All my relations: Poetry of Philip Kevin Paul and Neil McLeod

Philip Kevin Paul. Taking the Names Down from the Hill. Roberts Creek: Nightwood Editions, 2003.

Neal McLeod. Songs to Kill a wihtikow. Regina: Hagios, 2005.

With the publication of these recent collections of poetry by a Saskatchewan Cree and a Saanich writer, two important voices have been added to the tapestry of Canadian writing. Philip Kevin Paul’s poetry takes a more traditional literary form, while Neal McLeod’s poems reflect the influences of performance poetry and urban music. Both poets write from within the heart of their relations: their families, homelands, and the web of living things to which they belong. As a result, these collections are vibrant examples of poetry that affirms the unbroken lines of indigenous cultures, but also each writer’s individual humanity.

Philip Kevin Paul’s first collection of poetry, Taking the Names Down from the Hill, is as much a territory as it is a book. To read this superb collection is to enter a complex ecosystem of imagination and memory made up of people, animals, rivers, trees, and stories. Although this collection is only Paul’s first full-length book, he has already developed a mature vision and a graceful, finely honed writing style. There are really no weaknesses in this book—Paul portrays people, places and nature equally well, brings humour and grief to bear in different contexts, and shows remarkable depth in his understanding and expression of complex ideas and situations.

The book’s chemistry can be summed up in words taken from Paul’s poem “About the Fire:” “The secret to any fire is to draw its pieces close enough together to offer each other heat, but not too close or they will smother the flame” (Italics the author’s). As with pieces of wood drawn together to start a fire, Paul’s poems achieve closeness to their subject matter without smothering under the considerable weight of the poet’s memories and emotions, many of which are associated with his grief at the loss of his parents and other close family members, as well as cultural loss. While many of Paul’s poems eulogize his parents, they also explore the spiritual and geographical depths of Paul’s Wsanec (Saanich) culture and territory, located near Brentwood Bay, British Columbia.

One of the key figures in Paul’s poems is his late father. In the poem, “About the Fire,” Paul explores their relationship, and eulogizes his father. Paul describes hearing his father calling him to do chores in “bitter tones.” Paul would then accompany him into the bush behind their house to cut wood: “His tone pulls me away from whatever I am doing,/ forcing all reluctance into a knot in my belly.” In the bush, his father points out the best pieces of scrap wood and shows him how to build a fire: “…with the magical fluency of his hands: four balls of newspaper, cedar, maple…Waving the last twig at me like a wand…” The fires they built, like the relationship between the senior and junior Pauls, would sometimes smother, sometimes ignite too quickly, but occasionally became “…a slow burning, long-haired, smokeless fire,” the kind perfect for long conversations. Sometimes, if Paul’s father thought it safe, they would let the fire burn on when they left, just as the inner fire sparked by their relationship burns on in the poet’s memory and writing after his father’s death.

Another important and ubiquitous figure in this book is the poet’s mother, who died prematurely of cancer. In an important series of three poems called “What We Call Life,” Paul writes about three Saanich concepts: HELI (lively and alive), S’HELI (life) and SOX, HELI (personal belief). These poems explore on a deeper level what is to be Saanich, and reveal how Paul’s deepest understanding of himself as a Saanich person is intertwined with his language and the one who taught him his mother tongue. In the poem “SOX, HELI” Paul writes of picking Salal berries at dawn with his mother, learning to harvest and prepare this important food. As with learning to build a fire with his father, berry picking connects mother and son across generations, as they share knowledge of Saanich culture and language, as well as the sweetness of life: “…. Feeling silly enough to allow/ the edges of our mouths to become purple all around,/ she taught me the proper uses of the harvest words.”

The series of three poems, “What We Call Life” are important not just because they convey deep experiences of family love and cultural learning, but also because they pierce through the grief of cultural loss and fragmentation that pervades this book. Throughout the collection, Paul refers to the “old people” as possessing a wisdom lost to the younger generation of Saanich people. In the poem “Grandma and Sina,” Paul writes that the young people have been born “within the girth /of uncertainties,” while the older generation are still blessed with a wiser, more magical perspective on life:

Look she is growing old

and is not at all concerned.

She is from those fortunate days

and looks oddly at our sadness

for her, for ourselves.

Without diminishing the very real sense of loss experienced by the Saanich people (a familiar story to all indigenous people), Paul realizes that his people’s grief for, and idealization of, a lost way of life risk obscuring a culture that is still alive. In the book’s title poem, “Taking the Names Down from the Hill,” Paul writes: “Sorrow was pathetic and laden/ with a silence so vast that/ the drummer could not wake us…The mourning must break at last.” In this same poem, Paul casts aside his idealizations and puts his grief over cultural and spiritual loss into perspective:

I’m glad, finally,

to have shrunk down Saanich

—what I imagined to be Saanich–

and put it away.

What I imagined was my only home

lost forever under tons of concrete

and vulgar electric houses humming

the sickness into us.

What I imagined to be the only rightness

worth striving and dying for and making

their deaths right.

Paul’s shrinking down of what is Saanich does not diminish it. Rather, it is Paul’s way of clearing away the detritus of loss so that he can start anew. In this same poem, Paul portrays himself dancing on a paved road in front of a stranger’s house “…at least as foolishly as a Scotsman /gone Indian and naked in the woods!” This carefree act marks Paul’s breaking-free from grief. It is a kind of reclamation of Saanich culture in the here and now. Paul sums up what he has learned:

…I will tell you

what they really left us.

They left us

magic in everything,

the beautiful way

in everything. But what

we truly own has never left us…

As Paul sweeps aside the idealization of his culture, he is able to connect with the much deeper Saanich (and human) reality depicted in “What We Call Life:”

…In the hallways

of this very house, when I was eighteen,

I felt the presence of ancient beings all around me,

Breathing shallow breaths. I understand now

their crease is in the pages of my unwritten poems
and along the centre of my secret aches, the kind
reserved for journal entries. At the moment
of quiet and calm, the older people say you are
feeling your S’HELI.

This collection of poems is filled with the whisperings of these beings. Their power and mystery inform Paul’s vision, lending a gravity and universality to poems about common human experiences, casting them a special light so that we, as readers, know them anew.

Neal McLeod, a Saskatchewan-based Cree poet, offers readers a much more performance-oriented and urban style of poetry with his first collection of poems, Songs to Kill a Wihtikow. McLeod, who is also a painter, academic and comedian, has performed his work at poetry slams, and honed his poetic craft through the Crow Hop Café, a Regina-based showcase for First Nations artists. McLeod’s background as a performance poet is evident in many of the poems his book, which have a beat rhythm and are filled with vibrant imagery bringing to life characters that people a tough urban landscape.

Like Philip Kevin Paul, McLeod feels keenly a sense of cultural loss and fragmentation, which he frames through the myth of wihtikow, also called “Wendigo” in popular lore. The wihtikow is usually understood as a spirit that possesses people and drives them to commit cannibalism, but McLeod focuses on wihtikow as a metaphor for greed, as he explains in the introduction to his book: “wihtikow turns on others in its society, concerned only with its own well-being…for me, wihtikow is also a powerful metaphor for greed, the attempt to swallow the light from the sky of the world….”

Greed, so often associated with western capitalist society, is clearly a force that threatens the characters that people McLeod’s book. McLeod uses his visual art to explore and critique greed (four colour plates from his wihtikow series are included in the book). As a poet, he brings to his writing humour, earthiness and passion to counterbalance social and political forces that threatens his ability to remember where he comes from and who his relations are—both of which are fundamental to his understanding of self as a Cree person.

McLeod explores this sense of self in many poems in the book, including his more joyous and raucous poems, which no doubt make great performance pieces. One such poem is “The Last Great Hunting Trip,” where McLeod relates the family story of how his father and uncles went on a hunting trip 1973:

this all happened in 1973 before my time

while I was alive but not old enough to go

my dad and uncles lived to hunt

I heard how one of my uncles covered ground

moved fast, but did not run

they gathered west of kistapinanihk

or Prince Albert as the cowboys say

drove his station wagon with wood paneling

seemed fitting

as we were really from the bush

McLeod, who was not on this hunting trip, brings it to life through stories he no doubt heard about it and by using his considerable gift for creating vibrant and earthy imagery. By committing this story or other such stories to print and telling them again and again at live performances, McLeod helps to turn the tide of forgetfulness imposed by government policies that have attempted to force indigenous peoples to forget where they come from.

In this book, McLeod also explores his Cree spiritual tradition in shorter, dream-like, lyrical poems, like the one called “Fire Walks the Sky.” In this poem, McLeod writes of his family as a part of the Cree tradition. This poem talks about the origins of the poet’s family name “McLeod” and the family’s place within his nation’s history:

McLeod, mahkiyoc, nikan-isi

the foremost one, thunderbird

that is where our name comes from

sleeping beings in clay vessels

stories, and parts of stories

come back when I sat with nicapan

This poem, like many in the book, was inspired by a dream. In this case, the poet dreamt of a woman who tells him to write down the story of his family’s origin. This story is that of the thunderbird, told to him by his great-grandfather (nicapan).

Besides poems about his family, McLeod’s book also contains a number of poems that capture life on the streets, like his poem “Ghetto Love,” written in a rap tradition, where African American culture is replaced by an urban indigenous one: “…young men pass through the streets/ black handkerchiefs/ in the place of headdresses/ gold chains in the place of breastplates…” McLeod even has a hip-hop girlfriend: “my iskwew, my gangster girlfriend/ my bannock maker, my hip shaker/ my love taster”.

This poem, and many others are humour-filled, earthy and openly sexual, as in his “Indian Love Poem”: “her skin was golden brown/ like KFC chicken/ she was fertile/ had more eggs than a Hutterite/ selling them to me/ with a twist of her hips.” Poems like these are affirmations of both the light and dark sides of life, and help to weave the stories and culture of urban indigenous peoples into that of the broader urban youth culture.

McLeod also writes about love in many shorter lyrical poems. These poems convey the poet’s perspective much more abstractly. Often, women are portrayed using earth metaphors. McLeod expresses his love for both woman and the earth in quiet, graceful tones: “your body, dreaming earth/ your lips, dreaming sky/ entwined our bodies emerge in new creations.” These poems feel almost like small paintings meant to capture a mood or an image rather than tell a story or explore a concept. While these pieces work well as bridges between some of the longer narrative poems, in some cases, they are too abstract and disjointed, and it becomes difficult to follow the images from beginning to end.

McLeod’s book encompasses an impressive range of material, including urban beat rhythms of his narrative poems, well-informed explorations of Cree culture and language, and more personal, lyrical poems that explore the poet’s place in the world as an individual.

This book review appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine in 2006