From Nightmare into Light

The Cree word “Sôhkêyihta,” explains Sky Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe in the afterword to

Sôhkêyihta: The Poetry of Sky Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe (2018), a stellar Laurier Poetry Series publication, is a “gentle commanding word used to encourage people to stand strong while they face adversity.” It encourages the listener to “Have Courage. Be brave. Be strong.” Given the flood of disheartening reports in the national media this past year (and every year since the Canadian colonial project began), including the not-guilty verdicts of Gerald Stanley in the death of Colten Boushie and Raymond Cormier in the death of Tina Fontaine, which have dealt emotional and political blows to reconciliation efforts between the Canadian settler state and the Indigenous communities it has long sought to silence and erase, Halfe’s counsel—sôhkêyihta, stand strong in the face of adversity—remains urgent.

In this collection, Halfe’s fierce and incandescent poetry and voice, which have resonated with readers since the 1990s, are amplified and (if possible) intensified by her biographical afterword, in which she charts her writing life, her work to address legacies of pain, and a process of “spiritual enlightenment, intellectual observation, and emotional healing.” The collection is also made all the more powerful by the foreword by settler scholar David Gaertner. Gaertner illuminates Halfe’s integral place in a body of Indigenous writing that is working to push back against and break colonial narratives and structures that have sought to silence Indigenous voices, and foregrounds her work to “bear witness to the violence of residential schools and settler colonialism writ large,” while listening attentively to the silence of those who have been rendered voiceless.

Halfe’s early poems, including “The Residential School Bus,” which speaks of her experiences in the Blue Quills Residential School, and “Valentine Dialogue,” which addresses sexual abuse, both bear powerful witness and give voice to harrowing experiences that often evade language or are erased from dominant narratives. The poem that concludes the collection, “God of Nightmares,” typifies Halfe’s work and broader efforts, which move resolutely into darkness in order to extract spaces of healing. The poem’s speaker

        thanks the god of nightmares
that the acidic fire left blisters on pages
where her pen rose to meet the spirit
of answers[.]

Sôhkêyihta is an especially crucial collection for educators, scholars, and readers of Canadian poetry. Halfe offers readers a rich process through which to begin and continue to contend with the horrors and injustices that underpin settler colonialism in Canada.

This review “From Nightmare into Light” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 145-146.

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