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Nine Alaska Poems

The purged caribou heart. First arctic
meal prepared raw, before fire. Before fires

purpled meat, meat was ulued off to serve
an open mouth. First heart’s crevasses

stretched like caribou cut raw. Protoheart
raw in search of fire, red windburn revealed

the body. Blood wanting of new heat
lived in the body raw. Open arctic, first

blood transfusion was what caribou purged
fed into veins as freeze threatened the heart.



Something animal died underneath the stilted house.
We shovel it and leave it to tundra so we can empty

our life outside. We shut away winter, parka furs
in the freezer. We don’t need to talk for the body

to know death is animal, know animals hide
to empty their lives. Sick, they will seek and find

shelter from near dark to isolate in the even darker.
We talk of how life dimples the glacial tundra soil.

With a rinse, the muddy buckets later hold
salmonberries ripened in the crotch of tundra shrubs.




Hunger is—the mouth wants
but cannot stomach a way to say what

we find
we need

from a day open and willing to give.


My Alaska need: animal. There
it is: a desire, animated.


Some desire forms
work on what we are.




Exposing paddle into ambient Arctic
Ocean, one ear placed onto the air end

To listen against wood, you hear whale
Song—here at least the mind is touched.



Ask life to soften, to harden. Sedge
And ground ice in the palm. Mention

Melts into circles. Here I am without
You. Here not without you.



First, the citation of one bull caribou on tundra—

dangerous, this unsettled place
empty of most of us. Then the mind
hunts directions to survive, thousands
of years along temporary trails formed
as if there is a pattern we don’t spread,
as if we hadn’t lost the path of rivers—
carbon steel is ice puncturing ocean,
cold in how it punctuates the end—

second, resources crease in this public folder of land.
If the body must script a religion to settle hurt,

to erase one world requires terrain
we turn off. First winter storm
is not enough to cover an absence,
not enough for us to scrape frost
blanketing eyes. The inverted bowl
of the caribou hoof print is empty.
Inside, vibration amplifies arctic
wind with scent of blood—third

in the kitchen, estate papers gather into life.



Arctic permafrost carries
snowpack in months of cryptic quiet.

Here is surface seeking light. Here
and disposed to each winter’s religion,

tundra severs roots, separating desire
from what lives in the body. No trees

because for winter months, life follows
ice in uneven absence, colored by 

aurora borealis. Because if we were air,
we could trace sky, make a forest of it.



A form of want
in a fake day,

I hold in mind
a negative
tilted below
arctic circle.

It develops 
cold demands,

an Alaska I take
as some desire

takes darkening
to freeze over.



Rebuild sinking life into one
Caribou. Scaffold fur and tendon

And bone. Know her eyes. Seek
Trails toward some granule belief,
Then render a meal. It is here

Life lives the network of herds
Bedded along troubled permafrost.

Flatness engineered sightlines—
Caribou beneath sky. Here are no
Buildings the size of wars.

To tear open Alaska. Caribou
Liver. Whale heart. Puddled

Atmosphere, red-eyed desire.

Tundra heated with trouble
Burns. Sea ice torn apart

From its Alaska. You inhale.

When I say you are here, I mean that
Here is where we believe our form
Against flatness, that flatness

Permits us our shape. There is no you
Separate from I, separate from iced-
Over tundra. No absence felt,
Not here. No absence

Separates from here. Blanked by rising
Coastline interiors set against, you
Say nothing for it to be there. 

One migration waiting to catch—
No sky that is not land.

No land that is not water.
Take melt that is Arctic Ocean.

Take a prop plane to caribou
Acreage. Take polar bears inland

Hunting life. No day that is not
Night. No night that is not

Less. Sky and water, one eye.


Missionaries left a Bible. Inside it storms
dust to cover our belief held with rods
tight in hand. Says not melt but dust

is where belief breeds mosquitoes. Let it
not be the arid or unformed we strike
as debris, but glacial desire broken off.

What you cannot do is strike into absence
as it infects entire forms of air you need.
That a scourge can form as a roller chain

hauls absence away. That it finds the need
to smell into Alaska air is warmth in that
a swarm finds us, absence it breaks like ice.

Bret Shepard is from Alaska. He is the author of the forthcoming collection Absent Here, which was awarded the 2023 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, and another full length, Place Where Presence Was, winner of the Moon City Poetry Prize, as well as two chapbooks, including The Territorial, which received the Midwest Chapbook Award from the Laurel Review. He currently lives outside of Philadelphia and teaches at Goldey-Beacom College.