Leavetakings: A debut book of lyric essays from Corinna Cook
Corinna Cook was born and raised in Juneau, “a rainy and proud and complicated town that wears no asphalt leash,” as she puts it in her debut book of lyric essays, Leavetakings. Just published by University of Alaska Press in the Alaska Literary Series, it’s a gorgeous, short collection of nine finely-tuned essays that care deeply about place, the more-than-human world, and the delicacies of being an individual among others “roused into liveliness and pierced by loss.”
Cook holds degrees from Pomona College and University of Alaska Fairbanks, and she earned a PhD in English and Creative Writing from University of Missouri. Most of Leavetakings is set in Alaska and all of it is anchored here, even as it ranges across the continent as far as Missouri. Ever on the move, Cook goes questioningly, eyeing layers that make up both the actual ground and our fallible tendencies toward certitude. What can we really take as given? How do we know who and where we are? For example, “Chenega” re-frames the 1964 Good Friday earthquake and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, while “The Cut” investigates the healing properties of a Tlingit origin story in the aftermath of a friend’s life-threatening surgery. Cook asks “What does an origin story do?” and notes that even resilience—by those displaced, by those abused—becomes “a kind of mourning.”
The book opens with an essay framed by the author’s solo drive from Missouri back to Southeast Alaska—“the rainy, mountainous, stolen land we love”—for a summer between academic grad school years. The essay sets up a great deal that plays out in the rest of the book—geology and geography, family history and Cook’s sense of complicity as a settler in Indigenous country, and even her early path to art instead of environmental policy. We get a glimpse of how she “essays.”
Though the author’s life is part of the weft, here, this book is no memoir. A shop mechanic in Alberta oil country or a woman she’s randomly seated next to on a jet get as much traction in the book as close friends and family. She listens, relays, and ruminates more than she tells and recounts. Cook’s biographical details matter only as far as they propel the questions that are her real subjects. The rich world beyond her limited point of view is the domain of this essayist, a world brought closer through attentive perception, inference, imagination, hunch, and analogy. She deploys the pronoun I as a poet might while making sentences and paragraphs to mortise and tenon together a shelter of meaning. The house she builds is stout enough to accommodate her rainforested frames of reference. It’s portable enough to carry with her when necessary—and to share with readers.
Her essayistic approach does meander through experiences from her own life—a summer staffing a remote fish weir in Prince William Sound, childhood encounters with wildlife and language, kayak expeditioning in Southeast, growing up white in 1980s Juneau with Tlingit and Filipino classmates, traveling by ferry and witnessing a funeral in Angoon, learning about climate change and squid near Sitka, helping one friend through mental illness and another through brain surgery. She also touches on events and themes familiar to Alaskans, but puts her own spin and context on them—events like the Good Friday earthquake and its aftermath, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, state bureaucracy and Alaska Native corporation politics, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Such concision she brings, though, minimizing exposition, using history to fuel urgent questions about home and transience.
One anecdote Cook includes in the book involves a new pilot who flies over the Prince William Sound village of Chenega the day after the Good Friday Earthquake. Chenega was so thoroughly erased by the tsunami that the pilot thought everything was okay—no debris, no wreckage, just “a friendly gesture from a few people up on the knoll,” people actually waving for rescue. He banked away and left. “Not that an inexperienced pilot chose blindness or elected to misunderstand survivors’ waving arms,” she writes. “But sight nevertheless emerges here as a skill, a sensitivity gained in part through practice, for often one must practice seeing—really seeing—what rests in plain sight.” This take might serve as a kind of metaphor for her work as a writer. Cook’s essays proffer her own looking practice and chart a method of perception. For us readers, and for the writer, the world enlarges. Time and again, she takes her leave, circling back to scrutinize and glean meaning from the very bedrock, from the stories people tell about their worlds, and from fragmentary memories of her own life. As much as Cook thinks and feels her way through and toward disparate places and ideas with curiosity, memory, regret, and desire, she honors the bodily, as well, the sensate, physical world that any cherished abstraction boils down to eventually. She is both generous and humble in her serious work of triangulating self and home relative to family, wildlife, dogs, science, cultures, governments, languages, music, food, and time.
The late, great Sherry Simpson, author of Dominion of Bears and many other Alaska books, called Leavetakings “incandescent,” and said that Cook’s “accounts of people and place are thoughtful without pretension, witty without affectation, and poignant without sentimentality because she doesn’t write about Alaska so much as she is inhabited by it.” Cook’s readers will, in turn, become inhabited by this book, too. It’s an entirely different animal than so many of Alaska’s adventure books and personal narratives. She brings a poetic sensibility to the page. As Michael White, author of Travels in Vermeer puts it, she “doesn’t write of or at a subject, she writes through it.”
With the support of a 2018-19 Fulbright Fellowship, a 2018 Alaska Literary Award, and a 2020 Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award, Cook is currently writing an ekphrastic essay collection that “looks at contemporary Alaska and Yukon artworks, goes out on the land, and searches for ways to live with colonial history.” We see a seed for this next book in Leavetakings. “Fluid Places” is ekphrastic—part of the Greek tradition of art that dialogues with other works of art. In it, Cook studies a photo in the Alaska State Museum, “Blissed Out” by Anna Hoover, a multimedia artist and filmmaker of Unungax/Norwegian heritage. Cook responds to Hoover’s image, revisiting memories it spurs to land slantwise on climate change. That her next full-length essay collection is well underway will be great news to those who read her brilliant first book.
The public is invited to her virtual book launch on Wednesday, November 25, 2020 via Zoom at 5:30 PM Alaska time, hosted by Nate Bauer, University of Alaska Press Director and Acquisitions Editor. Cook will be joined by Peggy Shumaker, former Alaska State Writer Laureate and Alaska Literary Series editor. The launch is co-sponsored by Porphyry Press, as well as Hearthside Books in Juneau and Fireside Books in Palmer, who have books for pickup or shipment. The book can also be found at or ordered from bookshops anywhere. Get your free book launch ticket at tiny.cc/cook_leavetakings. More details on University of Alaska Press or Porphyry Press Facebook pages. Learn more about the book and the author at corinnacook.com.