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Category: Poetry

What is reconciliation? The stranger

Don’t worry, he’ll still be here, walking Toronto’s sidewalks in ten years’ time. Stopping to hug a stranger who puts a hand on his shoulder and opens her arms. Like her, we need to find someone to hold hands with, the way he holds Pearl Wenjack’s hand. We need to find someone to hug and kiss the way he kisses his band mates and holds them close. It’s quietness, that’s his trick. A silence where you hear soft voices and gentle breathing, the first opening of trust. You might not know it’s arrived. As you may not realize that Gord’s walked by. Just another guy in a jean jacket and toque. Scraps of paper in his hand and spilling out of his pockets. His brother walking beside him, arm around Gord’s shoulders. Sound of boots on the sidewalk, air moving aside as they pass.

It won’t matter that time passes if you carry the memory of her kisses with you. If you remember the feeling of arms around you, when she last hugged you. Gord doesn’t need to write those memories down. He carries them inside him; on his skin and clothes. When he passes away, he’ll still be here, walking with us. You’ll have to watch and listen for that friend you used to know ten years ago. He might be downtown. A guy walking by. You don’t want to mistake him for a stranger.

In his time, he’s tried to reconcile with the ones he loves; tried to make this place the country of his dreams. In his heart, he holds a little girl’s hand. Helps her find her way back from residential school; home to sounds of the TV, her favourite couch and her mother’s arms around her. He’s walked with his own daughter, their arms intertwined, holding her close. You can hear their footsteps and soft laughter; see long shadows of skyscrapers at sunset as they wander home.

You’ll run into him one day outside a café perhaps, and he’ll wrap you in his arms. You’ll feel rough denim on your cheeks and his jacket’s buttons pressing in. Your tears will fall on his sleeve and his hat’s feather will brush your hair. It will be as if you’ve just returned here from a long time away,  to this sidewalk, this bright window, the cool softness of his cheek.

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On the adventure

“I think it was Algonquin park; it was so cold and winter dark. A promised hibernation high; took me across the great black plate of ice.” – The Tragically Hip

On the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day, every radio station was playing the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people coming to celebrate the band. I’ve been reading Gord’s lyrics lately, watching him on video doing his weird salsa dances, wiping his face with a hankie, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans.

Gordie’s been reminding me how I once thought my country was that place just outside of here, where wind lifts up the waves on Lake Ontario and on Huron, the freshwater sea. How we live along the North’s southern edge, with Canada geese, deer, coyotes, chickadees, and where pelicans fly overhead like an air force squadron in the Saskatchewan summer. Even the groundhogs and squirrels seem freer two hours north of Ottawa, four hours north of Toronto, 20 minutes north of Regina.

I used to think that place could be as soft and sweet as young bluebirds learning to fly on prairie fields, dipped in the colour of azure sky. I thought it was about us helping each other survive on the edge of land you mostly can’t live on. That we would not set out alone but always with a friend to keep each other safe—self-reliance being an illusion in vast, cold places.

Then I started to see fewer stars and more satellites up above; fewer horizons and more steel transmission towers marching in lockstep into the cities; more highways with line after line of cars. A pinched, stodgy and secretive government casting a grey pall.

Round Lake, Killaloe
Round Lake in Killaloe, Ontario

There is cold, still air at the tops of pines and firs that rise up along Highway 7 north to Peterborough and along Highway 60 up to Killaloe. There are deep-dark green and blue lakes. But what about the shacks that pass for houses in those little towns where no one driving through can figure out how you’d make a living? Maybe there, the wind is nothing. Pines and firs not worth thinking about. Wild strawberries are for the birds. You’d be looking for a signal from the cities, a new transmission, currents of life.

This country was meant to provide gold and furs to the Empire, which sent off its merchants and soldiers for that purpose. Behind them came refugees and immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Iceland, China, Japan, India; folks from Africa who came to escape slavery and fight for that Empire in exchange for land. Is that our heritage? Beaver pelts and gold mines? Timber and diamonds; uranium and oil?

But what about a cold stillness that hovers above the highest branches of a crooked jack pine? Or the feeling of washing away from shore in a freshwater sea nobody can see the end of?

What about the east coast Mik’maq; the Haudenosaunee—the Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga and Tuscarora? The Algonquins of Ontario and Quebec? The Mississauga? The Cree of Quebec, Ontario and the prairies? The Saulteaux, the Dakota, the Siksika, the Dene, the Haisla, Heiltsuk, Haida, Tlingit, Shuswap, Nlaka’pamux, and on and on and on? They have always been here. Since before Columbus and Cartier, and shiploads of people searching for home; people who mistook the land for an empty place, and friends for enemies; saw fields for growing wheat and potatoes instead of wide-open space. People wanting fences and roads; treaties and land deeds; cows, pigs and sheep. Not buffalo or even Canada geese.

Gordie makes me think of a Canada I used to love; one that listens to the Hip all day, where 11 million people tune into a concert. I used to admire the idea of Canada. Not the constitution; or smug multiculturalism; or nice houses and safe streets for fortunate ones. But what’s here, on the edge of things, just below where the north begins.

In fall, my son and I walk our dog on the street at dusk and, looking up, we see thousands of bats beginning their night travels. We hear their wings whisper; their dark singing flight, never knowing where they go or how they come back.

Gordie doesn’t know what Canada is any more than I do. He writes about it anyway; goes on the adventure, and finds himself on a ferry covered in ice in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He holds hands with the girl from Thompson, Manitoba; so rosy-cheeked with her hair flying under the edges of her toque. He meets polar bears, black bears, black ice; black and white checkerboard floors; one third of his country singing for him in darkened halls, taverns and city streets on a Saturday night.

The adventure is touching the icy border where it all begins, feeling cold air come down from the roof of the forest; driving to unexpected places, where little towns are falling apart and no one can figure it out, how do they survive up there; what do they hear in the wind?

With love,
Jennifer

August 26, 2016
Ottawa, Ontario

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Indian Country

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Kanehsatake traditional pow-wow in  1991, the year following the Oka Crisis.

When I was younger, I was involved with people who were part of the Oka Crisis. At my university, I met ‪‎Indigenous people from every part of Canada, and many of them told me their stories. Many were too angry for story-telling, or too traumatized. They were veterans of the siege at Kanehsatake: survivors who spent two-and-a-half months surrounded by the Canadian Army, razor wire, military helicopters, soldiers, and the constant threat of imminent death.

During the winter following the Oka Crisis, I travelled with friends to northern Quebec and visited ‪‎Cree‬, ‪‎Innu, Abenaki and Huron communities – stood in a chief’s house in the middle in winter. It was the size of my kitchen and was heated by an oil barrel in the middle of the room. I also sat with friends in a wigwam, eating beaver, ptarmigan and bannock, passing around the salt and a tub of grease – ptarmigan is a dry meat.

Kanehsatake Spiritual Gathering, early nineties
Kanehsatake traditional pow-wow, 1991. Rebecca Belmore’s art piece,  Speaking to their Mother, is pictured. © Jennifer Dales

Then, just last summer, I sat by the blazing hot sacred fire in Kanehsatake‬, and said a prayer for my friend’s son, sending it up to God with tobacco and cedar. I walked around greeting old friends, fingering jewellery and beadwork, doing the round dance, sitting in the shade of the Pines, cooling down after the heat. 

Being in Indian‬ country gets into your blood. When I meet people who have been there, I can feel it, the way I feel the cold on a person’s skin when they come inside on a winter’s day. Indian country’s such a big place; it’s as powerful as an earthquake, strong as a hurricane. From out of nowhere, it changes everything; it rearranges the earth and stirs up the winds. It doesn’t need anything from you. There is nothing you can do for Indian country. It flows on, day and night, under stars and the sun. I hear it asking me how it can help me. Where is my heart? Do I hear it beating? You won’t ever put it behind you now.
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Mohawk/Kanien’kéha word of the week

This week’s Mohawk/Kanien’kéha word of the week is ken’niiohontésha – strawberries.  We are approaching strawberry season. I wonder if you have ever had strawberry juice? I remember drinking it at powwows and at events at Concordia University, often with a side of fry bread. It is quite good with lots of sugar, all blended up. I understand that the Kanien’kehá:ka hold strawberry festivals in June in some communities. Sounds great to me!

Here is an old poem that I wrote many years ago. It’s inspired by attending the Kanehsatake powwow.

Traditional

No stars tonight, but a sacred fire in the woods and moonlight in the clouds. Oomkwaihoomwai means real human beings, the way we all were once, before we lost the sounds of the fiddle and the drum when they disappeared inside a machine. Tonight we sit in a clearing, the strawberry season moon lighting our path, shadows of friends dancing in a circle round the arbour, as we once danced to celebrate the holidays, with a fiddle finding the tune, guiding our merry feet through the wedding garden of long ago. We sang songs of the old country, of ships lost at Grosse Isle, of famine that took our ancestors. The drum and the fiddle and the deep living sound of a finger-strummed guitar, here and now in the pow wow round where the Longhouse keeps the fire, our feet are guided by the drum in a dance that the fiddle led long ago; we make a path in the meadow garden of this new, old country.

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Separation Point

for Shawn Cox

Before she ran into the road

and you arrived where she stood

is the place you cannot get back to,

no matter how often you drive

along the road,

stop again before the spot.

Before she fell into deep black asphalt

and you fell into the line of her life;

before she abandoned the ditch 

of flitting tadpoles, 

and the day dislodged you from your blessings;

before then is what you can’t get back to.

In the after, safety is luck

and the movements of the whirlpool

where cold fingers drag you.

Now darkness gleams, even in the sun, 

and every crease in your face 

lets night in. 

Every hole in the fence post,

dead tree in the ditch,

black cricket in grass.

The sudden blur of her body 

a divide between dark and day;

your heart cries for the horizon, 

and the black road threatens you with secrets,

a small girl running, unexpected, 

into the deepest place.

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In a World

We live in a world of darkness. But the colours come from the inner world to the outer world. – Norval Morrisseau

David and I lived by the river once. From shore we cast thoughts into its lights, felt its whirlpools close in. Though rivers don’t circle, the one near our town reminds me to return to the swirl of water around rocks and stones, to the stand of firs on the block, the neon-vinyl of the pizza place. Maybe David liked the blue inside the green of pines, and the wide river reaching to the other shore.

David went to my friend’s school, and she was a small, pale stranger then, wandering the halls. Her hair was so dark and weighty, you could see her thoughts moving in the strands. There is a rich, late night in her, a place without chalk dust or linoleum; a field at dusk covered in blueberries, their skins absorbing and letting out light. It is a place where night is always coming on; you never need to worry about morning.

At school we had read the poem David. You probably remember, he died in the mountains; it was the first afternoon in September; the rocks gave under his feet. He grasped for a hold and fell, later drowned. Michel Trudeau drowned too; they tried to reach him from chest deep in the snow, but it was too late to grab his parka, the curls of his hair.

That was the first I knew of the land’s intentions. Outside snug cities, it would not hold you. It would change what it wanted; make frost out of flesh, broken sticks from bones. Once David and I walked on the river ice, looking for clear, snowless stretches. Far out, the ice broke. We ran and the cracks raced ahead of us. We were soaked. Our skin went numb, our hearts slowed, thoughts broke to pieces. The snowy path, the clear blue sky filled with river holes, sloshing up black water. We found a way back. Others never felt again the tenseness of tree branches snapping in the cold, or the silent, enormous country rising up over the tops of the buildings.

David and I are small figures, bundled in coats within the cold cities, delicate as two elderly men I once saw at a wedding, twirling red roses given out by the bride, shyly, sweetly. In spite of the chill, something is still giving way. We are each passing through to the other, dragging the snow and earth behind. Our life in this land clings to us, like rain brought in to a warm café on a stormy summer day, as you remove your jacket to join an old friend.

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Caving at La Fleche

A poem I wrote a few years ago, after a trip to La Fleche caves in late winter.

All my stories are buried under white snow. I walk over them
where they sleep, curled around the roots of red pines. In the cave
we entered, you could see bats by looking up in the darkness.
Training a head lamp on a crevice showed me a dozen, nestled
against limestone, sleeping fur sparkled with frost.
Night time butterflies, wings folded.

Small jewels of time, moving: one second, then another:
each tiny creature taking in, letting out breath. What could I find
under red pine roots if I had vision to see through white wash
of spring snow? My hands turn red as I dig beneath drifts
that have grown deeper through winter. I want to cup something,
a patience held in, and wait there with it until glistening snow turns
to water; wings know it is time to open, roots to descend.

 lafleche
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Touchstone

 -for Garnet Rogers

You say love is all that matters,
and holding someone near
turns blue walls into a bright sky,
fills the room with sounds of water falling
into the deep mineral spring
that slips through your hands

I say grace is your testimony,
it’s the way you’ve outlived grief, escaped
the black wings that fell
from the sky and pinned you to burning ground
it’s the silence you offer up
between words

Now you’re surrounded by laughter,
and the spot light
your voice is full of earth and dusk,
the clouds you breathed at sunset,
shimmer of brake lights you followed to arrive here,
stars you’ve mapped, in their home above the trees.

On the day you’re due home, your wife lights a lamp
and even though candles burn out, the wax stays warm –
sure sign you’re nearly there
Maybe she puts her hand on your pillow,
finds strands of red-gold hair,
thinks of you
parked on a roadside, resting
beneath trees, listening to tiny voices of leaves
and traffic sounds

I promise you that wherever you sleep, whatever you dream,
there will be no more than this –
you will be given nothing else
You have love, all that is.

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In the country

I got lost in Indian country. Don’t know when, exactly. Maybe a few weeks after traditional people walked out of the treatment centre in Kanehsatake, holding up sacred masks. Could have been on a trip up north in the middle of winter, riding in a cold van, sipping my NDN friend’s twist shandy, listening to him strum guitar. We got out along the way. Looked up at the stars. They were so bright. Like somebody plugged them into a socket on overload. I could feel the shock. Somebody picked me up out of the snow where I was lying, gazing skyward. Brushed off the ice. We got back in the van and drove north. Once I went out to Kanehsatake and sat in the Pines by myself. Walked a road for a long time, looking for my friend’s place. Somebody stopped, gave me a lift to his tiny house among hay fields. I was definitely in Indian country then. Full of memories and desire. I buried a silver bracelet under a pine tree and said a prayer for the stand of trees. That was years ago. Surely an animal has made off with it by now. And the friend is dead, shot in the back. He helped carry masks from the treatment centre; walked into the army’s perimeter. Climbed into a waiting bus and was driven to prison. We used to talk on the phone sometimes, about the Lord of the Rings, and how anxious he was—didn’t want to come out of the house some days. I sat with him on his front steps, drinking grape juice. Watched the sun shimmer over the fields as he raked grass. Had dinner with him and his girlfriend in the yard, back of his place. I don’t know where this is going, or where it’s from, and I didn’t know then, sitting in his yard, under the maple tree. I can’t get in and out of Indian country at will. Maybe it’s an illusion as deep as corn fields in summer. There might be only one country. I don’t know how it came to be, or how it’s growing through me, filled with electric shock and pine roots; the dust of old friends.

 

Photo of Joe David, taken in Kanehsatake, courtesy of Elizabeth Sacca

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Trickster art: The digital storytelling of Chris Bose

In Nlaka’pamux (pronounced ng-khla-kap-mh) country in south-central British Columbia, you can hear coyotes howling in the canyon at night, and glimpse them disappearing into the woods. For the Nlaka’pamux people, coyote is a trickster, using his creativity to transform the world, while rebelling against and disrupting established order.

As a scavenger, coyote is the ultimate survivor, constantly adapting to changing times.
Chris Bose, a photographer, filmmaker, digital storyteller, poet and musician, has a lot in common with coyote.

Living in Kamloops, B.C., Chris is also a creator, rebel, disruptor of the established order and, most of all, a survivor. Chris is from the Nlaka’pamux nation, which means “People of the Canyon,” referring to the B.C. region where the Fraser and Thompson Rivers join.

Through his artwork, Chris wrestles with demons in the form of the traumatic effects of residential school on his parents, aunts and uncles, and how that trauma has rebounded on his generation.

He also criticizes Canada’s policies of forced assimilation, and reflects on issues ranging from Duncan Campbell Scott’s proposal to “kill the Indian in the child,” to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s official apology for the residential school system.

Until recently, Chris followed in the footsteps of Aboriginal artists like Jane Ash Poitras and Carl Beam, masters of mixed-media collage. He made art by scavenging: collecting objects, photographs, fabric, etc., and transforming them with paint and glue.

In present tense, Chris’ most provocative storytelling medium is digital — he is a self-taught expert in image manipulation technologies. Using Photoshop, First Cut and other applications, he recreates the effects of the mixed-media collage on a computer screen.

“I’ve collected thousands of images, many of them from archives, of residential schools — photos of Indian children in uniform, photos of Indians being measured with rulers. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve worked in the buildings where residential schools used to be. I’ve explored these places and found secret passages, heard ghosts. I’m fascinated and traumatized by them. Residential school is our hidden holocaust. The residential school is always going to be in my art and in what I do until I figure out a way to destroy it.”

“Because my parents grew up in residential school, they never learned how to be parents. So I never learned either. I grew up in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.  My mother moved us a lot so child welfare wouldn’t take me away. It was during the sixties scoop.”

During the “sixties scoop” Aboriginal children were removed from their families and placed in non-Native adoptive homes. Most adoptions took place in the sixties. Children were often literally scooped from their homes by the child welfare representatives without the consent of their families.

“I think about the idea of home a lot. It’s a funny place, I guess. A place I can never go back to. Home is not really tied to one place for me, because we moved so much. I guess home for me is a comforting memory of the past — being on the rez at Granny and Grampa’s.”

Though Chris spent his childhood on the move, he returned home to visit his grandparents in the summer. While trapping with his grandfather, Chris heard Nlaka’pamux stories, including stories about coyote.  Chris carries on this tradition, telling his grandfather’s stories at cultural events, and teaching digital storytelling, painting, stencil graffiti and filmmaking to Aboriginal youth in B.C.

In January 2009, Chris launched the Urban Coyote TeeVee blog as part of a project that involves developing a new piece of digital art or film every day for a year.

As the blog’s title suggests, Urban Coyote TeeVee delivers a contemporary urban Aboriginal viewpoint to its audience, fusing Nlaka’pamux culture with historical and urban imagery, using a digital online medium.

These digital art and film postings give his audience insight into Chris’ dynamic and adaptable artistry, reflecting his experimentation with film and imagery as well as his thoughts and feelings on the day he created each image or film clip.

The blog reflects its creator’s sense of humour, anger and versatility, ranging from a humorous critique of B.C. premier, Gordon Campbell, to reflections on the impact of violence in society, to poetry combined with archival images.

One of the most compelling of Chris’ blog images is a postcard-sized digital piece combining two black and white archival photos of an Aboriginal child named Thomas Moore. The digital image juxtaposes Thomas before and after his entrance into the Regina Indian Industrial School in the late 1800s. In the “before” picture, he has long hair and is dressed in traditional Plains clothing, and in the “after” picture, he is wearing a high-collared military-style suit. These before-and-after photos were no doubt staged to demonstrate the “civilizing” effect of residential schools on their subjects.

Over the two images of Thomas, Chris layers his own words: “…the ones in power….ask childlike questions about my race about why my people seem so lost so timid revealing something so sad about themselves …they just want to empathize and feel it for half an hour not even to understand it but to hold it for a little while to study it and they will go back and write a grant about it to get some money to study it further and perpetuate the dumb.”

The blog has resulted in another powerful digital creation: Jesus Coyote, a heretical, humorous character, whom Chris uses to “Aboriginalize” Christianity, while at the same time defusing the power of the church and school system.  “Jesus Coyote is a trickster — the ultimate trickster.  He is holy, but he’s also a rapscallion. Who’s to say Jesus wasn’t a bit of a trickster? He turned water into wine. He walked on water!  Jesus Coyote’s always got something up his sleeve. He is an ordinary guy with a little too much power. But he is not going to moralize.”

Much of the subject matter in Chris’ blog is also present in his films, which can be viewed at the Urban Coyote Television web site, including three short films that Chris created last year as part of a collaborative project at the Smithsonian Institute and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Chris has been invited to send films to the ImagiNative Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto.  One of these films, called ‘at the heart of it all,’ focuses on the Canadian government’s apology to First Nations.

Chris has a book of poetry forthcoming in the fall of 2009, published by Kegedonce Press and he has just finished recording a spoken word CD called 31 Confessions.  His digital art will be featured in an exhibition this winter at the Arnica Courthouse Gallery in Kamloops.

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All my relations: Poetry review

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

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