Elegies for a Prairie Pastness; Rhythms of Desire

Poetry with resonance both transports and transforms. This remains true of both John McDonald’s Kitotam and Tenille K. Campbell’s Nedí Nezų: Good Medicine, two collections that move readers through memory and pastness with lovely devastation. Yet while McDonald’s collection is marked by elegy for poets, loved ones, and perhaps most overtly, Saskatchewan, Campbell’s collection embodies the distinct rhythms of fighting, fucking, and fondness in a stunning meditation on feminine desire.


Saskatchewan certainly remains a central object of McDonald’s mnemonic journey throughout Kitotam, wherein he transports readers to a poignant Saskatchewan, pieced together by memory and story. Inaugurated by the pulsing rhythm of the collection’s opening lines, Kitotam paints a prairie portrait wherein Saskatchewan is at once the “[s]wiftly flowing water” (3), “the sweet hiss between stations” (4), and “the hurting times” (13). McDonald’s collection accurately portrays the “feel” of Saskatchewan that only a prairie kid can place. “I feel suffocated by the open land,” McDonald writes after describing the “strange” “[s]ummer smell of Southern Saskatchewan” (82). While McDonald certainly captures Saskatchewan’s modest beauty, Kitotam emerges as a complicated letter to the prairies from a poet resentful of its failures. “The cold winter kills any love I have for this place / Although there is very little love left” (84), he writes towards the end of the collection, after having already catalogued the “sickening drift” on “that gravel road . . . in the middle of nowhere” (31), “[t]he ghosts of winter” (4), and “[t]hose days in Prince Albert” (9). The collection rebukes the things that make Saskatchewan insufferable. Of Prince Albert McDonald writes, “The place has no future / And the past is just that” (9). But ultimately, he pinpoints a distinctly Indigenous resilience in such a “hateful place” (84).


While McDonald overtly admonishes readers of the prairies’ treachery and shortcomings, his tone often remains elegiac, and it is his emphasis on memory—“I remember as a kid” (5), “Golden memories of childhood tainted” (9), “I have this memory” (17)—that allows for a certain tenderness to emerge. McDonald is overt with his elegy in pieces such as “My Dead Friends” and “Ode to Those Killed February 11, 2015,” two beautiful tributes to lost loved ones. Elsewhere, memory serves as a means for him to write back to his youth. “I haven’t seen that girl in 16 years” he writes in “Eights and Aces,” where he navigates fragments of teenage intimacy, “warm and high” (17). Much of Kitotam relies on a thematic of record keeping through analog media. This is arguably best illustrated in “Mix Tape 1993,” which details the “teenage basement dwellers” hoping and praying “that there is enough tape to record the whole song” (25). In “The Arcades,” McDonald shares detailed memory of a childhood spent at the arcade, but the piece works to lament other details of a lost moment in time: “the SAAN store” that “burned down,” “Westside Coin Laundry,” and even “the movie theatre” (22). In “Record Store Day,” the language of catalogue and collection overtakes the form in a process of calculated listening: “All just to hear it on vinyl” (43). This interest in records transcends a 1990s media ecology, as in part 2 of the book—entitled “Masinahikatew (He Writes it All Down)”—McDonald’s poetry becomes about poetry, replete with odes to bygone artists, performers, and writers including Maya Angelou (54), Mr. Dressup (55), Tom Thomson (57), David Bowie (66), and of course, Leonard Cohen (72). Kitotam, then, becomes as much about memory and elegy as it does about writing itself.


If McDonald’s Kitotam can be characterized as an elegiac outpour to Saskatchewan, to childhood, to poetry through a series of emotional recollections, then Tenille K. Campbell’s Nedí Nezų: Good Medicine is best described as a collection of epistles. Most of Campbell’s poems are directly addressed to the second-person “you,” establishing the poems as open love letters to lovers, to the self, to Northern Saskatchewan, where the feminine body emerges as a vessel, a language even, for sweet and heart-wrenching memory.


“[S]nagging while Indigenous / means . . . ” Campbell begins her collection, after which each ensuing text responds ardently to this inaugural statement, illustrating how sex, love, body, land, and kinship are all distinct languages for a particularly sensual set of communications. In the first section, “Language Lessons,” Campbell indicates how lovemaking is a language of its own, whether it is a lover’s “northern accent dripping / from tongue and lips” (14) or their whole being:


. . . fresh river water

chilled by underwater glacial

pulsing through my mouth

over my tongue

down my throat

carrying story (15)


This exploration of sex as language permeates the collection and serves as a frame through which Campbell centres feminine desire. “I want to taste your language,” the speaker asserts before offering the aural imagery to match: “let my tongue lick and suck / your vowels and consonants” (20). This focalization of feminine pleasure allows Campbell to present love and sex as languages for survival:


when your lips and tongue

taste me for the first time

knees spread before you

know that

we are in ceremony (17)


Sexual experience, here, is tied to “reverence” and “ceremony,” but the languages for survival are best indicated by the speaker’s final words to a lover: “remember this moment.” Not only does feminine pleasure demand survival through spirituality and memory—“you need to recognize the ceremony / that my body holds” (76)—but it also uniquely emerges as that which satiates others: “you were thirsty” Campbell writes, “and my desire / quenched you” (19). The body, here, is sustenance, presented to a lover as a “feast” for the taking, but this satiation transcends the bedroom as it presents feminine desire as a life-giving force as well.


Beyond a gorgeous celebration of the feminine body as language, Campbell’s collection explores place and land as offering similar avenues for dialogue. Often the northern lights become a crucial medium for sexual and romantic communication, as to be “wrapped up in northern lights” (42) or “kissed / like the northern lights” (45) is to be loved deeply. Similarly, the speaker declares, “I want . . . lips that kiss under pine trees / and tell me they love me / in accents from the land” (87). But often this meditation on land as language is inherently tied to memory and pastness. Campbell details listening to a lover’s speech: “rolling your ancestors’ words / out of throat through teeth” (94). She frames these details through a desire to be sustained by language: “I wanna . . . listen to your laughter / echo with your ancestors” (102). And the roll of language is also quite literal, as Campbell frequently oscillates between English, Cree, and Dene in a way that features the collection’s feelings of longing.


Campbell’s emphasis on language is supported by her formal play with continuity, repetition, and rhythm. Her poems exude fluidity through their titles, which pour into ensuing poetic lines, framing the speaker’s voice conversationally rather than with constraint. Many of Campbell’s poems utilize a structure of repetition and return. For Campbell, this repetition embodies a musicality that ornaments her meditations on sex, love, and the body, such that where she begins, whether in title or first line—“you wouldn’t have fit in on the rez”—is where she ultimately arrives: “you wouldn’t have fit in on the rez” (75). Each repetition is a process, a return, ornamenting her collection with a distinct rhythm that begs readers to re-evaluate poetic meaning with each cyclical return. In “the first time I fell in love,” the speaker begins by describing “[falling] fearlessly . . . your tongue teaching me / new ways to say neghąnitą,” while she ends with increasingly more Dene and an altogether new perspective on the relationship: “the first time I fell in love / I gave you all my wild and reckless / kǫndue deneghąnitą hurésį́le” (44).


Both collections dwell on a fascination with pastness, but Campbell’s emphasis on memory is productively juxtaposed with a twenty-first-century digital dialect wherein she navigates sex through “snapchat streak[s]” (22), late night DMs, and contemplations on whether or not to text (25). Where McDonald resurrects a distinctly 1990s relationship to media via vinyl records, Campbell establishes social media as a means for “making relations / traditional-like” (22) with an attention to digital technology’s ephemerality that makes the collection shine with raw, twenty-first-century digitality. These moments of social media contemplation are often paired with the less fond side of the collection’s romantic epistles. In poems like “when you come to the door” and “men are trash,” Campbell frames an “I’m not raising / a grown-ass man / again” (72) attitude with moments of social media failure: “ring hiding DM deleting” prefaces “how you like my insta story” in this reminder that “we are worth more,” (68-69). And while social media permeates these frustrated lines about less-than lovers, Campbell cleverly pinpoints her position as a successful poet as the disingenuous reason for lackluster affection. Whether these lovers “wanna be the inspiration / for that next line in the next poem” (68) or whisper “by the way, I’m a fan I love your poetry” (70), Campbell’s poetry emerges as a clever stand-in for the they-only-want-one-thing trope in these more biting poems. Unlike McDonald’s sincere and elegiac meditations on his role as a writer and artist, Campbell self-consciously positions her poetry as sexual desire.


Both collections resonate; they transport and transform. While for McDonald, memory is crucial to artistry, for Campbell, it is inherent in kinship. “I make a deal with myself,” McDonald writes,


As my eyelids begin to close,

That if I remember it by morning

I will put it down

Somehow. (50)


And McDonald does recall, and he does so deeply, putting it all down with more conviction than “Somehow” suggests. With similar conviction, Campbell’s collection closes with hopefulness in “we met in late spring,” a gorgeous love poem that moves creatively through time in a way that reflects the temporal play of the entire collection. Campbell inaugurates the poem with a sweet memory of when “my heart was his,” but she also establishes “right now” as a space for future ancestors, a gorgeous juxtaposition that captures her themes of resilience and survival: “when he smiles / I see echoes of the Elder / he will be” (110). The hope in this penultimate poem is communicated by a pastness that must resonate in the future: “I will tell our grandchildren / we met in late spring” (111). Campbell returns, again, to the title of her poem in this moment of continuity.

This review “Elegies for a Prairie Pastness; Rhythms of Desire” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 12 Apr. 2022. Web.

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