April 27, 2012. I’m reading on the plane: Doris Chapin Bailey’s biography of her deceased husband, Roy. The book is called A Divided Forest. Roy was a Tlingit elder from Sitka, Alaska, the town I called home for fifteen years. I still call it home, although I was born and raised in Anchorage and I’ve been in the San Francisco Bay area since 1999. And there is so much I want to say about Sitka, about Roy’s life and so many others, about my own connections to the place as a poet. Let me begin: I am flying back to California from Sitka after the memorial service for my old friend Isabella Brady, another Tlingit elder. Isabella died suddenly at the age of 88. She was a cancer survivor, ready for another ten years. She, like Roy, knew my grandparents, Les and Caroline Yaw, Presbyterian missionaries and educators who moved to Sitka from Iowa in 1923. My youngest daughter is named Isabel, out of respect for Isabella.

The Tlingit (put your tongue on the top of your mouth and blow out both sides of the tongue to come up with the ‘Tl’ sound!) have lived in Sitka for at least 5,000 years, some say 10,000. The word “Sitka” comes from the Tlingit’ika, “the outer edge of a branch pointing downward, with knotholes running through.” But the plane takes me south over the Alexander Archipelago, the Panhandle, with its islands named after the British and Russian colonists: Kruzof, Baranof, Chichigof, Admiralty, Prince of Wales. I know the islands below me, the names of the villages: Kake, Petersburg, Hoonah, Angoon, Metlakatla. This Panhandle of Southeast Alaska, Tlingit country, contains America’s largest national forest, the Tongass. I know the mountains covered with old growth spruce and hemlock trees, the mustard color of the fucus lining the shore at low tide. I don’t want to leave yet, but I have to get back to my creative writing classes and my husband and two daughters; I am so lucky to have the life I have but I am leaving all this beauty, and a good part of my heart, behind.

We make our way down Vancouver Island, fog now covering the land below. I’m reading about Roy Bailey’s service in World War II. Roy, the young man everyone called “The Eskimo” because they knew nothing about Alaska and how very distinct the Tlingit culture is. Roy, who was injured in a machine gun attack near Weisbaden, an attack in which every member of his squad was killed but him. He spent time recuperating in a hospital in Paris and then was sent to Walla Walla, Washington for debriefing. There, the psychiatrist evaluating him refused to believe that an “Eskimo” fighting in a squad with white men could survive when the white men were killed. He concluded that Roy’s wounds were either self-inflicted or an accident. Self-inflicted. An accident. Roy was eighteen years old and now had shrapnel wounds and a badly damaged right hand. Roy did not receive his medals until 1999, and only then because some very determined people from Sitka took up his cause with the U.S. Department of Defense.

It shakes me, thinking about Roy. And it wasn’t that long ago. Sixty-five years ago. Not long ago at all. My mother, born in Sitka in 1936, was nine years old. People don’t know about Alaska’s Civil Rights history, and how the territory had Jim Crow laws formally in place until 1945 when a woman named Elizabeth Peratrovich led a movement to reverse them. America’s first anti-discrimination legislation was written on the books in Alaska in 1945, before it was even a state.

I read The Divided Forest in its entirety. I find out that Roy Bailey spent a lot of time as a boy playing with my Uncle Bob, the uncle nobody will talk about. The mystery uncle. The oldest of five and my grandparents’ pride and joy, whose death in 1946 changed my grandparents completely and forever. For years I did not know how he died, my family either didn’t know or wouldn’t tell me. I know now that he died after the war had ended, in 1946, and yet my grandparents were expected to behave as if it had happened in battle. His death is a puzzle; they never found the body. And in A Divided Forest I read that “Robert was killed in a military accident while serving in the army in San Francisco during WWII and buried in the National Cemetery in Sitka.” (Bailey, p. 65). A military accident. I remember going to the Memorial Day Parade when I was a child, standing amongst the rows of white headstones and looking up to see my grandfather’s twisted face. He was crying. He never cried. The air was charged with that blue sort of summer light you see in Sitka, and I felt afraid.

I change planes in Seattle, I land in San Francisco, my husband picks me up at the airport, I’m happy to see him and my kids, I go back to teaching the next day. I listen to the radio on my way to work and think about my friend Diane whose son lost both legs in Iraq. I imagine her flying to Germany to be with him, when they didn’t think he would make it. I feel lonely. I miss my old friends so much, I miss the land. In April, the mountains are still very snowy, the skunk cabbage is coming up in the creekbeds, the bushes are filled with salmonberry flowers, the wood thrushes and warblers are staking out their pockets of territory with song. I want a freezer full of salmon and venison again. I want a town where I can walk into my neighbor’s house without knocking and help myself to some salmonberry jam.

But I’m back now, back to my routine in The Golden State. I drive my daughters to ballet and music lessons, I weed the strawberries in my back yard. I want to write poems, I can’t write poems, I don’t have time to write poems, I ache to write poems. I want to find a way to explore my grief and horror and, yes, my guilt. Yes, yes, a good dose of white guilt, because the Presbyterians washed Tlingit mouths out with soap whenever they were caught speaking Tlingit. And now the language is dying, the speakers are dying. And I am not supposed to feel guilty? It wasn’t me? No, truly, it wasn’t me, but I still have feelings about it. And I can’t get it out of my head.

Maybe it’s because Tlingit is a culture of poetry, among other things. Tlingit oratory makes use of simile and extended metaphor. There is a book I love entitled Haa Tuwunaagu Yis, for Healing Our Spirit, Tlingit Oratory, edited by Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer. In the introduction to this wonderful book, a collection of speeches recorded over several decades, I discover that the Tlingit word for metaphor is x’aakaanax yoo x’atank, ‘speaking over a point of land.’ Aha. Speaking over a point of land. I see the rocky point, the ‘carrying across’, the tenor and the vehicle. And simile in Tlingit is at ashoowatan: to compare one’s words to things. I love it. Good old-fashioned figurative language. If I could, I would sit around all day thinking and writing and reading about all this. I would sit in my back yard, in my bee-loud glade, speaking over my own point of land, comparing my words to things. There is a quote from the back of the Dauenhauer book, by A.J. Johnson: “This is the way oratory is. Even a speech delivered at a distance becomes one with someone.” I think about my friend Joseph Lease, a great poet and a dynamic performer. Once, we were having coffee together and he told me that poetry is a way for us to continue our relationships with our deceased. To honor them, to make meaning in this short life we have been given, to remember our loved ones and ancestors. In this context, the Tlingit point of land becomes the line between the living and the dead.

I’ve been back in The Golden State for a month now, and I want to care about my students more than I do, I want to be a good teacher, to believe in them, to believe that their stories and poems and essays really matter, that what I’m teaching them is important and will make a difference. I want to feel some hope, I want to go about my day and stay focused without seeing Roy, in bed in the hospital in Paris, trying to get up when he hears someone say there’s an Eskimo injured somewhere on his floor. I want to stop hearing the orderly telling Roy, “That’s you, you dummy!”

But I get stuck, the images get stuck and I see my grandfather’s face, his grief held in so tightly. And Roy in his Army fatigues. My Uncle Bob. My friend Diane’s son, who I haven’t seen since he was ten. How at Isabella’s service, Diane shows me an image of him, in his wheelchair, on her iPhone. I have known Diane since before I met my husband.

Long before I became a mother, I had an awful nightmare that I left a baby alone to die. I left it alone on a railroad track, on its back on the shining silver, and when I suddenly remembered and ran back, it was already shriveled up and dead. It was black, like a prune. I did this, I thought in the dream. This is my fault. And how could I talk about the dream, when I knew it came from inside me? I thought it was some twisted part of my psyche, and I was ashamed. Perhaps this is why the early poetry of Louise Gluck spoke to me profoundly when I first discovered it. I was in my mid-20s and working at the Alaska Pulp Corporation in Sitka. I read her poem ‘Cottonmouth Country’ and felt as though I had found a friend:

Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras.

And there were other signs

That Death wooed us, by water, wooed us

By land: among the pines

An uncurled cottonmouth that rolled on moss

Reared in the polluted air.

Birth, not death, is the hard loss.

I know. I also left a skin there.

And I wanted to write like that, so I started my journey, my relationship with poetry, without yet understanding that I was already in a place where for thousands of years people have been speaking over a point of land.

So much has happened to me since those days at the mill. In 1996 I got married in the Sitka Presbyterian Church, where my parents were married in 1962. Isabella’s daughter Louise officiated. I first became a mother in 1997, and again in 2001, but I lost my second daughter Josephine in 2002 after a long illness. Her liver was not connected to her intestines, she was malformed inside and she was born at Stanford, and at Stanford they can do it all, they can fix anything! During her eleven months of life they gave her two livers and more than ten other surgeries but it was too much, we all got tired, and it had turned into a war. So we asked them to stop and they stopped on April 11, 2002. Ten years and a week before Isabella Brady dies.

Now the Gluck poem that haunts me is this one:

Lost Love

My sister spent a whole life in the earth.

She was born, she died.

In between,

not one alert look, not one sentence.

She did what babies do,

she cried. But she didn’t want to be fed.

Still, my mother held her, trying to change

first fate, then history.

Something did change: when my sister died,

my mother’s heart became

very cold, very rigid,

like a tiny pendant of iron.

Then it seemed to me my sister’s body

was a magnet. I could feel it draw

my mother’s heart into the earth,

so it would grow.

Josephine’s headstone is there in the old Presbyterian cemetery, right beside my grandparents. Three small spruce trees grow on the hill. And while I do hope my own heart is not cold and rigid, there are certainly days when it is. No wonder I don’t want to come back to California, no wonder it’s not easy for me to give myself to my students. Now I know I will always need to return to Sitka, routinely, for the rest of my life. And I know that it’s a good thing that Josephine is very close to Isabella and the soldier whose name is Roy and his boyhood friend, my Uncle Bob. She is safe on the outer edge of a branch pointing downward with knotholes running through. She is held there and it comforts me.

CAROLINE GOODWIN was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. In 1999, she moved to California to attend Stanford University’s creative writing program. She has published two poetry chapbooks, Kodiak Herbal and Gora Verstovia and her first full-length collection, Trapline, will be published by JackLeg Press in Chicago in May 2013. She lives in the small beachside town of Montara, CA with her husband and two daughters; this is her first trip across the Atlantic.

links: my website

JackLeg Press



  • Susan O'Connor

    Very moving and evocative. Thank you for writing this. It’s lovely and sad.


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