Contemporary Classics

  • Marilyn Dumont (Author) and Lee Maracle (Author)
    A Really Good Brown Girl: Brick Books Classics 4. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Dennis Lee (Author)
    Riffs: Brick Books Classics 3. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Neil Querengesser

Brick Books has since its inception published more than its share of excellent and enduring Canadian poetry. Its recently inaugurated Classics series features new editions of the best of its best. Designed by Robert Bringhurst, all books in this series are beautifully printed on high-quality paper, each with its unique typeface and, appropriately, each with its unique cover picture of a brick “made from Vancouver Island clay and aged in the coastal rainforest.” In their careful physical construction, these books are a fittingly respectful tribute to the quality of the poetry contained within them, especially the two volumes reviewed here.

I am reading A Really Good Brown Girl about a year after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its report, and very soon after the establishment of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. I am also writing after the recent tragic murders of two teenagers from Whitefish Lake First Nation in Alberta, allegedly killed by a friend jealous of their promising future. While many positive changes in Canada’s Indigenous communities have occurred over the last several years, many systemic injustices still exist; the sobering themes that underlie much of Dumont’s book resonate as strongly today as they did twenty years ago at the time of its initial publication in 1996. As Lee Maracle puts it in her introduction to this edition of A Really Good Brown Girl, a book that has already been reprinted thirteen times and whose poems have been abundantly anthologized, “No other book so exonerates us, elevates us and at the same time indicts Canada in language so eloquent it almost hurts to hear it.” The book indeed struck a deep chord of recognition in Indigenous readers across the country; Dumont comments in her afterword that while writing the poems was cathartic for her, it was apparently also so “for many others who, after readings, approached me with pages of the collection dog-eared.” It may also strike a deep chord of recognition in those non-Indigenous readers who are willing to be seen and spoken of from a perspective not their own.

The poems range widely over many overt and subtle aspects of the speaker’s experience—including expressions of love, hate, fear, and other emotions common to everyone—but they are also completely rooted in her experience as a Métis woman in twentieth-century Canada. At times one can almost see the page wrinkle wryly, as in these words from “Circle the Wagons”: “There are times when I feel that if I don’t have a circle or the number four or legend in my poetry, I am lost, just a fading urban Indian caught in all the trappings of Doc Martens, cappuccinos and foreign films . . . .” The closing lines of “Leather and Naughahyde [sic],” where the speaker is tacitly but unmistakably dismissed by the “treaty guy” upon his surmising her “diluted blood,” slap stingingly at her Métis—and female—identity. Her heart-rending ode to Helen Betty Osborne, the story of whose horrific murder should never be forgotten, stuns with the power of outrage woven into its carefully measured lines and phrases. The satirical clout of often-anthologized poems like “Letter to Sir John A. Macdonald” and “The Devil’s Language” continues to resonate powerfully today. But Dumont’s poetic brilliance also extends to tenderly empathetic explorations of the nuances of relationships among family and friends in such poems as “Fireflies,” “The Sky Is Promising,” and “My Mother’s Arms,” the tender lullaby lines of which “bathe [her] in love.” A Really Good Brown Girl tells the truth—unerringly, sometimes painfully, sometimes beautifully—but always with consummate integrity.

Riffs is the third incarnation of one of Dennis Lee’s most influential works. First published as a series of sixty-seven sections in Descant 39 (1982), it appeared as an eighty-eight-section volume by Brick Books in 1993. The present edition is based on a reprinted and somewhat revised sequence included in Lee’s retrospective Nightwatch (1996). In his introduction, Paul Vermeersch locates Riffs at the centre of Lee’s career both chronologically and stylistically, calling it “the book that unites his various voices and lyrical personae” and that provides “the key to understanding the evolution of one of the most extraordinary bodies of work in contemporary English poetry.” Riffs grew out of Lee’s middle-aged love affair and its aftermath, the individual lines later supplanting, through the prolific spontaneity of their nocturnal composition, the affair’s erotically addictive qualities. Lee remarks in the book’s afterword, based on a 1993 interview with Donna Bennett and Russell Brown, that the original Descant publication—with which he was not entirely satisfied—had to gestate over a decade until he discovered that the key to balancing its lyric spontaneity and narrative linearity lay in the device of turning the real love affair into a fictitious, adulterous one by recasting his partner as a married woman, and by interposing deliberately constructed connecting poems between the spontaneous riff lyrics. The resultant sequence, with its inventive and compelling jazz cadences, is poetically compelling and convincing, keeping the reader amidst the affair’s sensations but also achieving periodically the necessary distance to carry it to its inevitable, but ultimately graceful, conclusion. The hunger he suffers for his partner is apparent in such vivid lines as these:

. . . there’s this

gravitational yank across the city: I would

drive through walls to get near you

just to be near you . . .

And these, an extended verbal improvisation:

I

had no hope of you, your

 

lissome stretch in bed, your

wit your gab your areté your life-on-the-line

 

embrace, sweet lean to graciousness your

curve in the mind your melt your fathoming goodness . . .

The jealousy, pain, and regret that he feels during later stages of the relationship’s disintegration are no less effectively portrayed. The final cadence, conjuring the breaching “dolphins of need,” is brilliant. With their nod to the eighty-eight keys of the piano, the sections achieve an overall harmony evincing a fine combination of both inspiration and craft.



This review “Contemporary Classics” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars 2. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 228-229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 243-245.

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