Indigena Awry

Reviewed by Lorraine Weir

The first book in ten years from this fine Anishnabe (Little Saskatchewan First Nation) poet, Indigena Awry is darker and tougher than its predecessors, saturated with rejection of “honest Injun” clichés and of ageist and sexist stereotypes from settler culture. It is also laced with mortality in relation to poverty, illness, the multiple systemic oppressions of colonization. In place of shape-shifting, weasel words and easy reconciliation—

I could use truth and reconciliation to figure how I now shape shift into a weasel woman shifty in glance relentless swirl of poverty life’s strange tragedy is unknown conniving weasel whose outer limits will always wait.

—Annharte offers “Indigenous Verse Ability”:

Hang in there, even Riel knew how crazy monias [whites] were
stripped naked he showed them all he could not be hung
Laugh it up, not every day is a good day to genocide
not easy to chortle word choice snicker sounds digital

Instead of reconciliation, the poet offers writing which is breath overcoming silence, pushing back the end:

My child memory convinces me that I spoke my mother language, Ojibwe, with my mother. I remember always hearing the sing song speak of my aunties and cousins as they worked in the house. My father spoke English and so I no doubt experienced a bilingual upbringing until my mother disappeared. Then I learned silence. . . . Did my breath stop as it does in near drowning?

If the poems of Indigena Awry constitute the writer’s act of both witnessing the sustained impact of colonization, particularly on urban Indigenous women, and repudiating its effects, they are also characterized by a ferocious hope in the future as in the “granny boot camp” poems with their rejection of grandmother stereotypes and fake spirituality (“I will proudly wear a button MEDICINE WOMAN NOT”). Sometimes hope comes in the form of excoriation as in “Raving in the Hood,” the brilliant dub elegy which concludes this collection, for all the women “gone away down memory lane time / done prime chance to become even newsworthy story rehash . . . remember no one told story about life friends / rough rave in the hood death just raven it up after all up to no good / up to no good should we should no body guessed her body. . .” —for the victims of convicted murderer Robert Pickton and for all the Indigenous women whose violent deaths are the subject of the “next national day protest plan staged complain refrain fries ketchup mustard came slow. . .” Neither token protests nor mass meetings address the issues. Perhaps reconciliation is like resurgence: “Takes five centuries for resurgence take back/ ancestral dreamtime before us forgotten women / use imperialist nostalgia to reconnect the power. . . .”

In this tough-minded, sometimes funny, and frequently eloquent book, five centuries have distilled rage into incandescence. Yet, seeking to contextualize Annharte’s work, some critics have begun to associate her with the Kootenay School of Writing and other (mostly white, mostly male) icons of postmodern Vancouver where Annharte lived for many years. In her commitment to technical experimentation, Annharte’s work ranges from dub to lyric, from spoken word to elegy, from colloquial humour to jagged irony in which the ‘experimental’ is never separate from a passionate rejection of white bourgeois aesthetics. In this, Annharte is closer to Skeena Reece and Rebecca Belmore in her crafting of an “enemy language” to do the work of resurgence.

This review “Indigena Awry” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 134-35.

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