As a Tlingit and Inupiaq poet in Juneau, Ishmael Hope’s goal for his second book of poetry “Rock Piles Along the Eddy” was “to just be himself and to be unapologetically Native.”
Hope’s second book focuses on indigenous thought 030817 AE 1 Capital City Weekly As a Tlingit and Inupiaq poet in Juneau, Ishmael Hope’s goal for his second book of poetry “Rock Piles Along the Eddy” was “to just be himself and to be unapologetically Native.”

Poet Ishmael Hope. Courtesy Photo.

Cover of Ishmael Hope’s second book of poetry. Courtesy photo.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Story last updated at 3/7/2017 - 6:03 pm

Hope’s second book focuses on indigenous thought

As a Tlingit and Inupiaq poet in Juneau, Ishmael Hope’s goal for his second book of poetry “Rock Piles Along the Eddy” was “to just be himself and to be unapologetically Native.”

Aak’taatseen, the name of the boy who lived among the salmon people in a Tlingit story, roughly translates to ‘alive in the eddy,’ Hope said. He came up with the title from listening to Steve Langdon, an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage, who spent time talking to Tlingit elders like Walter Soboleff.

“There’s something about an eddy in a river, that has more oxygen and is a little bit colder than the rest of the river … Langdon spoke in a lecture that humans live in deep relation with other creatures in the world, salmon in this case. Tlingit people knew that (eddies) made for rich grounds when the salmon were making their way upriver, so people would pile rocks on the river to make that eddy and that slight whirlpool nook for salmon.”

His first book, “Courtesans of Flounder Hill,” published in 2014, took him six years to write. He read book after book and spent a lot of time listening to his elders as he honed his craft. With his first book, he discovered his heart, he said, and while “Rock Piles Along the Eddy” continues from where the first left off, the focus shifts to indigenous thought.

“The kind of poetry I like, or the direction that I at least start from, is poetry that is really unapologetically of itself, and for me I am a Native man, I’m indigenous, I’m a Tlingit man, I’m Inupiaq,” Hope said. “Within that, there’s all these areas of exploration. This collection’s starting point is indigenous thought, exploring it, trying to feel it and understand it, even allow its energy to emit from the work.”

In poems like “Indigenous Thoughts” and “The Spirit in Everything,” Hope ruminates on this. He takes a contemporary political turn in pieces like “Children’s Cries” and “Canoe Launching into the Gaslit Sea,” before delving into his home life with “Home Life on Douglas” and “Carrying Louis at Bedtime.”

A lot of his poetry, Hope said, is his attempt to reach out to other people and the rest of the natural world. He challenges Western ways of thought with the indigenous perspective like ‘there’s a spirit in everything,’ an idea he dedicates an entire poem to. He said he’d like people to give indigenous perspectives as much credence as they do the Western ones. It is his hope they see the subtleties, nuances and even similarities.

“I want my children to know, my descendants to know that I tried, that I was looking for ways to reach out to people in real genuine ways,” he said. “That’s where the poetry comes from. A lot of the work that I do is what is the poem that is there and would still be there even if there was no language.”

Hope’s view is that his poems are something that already exists within the world. He only writes words around that true poem in an attempt to get at the beating heart of it.

“I’m trying to write from the space that everything is alive. The words are alive,” he said, even the language, he hopes. He knows one of his poems are ready to be read by others when he is out walking and the poem feels alive to him and no longer feels like his creation.

“Sometimes, all a poet can do is point and say ‘Look at that. That’s alive. That’s real,’” Hope said.

“Rock Piles Along the Eddy” will be released on March 21. Hope will do a reading at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 27 at the Kindred Post with Alaska State Laureate Ernestine Hayes. The book will also be carried at Hearthside Books and Rainy Retreat Books.

Contact Capital City Weekly staff writer Clara Miller at

Editor's note: These poems are a small selection of the work in "Rock Piles Along the Eddy." Reprinted with permission.

The Spirit in Everything

If the black rocks

on the beach could

talk, we’d slip away,

gather spruce boughs for shelter,

pile snow to block wind.

Rock facet cliff shudders.

Coals hiss among the salmon skins

left in the marsh. The canoe launches

off the riverbed.

If the old people lifted

the floorboards of the Qargi

that are really the lid

of the universe,

we’d beg them

to blow out

the seal oil lamp.

I wondered at

the salmon rubbing

their bellies against

gravel, the sun’s tracks

over the warped river,

guardians clearing path

an arm’s length above the head,

wading across

zigzagging creeks,

moss-covered branches

hanging over

the stone-terraced

eddy, and I

shuddered and

tried to forget

my question.

For Richard Dauenhauer

We had our little Tang Dynasty

poets circle, scribbling notes

to friends. Local, place-based,

each word quieted with the rain

that ran down our roofs.

We had our modest clan house,

the old-timers telling stories

that call in the ancestral breath

that lined the ocean before

Raven was born. How do you choose

which stories to tell? you once asked

Bob Zuboff. He answered with a story.

The man got so close to the bear

that he married her. We all knew

it wouldn’t last, but we listened

to the end, and after a sandwich

he was done. We never got our answer,

just a story still running through our minds.

We had our own Elizabethan theater.

Our dreams could be told in the public square.

They belong there, in some form,

especially the dreams

of the old masters. The bear shits

in the woods. Fog steams

through the cracks of the dock.

Television plays in the background

of Willie’s telling of Khaaxh’achgóok.

I always watched my dad,

sipping his Stoli, talking with you

and others about the next

clan conference. How many memorials,

seminars, classes, plays, barbecues,

and readings have you been to?

You trust us to keep it up, but I was there.

It’s going to be hard to remake the world

you and Nora brought to us. The Raven

lifts up the ocean like a little blanket.

We dipped our toes in, picked up an urchin

or a dolly, kneeled in the sand,

but how closely did we look?

We should appreciate good people

when they walk among us, my dad would say.

Worn out, reading your Selected Poems,

I huddle around the fire in poetry’s

comfort, and try to recall everything

you and Nora wanted us to know.

Indigenous Thought

The truth is beauty is image and

substance in perfect continuation.

Everything perceives, everything is

perceived. Milky Way snowshoes

kick up dirt on coal-black seafloor.

What are we but the walking

earth? Gravel that thought

it could think, and even sing,

of the mind that overlaps

the mind. Chalked killer whales

overlap each other on the cave

whale hunters stumble upon

in beached umiaks, before

whisking into the outstretched

fingers of mile-high tides that reach

to the wind and disappear.

Brother, I have no need to drain

this cup we share. Let’s knock off

the mountain of linked shoulders

and backs. In the old timer’s tale

a hundred tree frogs croak

to the pink fleece sunrise,

throat singers reanimate jade

houses, rioters latch hands

in underground cities. The mind

on mind. Everything is food,

everything feeds. Mind wraps

itself in the heart of mind. Make note

and move on. So move mountains.

Sister, take the leap. Ten thousand

songbirds foment under rubber

appendages, yellowed blood

that meets starving hearts, buried

in petroleum-coated languages

that long ago crawled from shells

on gravel shores, spun into crisp fog

fluttering atop the restless minds

of the first tribe. Listen.

This world is made of song.

Trees reach below with suckling

woven and felted fingers, exposed

nerves. The glacier sheds as it grows.

Copper daggers send jolts that ripple

past the blinking horizon. The moon

shines over coastlines lapping up

salvage on prickling shores. Dawn

breaks. The fishermen of the night

jeer at the Raven clutching a box

under his wing, delirious for oily fish.

Listen. The song surrenders to the light.

Here. Drink from the jug of tears,

the tears of those who hid in tents

when our people were infected,

the tears of our grandmothers who

swallowed their language, the tears

of those perusing their bodies

for gunshot wounds from past lives.

Chew bitter plants, come up for breath,

claw out of the trench chock full

of refuse from interminable wars.

The jug of tears was collected

from your guilty, forgotten dreams.

Drink. Drink from the jug of tears.

Soon we will lie again on the bed

of moss we were born into.

Our things will follow us, too, however

late they lag behind. And the surf’s

cresting beat will reveal its face

above the breaking waves.