the Chilkat [River Valley] for the first time, all you see is a wall of mountains,” she reflects. “The route goes through that barrier,” she says. “In a very precise way.”

With many thanks to Yukon North of Ordinary, the full story is available here.

Detail from a copy of the Kohklux Map reprinted onto a grid.

Bird Cries and Saxophone Sounds – Artists of Alaska: Through the Eyes of 49 Writers

The Artists of Alaska series is an ambitious, statewide project curated and coordinated by the Rasmson Foundation and 49 Writers. The project pairs Alaskan writers with Rasmuson Foundation grant awardees. The result: a growing compilation of narrative-driven artist profiles of and by Alaskans. 

Here’s an excerpt from my profile on composer Rick Zelinsky:

Ice cracks against the teeth of Rick Zelinsky’s crampons. A few yards ahead, the scrabbling of Koda’s toenails signal the Samoyed has found an area of windblown crust beginning to form on the final rise. “Look at that,” Zelinsky says to his dog. “Ascent No. 128.” The pair steps up onto the broad expanse of Peak Three overlooking Anchorage’s city lights. Together they pause. Their breathing slows.

“It’s a different world up here,” Zelinsky observes.

It’s also a different world when Zelinsky, a jazz saxophonist, writes a new composition. “When you create a tune, a jazz tune, you’re creating a planet,” he says. “And then when you improvise, you land on that planet and you explore it.” With different chords, rhythms and meters, Zelinsky and his jazz ensemble not only travel over and across new terrain — they create it as they go. “That’s what I love,” Zelinsky says. “I love exploring the mountains and music.”

Full profile here.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Crockett.

Circumpolar Duet | Singular Plurality

Circumpolar Duet is a Yukon collaboration between ten word artists and ten visual artists. The process: we made our first round of arts independently, engaging the theme of “singular plurality.” Then the twenty of us came together to exchange words for vis and vis for words. In round two, we made our second contribution of word art or visual art in response to the specific piece we received in the exchange.

The result: twenty ekphrastic dialogues.

Thank you to supporters and organizers who arranged our ekphrastic pairings into a book compilation, and into a gallery exhibit hosted by Yukon Artists at Work.

“Circumpolar Duet: singular/plurality”

“Circumpolar Duet: singular/plurality” exhibition featured 40 visual artists that were combined with literary poems and stories. It was truly a beautiful sensory experience, giving the viewer many sensations of colour, texture, 3D effects, even a slight remembrance of taste, within the artistic works and beautifully written works of literature. The exhibit was truly a representation of team work. Each of these artworks were combined in a collaboration of written works which were then reflected into the other artists choice of medium. It truly is an amazing experience to hear the stories come to life, through the various mediums that were show cased; paintings, drawings, pottery, photography, textiles, sewing and beadwork, among multi-media depictions of their reflections, within a circumpolar duet, coming to life. Hehn and Munro worked together to create the first Circumpolar Duet which was showcased in 2016, whom then wanted to bring back to life the experience of a circumpolar duet, after the theme was picked through the “the Government of Canada chose its role as the guest of honour country at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2020.”The visual artists taking part in the project are Nicole Bauberger, Marten Berkman, Heidi Hehn, Jackie Irvine, Astrid Kruse, Françoise La Roche, Leslie Leong, Lillian Loponen, Joyce Majiski and Martha Jane Ritchie.The participating literary artists are Ellen Bielawski, Corinna Cook, Lily Gontard, Jamella Hagen, Susanne Hingley, Ruth Lera, Joanna Lilley, Kirsten Madsen, Laurel Parry and Elisabeth Weigand. Circumpolar Duet is a collaboration by Yukon Artists @ Work and Yukon Writers’ Collective Ink.

Posted by Shakat Journal on Friday, February 7, 2020
Film by Shakat Media.

The Whole Body Carves – Artists of Alaska: Through the Eyes of 49 Writers

The Artists of Alaska series is an ambitious, statewide project curated and coordinated by the Rasmson Foundation and 49 Writers. The project pairs Alaskan writers with Rasmuson Foundation grant awardees. The result: a growing compilation of narrative-driven artist profiles of and by Alaskans.

Here’s an excerpt from my profile on Alison Bremner:

Dancers become birds, become predators, become fish, become legendary characters. Drums pound. Voices rise and pulse. Knees bend and shoulders swoop so that blankets come alive. Arms fly out to strike angled postures — here a poised spear, there a wingtip, flight feathers angling in complicated winds.

The body: It is always the first site of transformation. It is where varying truths coincide. That is why Alison Bremner (née Marks) works with blades, wood and paint. She carves because of a dance.

Full profile here.

The Black Spruce – Alaska Magazine

Alaska Magazine’s special issue in creative writing includes my essay about heat, illness, the color red, and black spruce. The essay responds to a painting by Juneau artist Constance Baltuck.

Excerpt:

To understand the black spruce, remember it grows from a fist-sized root ball as grey and compact and crucial as a brain. Each black spruce spindles itself straight up into the crack of the cold, stout branches making a skyward scrub from base to apex all winter night. And below that brain of roots lies permafrost, even in summer. This, then, is a tree that keeps ice in mind. Full essay here.

Points of Reference: I Am Here – After the Art

The magazine After the Art asks essayists to blend writing about art – with writing about a text – with writing about personal experience.

In answer to this tri-part prompt, I link a painting by Yukon artist Jane Isakson – to an essay by William Least Heat-Moon – to fragments from childhood in Alaska.

Excerpt:

The mountain doesn’t know you’re an expert.

This is how my family reminds each other that life alongside mountains must by necessity be humble. By necessity alert. The tear-shaped island in Alaska on which I grew up has steep, rainforested mountainsides. It has dark, rocky shores. And it has a two-lane bridge to the mainland, where the rest of town is a capital city busy with state politics but rimmed by an icefield so that no road links our community to any other community. Because of this, we have a special responsibility to take care of each other.

Continue reading “Points of Reference: I Am Here – After the Art
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