"I'll Teach You Cree"
- Anna Mraie Sewell (Author)
Fifth World Drum. Frontenac House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Neil McLeod (Author)
Gabriel's Beach. Hagios (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Gregory Scofield (Author)
Kipocihkân. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Phillip Kevin Paul (Author)
Little Hunger. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley
Four recent collections of poetry by First Nations and Metis writers demonstrate a range of formal techniques and linguistic effects, even as each book engages themes of healing and regeneration, both individual and collective. Reading the volumes together inevitably throws into relief their relative strengths and limitations, but simultaneously suggests something of the variety in poetry written by indigenous authors in Canada, not simply in biographical or geographical terms (although these are certainly pertinent), but equally in terms of conceptions of what poetry itself might achieve and of how it might sound. In the books discussed briefly here, the anecdotal lyric almost always provides the point of departure, but the collections also reveal a diverse range of styles, topics, and understandings of what it means to write poetry.
Gregory Scofield’s Kipocihkân combines ten new poems with relatively short selections from the poet’s five previous volumes, which range from The Gathering (1993) to Singing Home the Bones (2005). The persona of many of the earlier poems is a tough chronicler of life on “the Urban Rez”—“Tough Times on Moccasin Blvd” is the wry epitome with which Scofield ironizes the real sorrow that his poems describe. Scofield also shows, in this mode, that he is acutely, wittily aware of the politics of writing: are his poems merely “dark talk / for white talkers to talk about”? (In “The Dissertation,” one of the book’s new poems, academic “prodding and jotting” exact a steep price: “She overtook his poetry like a landlord, / rented him a room in his life.”) But the fine Kipocihkân’s later poems suggest that the bravado is only a guise, and that Scofield is essentially an elegist, a poet who mourns the passing of relatives, lovers, and time.
The introductory poem, “kipocihkân,” is a tour de force of code-switching, alternating between Cree, English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, the juxtaposition of languages enacting Scofield’s account of how he came to be a poet; his is a complex family history, full of both violence and sacred stories. A note explains that “kipocihkân” is Cree slang for someone unable to speak—an odd guise for a poet to adopt, perhaps, but then one thinks of the English poet Tony Harrison’s “Heredity,” a riddle about the origin of his calling: “Wherever did you get your talent from? / I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry— / one was a stammerer, the other one dumb.” For Scofield as for Harrison—two English-language poets from different worlds—poetry stems from the very difficulty of speaking, from the unlikeliness that art should be made from grim experience. This reality, for Scofield, includes traumatic events of past and present, from “the day Riel slipped through the gallows” to “the halls of psych wards” to “a pile of broken bones.” Thus the book must begin with ceremony, with prayer for survival: “Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai,” he writes, “pîmatisiwin petamawinân.” Scofield gives thanks, and, almost in the same breath, asks for life. “I’ll teach you Cree,” he promises. He does, and much else besides.
In Little Hunger, his second collection, Philip Kevin Paul continues the project of his first book, Taking the Names Down from the Hill (2003)—although here he writes in an even more focused manner. This project is to assert and evoke the connectedness of land, culture, and family in Central Saanich, British Columbia, north of Victoria, the traditional territory of the WSÁ, NEC Nation. The result is an intensely local set of poems that assume the place to be central to the author’s personal and cultural identity. Little Hunger contains occasional words and phrases in SENÄOÅ¦EN, but more commonly Paul makes reference to speaking in the indigenous language. Thus he writes, for example, of saying “prayers / in SENÄOÅ¦EN,” hearing “Saanich words, bare as the ocean shining behind the young trees’ heads,” and addressing a buck with “his best SENÄOÅ¦EN name.” Paul’s poems are written almost entirely in English, but they insist that the sacred relation of people to land is most powerfully figured in the place’s older language. In “Descent into Saanich,” he writes of approaching the local airport. In flight he cannot hear the sound of the water “as it slides against / the east end of our smallest islands,” a sound he “know[s] by heart” and that “lays claim to [him], a child of Saanich.” Paul’s poetry is likewise claimed by place. At times his world seems private, scarcely comprehensible to outsiders; the poems, like Scofield’s, also depict familiar sorrows.
In Anna Marie Sewell’s Fifth World Drum, Mi’gmaq, Ojibwe, Ukrainian, Cree, and Okanagan inflect the poems’ English. The convergence of languages arises from the author’s own history, but Sewell’s poems are also concerned with the language of the national story. “[H]ow can you love a neighbour / who would change the name of god on you?” she asks. Colonial place-names betray, for Sewell, the defining character of the places themselves. Her poems therefore search for other names, “an older name than Fleuve St. Laurent,” for example. At other times, Sewell examines her purpose in writing, proposing that “to be a poet” is to have one’s “mind dragging / wide open through the sea” in search of “what is needed;” in the afterword, she contends that what is needed is “the rhythm of a Fifth World,” a world of reconciliation.
Neal McLeod’s Gabriel’s Beach links “the story of Juno Beach in 1944,” where the author’s grandfather fought, to “[t]he events of 1885,” which, as McLeod writes, “changed the life and land of Indigenous people in a profound way. The prophecies of the iron rope across the land came to be fulfilled.” McLeod’s use of Cree ties the descriptions of combat in France to the history of his ancestors in the Canadian West. The five-page glossary at the end of the book signals the importance of the language to McLeod’s poetics: the crucial, defining terms here are “ê-mâyahkamikahk”—“where it went wrong, the Northwest Resistance of 1885”—and “waskawîwin—“movement, life force.”
- Abiding Space by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: The Occupied World by Alice Major
- Polarities by Ian Rae
Books reviewed: Inexpressible Island by David Young and Escaped Domestics by Robin Mcgrath
- Reading Green by Alison Calder
Books reviewed: Greenwor(l)ds: Ecocritical Readings of Canadian Women's Poetry by Diana M. A. Relke
- Tons de blanc by Thierry Bissonnette
Books reviewed: Le bruissement des possibles by Antoine Boisclair
- Writing In The Dark by Leslie Stark
Books reviewed: The Monster Trilogy by RM Vaughan, Seeing Red by Dennis Cooley, and Now You Care by Di Brandt
MLA: Bradley, Nicholas. "I'll Teach You Cree". canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 187 - 189)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.