Voices of Hope
- Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm (Author)
bloodriver woman. Kegedonce Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Chris Harris (Author)
How to Paint. New Star Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Brenda Payne
The poetry of these Aboriginal writers is certainly not for the light-hearted or for those expecting to read tales about coyote (at least not in the obvious sense—Coyote can definitely be seen in Harris’s humour and in the complex and often contradictory messages of Akiwenzie-Damm). Harris is a gifted storyteller who conveys his street experiences without sensationalism, blame or victimhood, while Akiwenzie-Damm illustrates reserve life through the eyes and mind of a poet. Both of these writers take on the responsibility of sharing their Art such that they not only contribute to the (re) writing of Native story, but they also generously share their vision for a society that respects and celebrates its First Peoples as human, feeling beings.
How To Paint offers intelligent insight into the experience of living along the margins of society, trying to dodge the labels that can adhere to, and limit, one’s sense of identity and purpose. Chris Harris simultaneously conveys his anger and his ability to find irony and humour in his life as an addict, an Aboriginal and an artist. In many ways How to Paint is a depiction of the process of recovery from addiction and from the losses of life; furthermore, Harris’s poems powerfully illustrate the erratic emotional and spiritual struggle that recovery necessitates. "Bear Cave" reflects the experience of living with pain and having a seed of hope for another way of life—an easier, softer, more loving existence—but being afraid to step out of the familiarity of "the cave":
She know that I know about the outside, about beauty, about love. She feels I am lying. And she is right. I cannot tell her the truth ... I cannot tell her I carried him [the bear] here from the last cave ... I cannot tell her my eyes have adjusted to the blackness ... It is almost comfortable and yet....
Bear takes on another identity in "The Birth of Love, or Why the Earth Shivers," in which Harris celebrates the ability of women to menstruate and bear life and confronts and vehemently rejects the notions of shame and sin that Christian beliefs impose.
Similarly, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm’s bloodriver woman reveals her struggle to unearth her spiritual path—a path that has become cluttered and tenuous because of the presence and teachings of the "White Man God." In "frozen breath and knife blades", she laments:
there is a man who stares and calls
as if he was born to do so
he walks among us and the people
fall silent around him
it’s as if they can’t remember
their names in the face of
his strange words. . .
this man we call Father is watching.
bloodriver woman exposes the situation faced by many Aboriginal people who have survived residential school experience (either their own or the effects of being raised by parents forced to attend these institutions); specifically, many First Nations people are in the process of discovering, recovering and learning the traditional spiritual practices of their own cultures. It is an illuminating but tragic commentary on our country’s policies that we have robbed so many children of their history; thankfully, because of the strength and wisdom of Elders, many of our efforts to steal the pride and the beliefs of our First Peoples have failed. Akiwenzie-Damm’s poems are filled with anguish, fear and confusion as she, at times, attempts to integrate her Christian convictions and traditional Native spiritual beliefs; in "Missionary Position," for example, "the prayer beads have names / and like to be held between the fingers /1 hold them tightly / massaging each one carefully / I tell them about my visions / they listen without derision." Despite instructions to venerate a punishing and judgmental God, Akiwenzie-Damm does not hesitate to question and ultimately to reject the violent nature of Christian ideology. In "last rites," she seems to regard the complete embrace of a Christian faith as devious and dangerous at best: "the White Man God / is breath / and words made flesh / and flesh made clean / the White Man God / will set me free / for four days a vulture has circled my heart."
How To Paint and bloodriver woman share experiences that have come to be known as "typical" for Native people, namely, the struggles with alcoholism, violence, poverty, and prostitution, and the feelings of shame and confusion and the quest to remain Aboriginal in a White society; however, these poets share their stories in a manner that is thought-provoking, humorous and hopeful.
- Who Were Those Masked Men? by Dermot McCarthy
Books reviewed: Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger by Richard Lemm and Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel by Francis Mansbridge
- The Utopia of a Remembered Spring by Emily Wall
Books reviewed: Going Home by Ken Norris, The Commons by Stephen Collis, and The Dream World by Alison Pick
- The Need for New Perspectives by Neal McLeod
Books reviewed: The Pleasure of the Crown: Anthropology, Law and First Nations by Dara Culhane and Walking in Indian Moccasins: The Native Policies of Tommy Douglas and the CCF by F. Laurie Barron
- The Printed Page by Susan Fisher
Books reviewed: Alphabetical by P. K. Page
- Worthy Tribute by Samara Walbohm
Books reviewed: Life and Works of Ethelwyn Wetherald by Dorothy W. Rungeling
MLA: Payne, Brenda. Voices of Hope. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #166 (Autumn 2000), Women & Poetry. (pg. 174 - 175)
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