Lost and Found

Reviewed by Scott Inniss

Annharte (Anishinaabe) and Matthew James Weigel (Dene, Métis) are two Indigenous poets at very different points in their writing careers. One of the most original, vital, and challenging poets of the past several decades, Annharte’s reputation precedes her (even though her work is still yet to receive the full degree of critical recognition and attention that it deserves). Miskwagoode is her fifth collection overall and her first in nearly a decade, which fact alone is worthy of celebration. Although disparate at the level of formal organization, political affect, and voice, Miskwagoode and Whitemud Walking conjointly index the “fugitive interventions,” “coded disruptions,” and “visual opacities” that Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Mississauga Nishnaabeg) identifies as characteristic of contemporary Indigenous poetics and politics of refusal and resurgence (200-18). Miskwagoode addresses the ongoing trauma of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, whereas Whitemud Walking focus on Treaty 6 territory and the colonial archive. Yet both Annharte and Weigel work actively toward a poetics and politics of decolonization in excess of officially sanctioned settler-state mandates of recognition and reconciliation, while also affirming an irreducibly Indigenous poetics of the present.


The figure of the murdered and missing mother haunts all four of Annharte’s earlier books of poetry, as well as many of the essays, interviews, and biographical fragments that comprise her important non-fiction book AKA Inendagosekwe (2012). This haunting comes to the fore in her new poetry collection, Miskwagoode, which opens with the question, “What is the difference between motherless and mother loss” (5)? In a non-teleological manner, Annharte’s poems embody the experience and struggle to come to terms with the harrowing, awful enormity of this difference.


Part of Annharte’s remarkable talent and courage as a poet lies in how colonial trauma is immanent to her writing, and not “only” the (impossible) object of her highly singular language and approach to representation. In the first of the collection’s four sections, Annharte enacts an ambulatory poetics that seeks to “rescue mother memory” (17) while also sidestepping liberal, settler-state enjoinders to “report yet another healing / miracle clever modest apology almost subterfuge” (11). The second part of the book is where Annharte’s at once idiosyncratic and virtuosic (tendentious) humour is most on display. Echoing similar moments from Indigena Awry (2013) and Exercises in Lip Pointing (2003), poems like “Jack Identity” and “bad hair tomahawk day” incisively deploy (at times deliberately excessive or garish) puns and wordplay to interrogate the complexities of Indigenous identity in the current moment of colonial government recognition and reconciliation mandates: “right on red     assign status / pardon please unmanageable words / beaucoup scrutiny     erase faker arguments” (27).


The final two of the book’s sections see Annharte in somewhat new poetic territory. Figuring colonial agency as a type of serial killer, poems like “empty the casket” and “ride in the back of pick-up” place the generic conventions of detective fiction, the murder mystery, and the slasher flick in the service of a grimly unflinching forensic poetics. The book’s final section, in turn, offers the reader some respite, with its brief, idiosyncratic, and personal prose-poem “sketches” of various Indigenous stories and cultural figures (Anishinaabe but also Mayan, Lakota, and Dakota). Despite their foregrounding of Indigenous ways of knowing and being, these prose poems do not work to resolve, reconcile, or overcome the intergenerational trauma of historical and ongoing settler-colonial violence against Indigenous women and girls. As Annharte insists, “I am witness not survivor // nothing will show on outside / what is deep wound inside” (18).


The challenge of Miskwagoode is precisely that of witnessing itself, especially in a colonial context that endeavours to “make forgotten isolated incidents stay hidden / so much so National Inquiry does not want / to care if settler stuff is over or done with us” (11). As Annharte writes both of her mother and of too many other Indigenous women and girls, “she was gone / before she disappeared completely” (51). For Annharte, the promise of Indigenous futurity lies not in official colonial government apologies, inquiries, or commissions but in the solidarity of Indigenous women and in the work of making present all of those lost to settler-state violence: “make multiple paths toward crowd holding / candle lights in collective gesture to mourn / sisters fallen but not forgotten on this eve” (19).


Like all Annharte’s work, the poems in Miskwagoode are often one step ahead of the reader. As much as any Turtle Island poet of the last thirty years, Annharte’s writing requires re-reading but also rewards it. Weigel’s debut collection, Whitemud Walking, also rewards re-reading, but less for the unsettling awryness of its language than for the complex relational organization of its various styles and forms. In poems like “Ancestors of Authors Determined,” “1921,” and “This Is Not an Ode,” Weigel’s writing is variously documentary, observational, confessional, descriptive, and lyric (minimally in that it features a self-reflective, affective first-person subject). Yet Weigel excels with other poetic structures and techniques as well.


Echoing similar work by the Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel, Whitemud Walking often appropriates and excerpts settler-colonial documents, subjecting them to recombinatory procedures, strategic erasure, or palimpsestic overwriting, in order to lay bare the brute facticity of their status as instruments of Indigenous displacement, dispossession, and genocide. In a perspicuous prefatory “note,” Weigel describes this aspect of his poetic project as a type of “resistance historiography, a journey toward an Indigenous imaginary that de-historicizes and de-neutralizes the state’s obligations to us” (9). As Whitemud Walking documents, part of this “journey” for Weigel (and subsequently for the reader) takes the form of an antagonistic encounter with the colonial archive, in its manifold forms. The opening pages of the book’s first section present the reader with two (partial) versions of the Treaty 6 document: an analog-cursive representation and a digital, database-systems replication. The subsequent poem finds the poet “in the library canada keeps my kin in” (14).


Much of the force of Weigel’s book plays around the absurd and constitutively impossible demands that the archive, its objects, and its institutional apparatuses place on the Indigenous subject as a researcher of Treaty 6 history. In “List of Rules I Have Broken in the Archive,” Weigel incisively observes, “I have gotten, on occasion, too close to the materials I study. / I am the materials I study” (23). In a powerful reversal of the (colonial) master-slave dialect, the ostensible “object” of the colonial archive discloses its subjective agency while refusing the position of mastery: “I have acquired and used this photograph without permission. It has been digitally altered to suit my needs” (43).


As a Dene-Métis ecopoetics, Whitemud Walking also figures a “resistance” geography and cartography. “We Drowned the Land of England in the Waters of Denedneh” begins with the following lines:


It was clearly understood,

there was no ownership of land,

so clearly does the land, in fact, own me.


My water from the river and my nitrogen,

a buffalo protein.

I am a fleshbound manuscript of what this place might say. (46)


Through an irregular sequence of short lyric poems, Weigel engages the relational subjectivities of the flora, fauna, water, air, and earth of “Whitemud Creek at Mactaggart Sanctuary, the Metis riverlots of the University of Alberta, and here at one of those places called a pêhonân on the river my family has travelled forever, kisiskâciwani-sîpiy” (8). Figuring the violence of colonial spatial politics, Weigel often turns to extra-discursive forms of representation, from the typewriter poem “CPR Advertisement of a Populated Landscape,” to the visual, handwritten, drawn, and collage text-maps that intersperse the third section of the book.


Along with the specificity of its material (institutional, historical, intergenerational, affective) concerns, this variance in formal procedures is what bestows Whitemud Walking with its subsistent poetic, epistemic, and ontic richness. Earlier this year, Whitemud Walking won the Alcuin Society Book Design Award for poetry. As of this writing, it is on the shortlist for the Betsy Warland Between Genres Award as well. Design and generic hybridity are certainly award-worthy aesthetic features of Weigel’s remarkable debut. Even more remarkable are how these aesthetics work to mediate the text’s profound engagement with Indigenous relationality, difference, and the politics thereof.


Works Cited

Annharte. Miskwagoode. New Star, 2022.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through

          Radical Resistance. U of Minnesota P, 2017.

Weigel, Matthew James. Whitemud Walking. Coach House, 2022.

This review “Lost and Found” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 3 Feb. 2023. Web.

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