Bodies and Languages

Reviewed by Sarah Dowling

In her preface to Gwen Benaway’s new book Holy Wild, Anishinaabe visual artist Quill Christie-Peters writes, “exploring the relationship I have to my body is challenging and painful within a settler colonial project that continues to organize itself through the violence of cis-heteropatriarchy.” Christie-Peters’ three critical terms—body, settler colonial, and cis-heteropatriarchy—illuminate Benaway’s poems, which explore the difficulty and the beauty of life as an Indigenous trans woman in English and in Anishinaabemowin. These terms are also useful for reading two other recent collections: Ali Blythe’s Hymnswitch and Anna Marie Sewell’s For the Changing Moon: Poems and Songs. Read together, the three collections offer provocative insights into the ways in which our relationships to language and to our very bodies are shaped by settler colonialism and its cis-heteropatriarchal sex-gender system.

Benaway’s Holy Wild is a revelation. Building upon her previous books, Passage and Ceremonies for the Dead, Holy Wild offers an intimate record of family history, sexual and romantic partnerships, and the burdens of navigating racist and transphobic violence. Benaway charts a new direction for the confessional lyric: Holy Wild emphasizes the many layers of mediation that direct and circumscribe confessions. While confessional poetry typically proposes that readers receive the speaker’s truth directly and willingly, Benaway’s footnoted Anishinaabemowin makes clear that the very language in which a confession is offered already privileges particular auditors over the confessing supplicant. Throughout the book, her poems describe the myriad ways in which the truths spoken by Indigenous trans women are ignored, minimized, or banished to the realm of willed unknowing. In her careful hands, these crucial stories are not only subject matter; they are the means by which the social structures that shape confession are interrogated, and by which confessional lyric itself is reconfigured:

I am not a confession
you make in secret
not a servant of God to rest my hands
on your face and forgive you
for sins I don’t believe in.

Blythe’s Hymnswitch also makes an important contribution to the field of trans poetics, particularly to the florescence of confessional poetry written by trans people. Combining allusions to Greek mythology and reflections on sobriety with references to sex and surgery, his poems entwine multiple processes of becoming, refracting each through the others. Throughout the collection, one finds little moments of linguistic surprise: “hot rod bodies,” or “the bumpy postal services / of love and sex.” Blythe uses short, deliberate lines—most less than five words long—grouped into unrhymed couplets, tercets, and quatrains. These constrained stanzaic spaces house discussion of daily moments of being in one’s body and being with one’s intimates. Blythe’s attention to the quotidian, to structure, and to the ways in which both are pierced reflects the power of cis-heteropatriarchy, as well as the ways in which our lives can never be reduced to its strictures:

A man is going crazy
because he has seen
a colour no one else has

but there is no way
to prove it exists
for no one but him.
It’s the colour of my jacket,
I’m certain. I’m going to need it.
It’s almost spring.

Like Holy Wild, Sewell’s For the Changing Moon moves beyond standard English, drawing upon the resources of Lnuisi, French, Spanish, Cree, Anishinaabemowin, and numerous nonstandard Englishes in order to renew the material of poetic expression. In each of the book’s five sections, one of the poems is about a chickadee learning Anishinaabemowin from “a virtual dictionary / left online to reach back to the broken lines of human teachers.” In addition to pushing beyond the limits of language-as-usual, Sewell exceeds the speech-based rhythms that characterize so much contemporary lyric poetry. Her book, after all, collects poems “and songs”: some pieces specify particular chord progressions or tempos for live performance. In attending to the distinctive rhythms of different languages and in evoking aurality through frequent references to music, Sewell emphasizes the physical, somatic grounding of our relationships to language. Highlighting the “broken lines” that divide communities, her poems challenge readers to forge new connections in defiance of settler colonialism: “In the face of this monstrous pity renew the call: / All hail the molecular divine / conjugal marvel of life.” Many of Sewell’s poems explicitly demand action, offering another means of taking poems off the page. Like Benaway and Blythe, Sewell demands this transgression not only in service of art but also in service of life.

This review “Bodies and Languages” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 131-132.

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