The sky is a grey lilac of starling advisors

Crowchild, crowchild
A brain-tanned hide

I said no, the river’s silt it all pyrite
And just for show

The gilt edge of the shield
Or what it takes to remember her face

Jeannette, the shore jumped over my life
I left early but arrived late

In the days of the fur trade

All this honest work is what it’s worth
To hold your tongue and bide your time

Here with these words that are your chambermaids
The river overshot its original banks

A photo of you in braids holding a blade of sweet grass
Between praying hands
No more than seven
Barefoot in soiled linen
Behind you a stand of birch


And behind the birch a lake
And behind the lake a waterway
Reaching towards the mouth
Of James Bay.

In my dream,
We are sitting on the same rock
And you braid your hair into mine

Questions and Answers

What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?


Growing up I was disconnected/estranged from my birth father and his family. His mother (my grandmother) was Ojibway (Anishinaabe). While I was working on my first book I was able to reconnect with some family members just before my birth father passed away, however my grandmother had also passed. Last year my aunt sent me an image of an old photo of my grandmother, Jeanette, as a young girl likely taken in Nicholson, a former lumber camp now ghost town that her family relocated to from the reserve after WW1. It was a profound experience to see the child of myself in her. For years I had a series of dreams (still do) with the connecting theme of trying to leave my hometown to find her and my other relatives. In the dreams I can never find her. Some of my earliest poetry was written to this absent grandmother who I’d felt held some key to who I was. I began writing to her again during a residency at the University of Calgary, out of a kind of grief and desperation for answers as to why I feel like love is something ahead of me that I can never reach. I’d been trying to work with some of that material for this most recent book that came out but it wasn’t ready. One night I sat with “unfinished” lines trying to build on them and I saw myself sitting in front of my grandmother in the photograph and she began to braid her own hair into mine. The poem formed itself around this image.


What poetic techniques did you use in this poem? How much attention do you pay to form and metre?


As in much of my work I use a fair bit of parataxis, where seemingly disparate words/ideas are paired together or follow one another closely. I find this evokes for me the sometimes disorienting nature of dreams, or how deep memories can resurface in a disjointed sequence. I favour a kind of musical quality in the writing that comes from slant rhyme, assonance and consonance. In terms of form I wanted the lines to mostly be short and then occasionally interrupted by a full sentence. Each line is like a brief flash of setting sunlight from in between the trees along a trail or highway as one might sense passing through and every once and awhile there is the sentence of a lake. The poem holds the form of a consciousness experiencing the landscape of itself.

This poem “JEANETTE BRAIDS HER HAIR INTO MINE” originally appeared in Pandemics Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 245 (2021): 189-190.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.