Raven Mandala II by Nathalie Parenteau

I lived in Alaska sixteen years ago, when my oldest son Jasper was born.

During his first month he had trouble sleeping, as babies often do, and most nights found me walking with him in my arms trying to get him back to sleep.

While walking I would softly sing to him and recite poems and, occasionally, I would whisper a poem I was working on at the time.

One of these poems was “An ‘Unkindness’ of Ravens,” which was filled with direct observations of ravens — an almost constant presence in town and, along with polar bears, a kind of totem in my life since I first saw them as a boy in Maine.

The poem started forming one night when, after putting my son back in his crib, I couldn’t get back to sleep.

Looking out the window, I noticed ravens gathering in the tall trees behind the house. I was intrigued as their numbers grew and the poem began to unfold in my mind.

Many of the images in the poem came from ravens I observed out my office window in the old Alaska Railroad Depot building by Ship Creek below downtown Anchorage.

I always liked this poem, perhaps because of its association with the birth of my first child and what it said about the strangeness and newness of my life at the time: a new father and new to Alaska; both uncharted territories.

As with many things, my perseverance paid off and, fourteen years after it was written, the poem found a home in a journal called Abyss & Apex.

Here is my poem, “An ‘Unkindness’ of Ravens”:


To fall asleep at night, I count ravens

from my bedroom window.

They gather in the spruce trees

at the edge of the woods,

as snow gathers dusk on its surface.

By midnight, thirty or forty

have gathered there in the oily dark.


As a group, they are called “an unkindness,”

but they are polite

and helpful to each other,

share their successes and failures

pursue joy and embrace their strength

in numbers, which is more than we can say.


Plummeting downhill, they launch into air,

as if snowboarding; flipping and spinning

— hell-bent teenagers on a half-pipe.

In more sober moments, they tell each other

where to look for food, when danger is near,

and where the good garbage is.  They discuss

variable wind speeds or compare moose meat

found in the woods with that of roadside kills.


They can be graceful on the wing — Naiads

of the air — or clumsy and indelicate,

half-eaten bagels dangling from black beaks.

Dusk comes later and later these evenings,

and morning arrives sooner, winter almost over.

Come Easter, the ravens will be gone.

Ravens prefer dead things remain dead.


–Scott Edward Anderson


I first became aware of the Scottish poetry journal Anon through some of the poets I follow on Twitter (most of whom I’ve included in my poetry list, which you can follow too here.

Anon is edited by poet and social media producer Colin Fraser and Peggy Hughes, who works at the wonderful Scottish Poetry Library.

One cool thing about Anon is its format, which is reminicent of those old Penguin Classic paperbacks.  The other is its completely anonymous submissions process.

The editors do not know the names of the poets whose work they are considering — and they never know the names of the poets they are rejecting.  As the Anon tagline proudly proclaims it, “We don’t care who you aren’t…”

I submitted a few poems to the magazine last year, including one poem I’d written in Alaska over a dozen years before called “Midnight Sun.”  The poem got picked and appeared in Anon 7.

Here’s what one reviewer, writing in the journal Sabotage, said about that issue of  Anon:

“Anon Seven is an effervescent production, its poems spanning the world: from Dave Coates’ transfigured, strangely threatening ‘Leith’ (on the magazine’s doorstep, since Anon is produced in Edinburgh), to the detailed, tender surveillance of Lake Illiamna, Alaska, which Scott Edward Anderson undertakes in ‘Midnight Sun’. Its strengths lie in variety, and particularly in the sheer invention and craft of certain poems – sometimes, even, of especially successful lines, such as the opening of Richard Moorhead’s ‘I Shot A Bird’, which breaks upon the reader with a brash insistence that ‘Everyone should try some killing’.”

Here is my poem, “Midnight Sun”:


Midnight Sun

at approximately 59° 45′ N Latitude, 154° 55′ W Longitude


Each night,

I watch the sun set

over Lake Illiamna

through the willows.

How physical,

the names of willows:

Bebb and Scouler,

feltleaf, arctic, undergreen—

names ill-suited for their frail appearance.

And how palpable the story,

told by the black-capped chickadee

about the four bears who come

each night to the village,

linger for a couple of hours,

then vanish.

As the bird now vanishes

from atop the satellite dish

outside the room at Gram’s B&B.

He leaves behind

a white remembrance,

which disturbs the signal

coming from Anchorage,

interrupting a program about

the formation of the Hawaiian Islands,

and sending ripples of multi-colored “snow”

swirling into TV screen volcanoes.

While back outside,

midsummer sun barely sets on the village,

angling over sparse willows

and spruce, bentgrass and sweetgale,

perhaps twinflower, although

verifying the presence of that species

may require a second look.

A second look, which the sun

will suggest, upon its return

four and one-half hours from now.

That is when the BLM surveyors arrive

on their ATVs (whatever the weather

and whether they’re foolish or clever),

to verify yesterday’s measurements,

as they do each morning,

in this village of willows

and midnight sun.


–Scott Edward Anderson


Order copies of Anon — or better yet, a subscription — here: Anon

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John Haines Photo © Dorothy Alexander

In the spring of 1997, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, and was invited by the University of Alaska Anchorage to put together a program for their annual Writing Rendezvous conference.

I thought about the fact that I was in Alaska and we were coming to the close of a century and that poetry seemed to be at a crossroads.

And then I thought about John Haines.  Any panel on poetry in Alaska must feature John Haines, I thought. Haines was a kind of unofficial permanent poet laureate of Alaska.

Since moving there to homestead in 1947, Haines had crafted and composed poetry of great solitude and sincerity out of his Alaska experience.

Haines was pleased to join the panel, although he said something about being too old to be of interest to the audience.  Then I told him the panel would be rounded out by a young spoken word poet and an Alaska Native woman poet.  He got a spark and became more interested in the prospect.

I don’t remember much about the panel — and I confess I don’t have my notes at hand.  It was called “Poetry at the Edge of the Millennium” or somesuch.  I do remember the panelists were engaged with each other and engaging to the audience.

And I recall that Haines stirred up a bit of controversy on the panel talking about spoken word versus conventionally printed poetry.  That was pretty typical for the poet.

“He was a cantankerous, insufferable, unbendable old bastard but he was a damn good writer,” longtime friend John Koolstra told the Fairbanks Daily News Miner.  “He is Alaska’s best writer.  He was a standout.”

So when I heard that John Haines died last night in Fairbanks at the age of 86, I thought about his poetry.

From his isolated cabin above the Tanana River in Alaska’s Interior, he learned  “to make things for myself, to build shelters, to weave nets, to make sleds and harnesses, and to train animals for work.  I learned to hunt, to watch, and to listen.”

And there he crafted poems out of a spiritual wilderness where his solitary imagination confronted existence without the comforting illusions of society (to paraphrase poet Dana Gioia).

Here is John Haines’ poem “Fairbanks Under the Solstice”

Slowly, without sun, the day sinks
toward the close of December.
It is minus sixty degrees.

Over the sleeping houses a dense
fog rises—smoke from banked fires,
and the snowy breath of an abyss
through which the cold town
is perceptibly falling.

As if Death were a voice made visible,
with the power of illumination…

Now, in the white shadow
of those streets, ghostly newsboys
make their rounds, delivering
to the homes of those
who have died of the frost
word of the resurrection of Silence.

–John Haines


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The Ten-Legged Polar Bear

August 12, 2010

Qupquigiaq drawing by Scott Edward Anderson

When I lived in Alaska, I heard a story from an Inupiaq man about the Qupqugiaq, a legendary ten-legged polar bear who renounces violence and tries to create a love-based community.

He also told about a time when some hunters came across a Qupqugiaq that had fallen into an ice hole and was struggling to get out.

Rather than kill it, they decided to help the bear out of the hole. This seemingly impossible task took a lot of team work. The more they struggled, however, the harder became the task. Only when they stopped and stood still for a moment did they realize their frantic actions were useless. Once they calmed down and worked in concentrated harmony the task became easier and the bear could be freed.

How often do we let the tasks at hand get the best of us, when what we really need is to calm and slow down?

Here is my poem about the Qupqugiaq, which originally appeared in Terrain:

“The Ten-legged Polar Bear”

(Qupqugiaq: a legendary ten-footed polar bear described
by the Inupiaq of Alaska’s Arctic North Slope.)


Ten legs are better than two
only if they work together—

when all five legs on one side
and all five legs on the other side

move in concert like a sled runner,
the Qupqugiaq moves smoothly,

but if the legs get tangled up
and one leg trips up another,

then another trips another,
the whole bear comes crashing

down; it takes a lot to get
a ten-legged polar bear upright

and get it moving again—
Think of our enterprise in humanity;

when we work well together,
what union of harmony and grace—

–Scott Edward Anderson, Terrain 13


I thought of this poem after reading a blog post by Jerry Colonna that featured David Wagoner’s poem “Lost.”

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Magpie by Diane Stiglich (collection of the author).

Magpie by Diane Stiglich (collection of the author).

Almost a decade ago, the Alaska Quarterly Review published a poem of mine called “Naming.” I thought of it today because a good friend mentioned it in a message to me on Twitter. (She had overheard a conversation about magpies I was having with another friend.)

I’m not around magpies much these days, living on the East Coast. I miss them. Magpies, all corvids, really, are a totem for me (bears, especially polar bears are my other totem). Highly intelligent birds with bad reputations, they are a lot of fun.

Gary Snyder once told me and a group of other students that we should find totems for our poetry, “this is the world of nature, myth, archetype, and ecosystem that we must all investigate.” He also told us to “fear not science,” to know what’s what in the ecosystem, to study mind and language, and that our work should be grounded in place. Most of all, he instructed, “be crafty and get the work done.”

Advice that also, curiously enough, reminds me of magpies.

Here is my poem “Naming”:

The way a name lingers in the snow
when traced by hand.
The way angels are made in snow,
all body down,
arms moving from side to ear to side to ear—
a whisper, a pause;
the slight, melting hesitation–

The pause in the hand as it moves
over a name carved in black granite.
The “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck,”
of great-tailed grackles
at southern coastal marshes,
or the way magpies repeat,
“Meg, Meg, Meg”–

The way the rib cage of a whale
resembles the architecture of I. M. Pei.
The way two names on a page
separated by thousands of lines,
pages, bookshelves, miles, can be connected.
The way wind hums through cord grass;
rain on bluestem, on mesquite–

The tremble in the sandpiper
as it skitters over tidal mudflats,
tracking names in the wet silt,
silt that has been building
since Foreman lost to Ali,
since Troy fell — building until
we forget names altogether–

The way children, who know only
syllables endlessly repeated,
connect one moment to the next by
humming, humming, humming–
The way magpies connect branches
into thickets for their nesting–

The curve of thumb as it caresses
the letters in the name of a loved one
on the printed page, connecting
each letter with a trace of oil
from fingerprint to fingerprint,
again and again and again—

Scott Edward Anderson
Alaska Quarterly Review, Summer 2001

Here is an Mp3 recording of me reading “Naming” Live at the Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, on September 22, 2008: Scott Edward Anderson’s “Naming” (Note: there is a 10-second delay at the beginning of the file.)

Postscript: And here is a filmpoem of “Naming” made by Alastair Cook in 2011: Naming