Book Review

Surviving the arctic winter, dealing with a relationship pulling apart, and living in an Inupiat community that is struggling to maintain its identity are the themes that intersect in Kelsea Habecker’s Hollow Out. The image-driven poems are full of the Alaskan landscape: whales throwing themselves onto rocky beaches to scrape barnacles off, tufts of hair on a caribou skeleton after wolves have moved on, and women collecting small salmon berries that they will carefully dole out over the long winter.

This is Habecker’s first book, selected by Charles Simic for the Many Voices Project of emerging writers and published by New Rivers Press. There are four sections and the title for each functions as a signpost for that part of the journey: “Open In,” “En Route,” “Hold On,” and “Reason to Hope.”

When nothing dramatic is going on, like the killing of stray dogs to preserve meager food supplies or the arrival of a polar bear in town, Habecker notices the smaller scenes. In “Breaking Point (When Temperatures Drop Low Enough),” she writes:

You throw a cup of coffee into the sky
and the beads necklace together for one instant
then evaporate, shattering
before they can even freeze.

Into this Alaskan world where physical life is tenuous, Habecker weaves her second theme-a personal relationship that is also struggling to stay alive, and she uses images from the natural world to illustrate the upheavals to her inner world, one with corresponding events of destruction, tenderness and isolation, as in “A Bird That’s Come Home”:

You wrap yourself in a shell,
I fly to the shore to contemplate the churning

sea and the birds in it. Gulls float the rough swells.
After all, in the death crack
of Arctic winter the sturdiest birds remain.

But what about us?

The narrator struggles to trust her intuition to guide her through, and we feel her move back and forth in the relationship like pack ice adjusting to each change in the sea, repeatedly trying to make the situation work before trying again to let go. Her struggle to survive emotionally is played out in the challenge to survive physically in a frozen land.

The small village where she lives also struggles with the erosion of its identity as it makes the transition from a tribal society to one hybridized with modern values. This third theme appears in poems that show the breakdown of the normal structures that hold a community together. These disconnections add to the delicateness of living in a place that already exists on the edge of life. There is the feeling that nothing is for certain on any day, that life can change quickly when the next storm pushes in, another teenager commits suicide, or the sun finally breaks above the horizon after months of darkness.

Habecker writes of the difficulty of hanging on when hope is faint and options are limited. In “Parent-Teacher Conference,” she deals with child abuse, drawing on a comparison to birds in the home whose wings have been clipped. Yet she also writes of something larger being present, something all-encompassing, and the author only has to look out the window to be reminded of this. By facing and surviving the darkness (both literal and figurative), she comes to understand the resilience of hope.

In terms of craft, Habecker pays attention to the sounds of words. This is from “Cut, Then Chase”: “they splinter and hitch away / the clutches of ice, carve / a road out of drifts and fragments….” She uses a wide variety of stanza arrangements. “Breaking Point” shows how she structures her poems, leading us line by line from a physical event to a thought to philosophy to the personal as she searches for answers:

Breath becomes what we wade through
to get where we're going
which is always inside
and never far enough from ourselves.

The dropping in of side thoughts and the choice of stanza breaks in a number of poems are reminiscent of the work of Olena Kalytiak Davis, another Alaskan poet, although Habecker’s poems follow a more narrative thread than the stream of consciousness delivery that Davis employs. Habecker’s sense of solitary awareness, both in herself and in nature, reminds one of Galway Kinnell. And her conversational tone and willingness to journey through dark emotional landscapes speaks of Stephen Dunn, but with a sharper tone. From “Over Ice, Flying Blind”:

I don't know how to do this, how to die.
How to let you. How to be
the one lover left flying. This is all I have
packed for our journey. One bag

Approximately a quarter of the poems are not tied directly to Alaska, yet they support the narrative arc. Some of the entries are cento or collage poems, and most of these are not as sharp linguistically or as focused thematically as the rest. I would have preferred more of Habecker’s deft words, especially in a few darker poems that speak of standing on the abyss, as well as more poems about whatever native mythology is giving the tribe guidance for dealing with its societal changes.

Perhaps most startling is that Habecker does not run from the harsh realities of life, but stays in the desolation, facing its uncertainties, even blessing the darkness in one poem because it is teaching her important lessons about emotional strength. Habecker draws on images from nature to show how each struggle in this environment is both magnificent and horrifying, and the results are stunning.

About the Reviewer

Mark Liebenow is the author of three nonfiction books. His work has been published in a number of journals, nominated for an Illinois Arts Council Award, and has won the Sipple Poetry Prize. He studied creative writing at Bradley University and at the University of Wisconsin, and is currently writing about hiking in Yosemite and grief recovery.