not a bomb but leveled still unkeeling
listless or lacking inventory shortly, nothing
shortly, unmade harkening back to blondes
on VHS stockings named for favoured subset of flesh
glitter rides the escalator’s churn
jingle dirges in the backlight specter
backlight blue geometrical impossible
this edifice: “the biggest thing to hit the city
since the flood” flood displaced in meaning
by a bigger flood mall displaced
in meaning by the flood of us
flood again toxic metaphor begat
by bordering Black and brownness
by bodies blued bluing made buoyant
by the mass of us liquid in our number
to be sure us ≠ this keen city nostalgic amnesiac
supplicant lustrated in silted water ten tented fingers
breaks for wagging
us ≈ my people connotes a buoyant mass
joyous noise gestures to uncle strangers
in the food court stuffing ears with courage lies
in Dollarama auntie compliments my accent
offers me her son strained plaid polyester
Portage Place First Nation which D says
to mean ≈ my people
people made a demographic disappeared
from municipal imagination struck like noon
inside exit doors locked into exterior walls
before unmaking return again to the blueness
of the light gossamer and permanent to the trees
indoors at that a rube’s early wonder
to these planters built for sitting uniformed men
imported from the suburbs to tell us not to sit
to the clock’s bright mechanics spiral
torsions only visible coming down the escalator
blunt blade also promised better things
the trouble is how to build it the blue unmade
amidst mist and wind and unhurried anarchy
how to conjure house and universe
even dexterous in this new split tongue
I am full of all the wrong language full of little
but language lungs full of elsewhere’s smoke I am helpless
before what can’t be helped mouth busied
retuning the questions: what beautiful thing
has ever left me and returned?
what else in the middle distance is burning?
Questions and Answers
Chimwemwe Undi is a writer with work appearing in Brick Magazine, Room Magazine, Border Crossings Magazine, on CBC Manitoba and BBC World and at the Edinburgh International Writers Festival. She is a Banff Centre Emerging Writers Intensive alumni and sits on Poetry in Voice’s working board. She holds an MA in linguistics from York University and lives on Treaty One territory in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she works as a lawyer.
What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?
I began to write this poem after I heard of plans to remake or replace Portage Place Mall, a shopping centre in downtown Winnipeg. The demographics of the mall’s current clientele are Black and Indigenous people, primarily, and primarily poor people, and so the desire to remake this space made me think about gentrification and other kinds of colonialism. I was interested in the factors that made people need this space and the factors that made other people want to destroy it despite its demonstrated necessity. A lot of my current writing is about place and space in cities, and this city on this stolen land specifically.
What poetic techniques did you use in this poem? How much attention do you pay to form and metre?
I used a lot of repetition and what the linguist in me would call minimal pairs: the same phrase repeated with one small difference. I’m admittedly inexperienced with or untrained in form but I knew after a while that this poem would need to take up a lot of space on and across the space to echo the vastness of the mall and of the poem’s concerns.
How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?
I did a fair amount of research for this poem. Major sources were YouTube, where I watched old ads and news stories about Portage Place Mall, and Owen Toews’ book Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg. I then paired those references with my own experiences with the mall over the many years it has featured in my life. I read an early draft at a Communities Not Cuts Manitoba protest, and feedback from friends and audience members with respect to what resonated was surprisingly helpful (though I ignored some of it!). It took me about a year to get from a first draft to this published version. It was like that ship of Theseus thought experiment: I rewrote it so many times and so completely that it’s clear it was the same poem only because I said so.
What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?
I found it challenging to get this poem to sit still on the page. I come from a spoken word tradition and I still think this poem is stronger read aloud than it is typeset. So much of the work of placing it on the page was attempting to capture the breath work of reading or performing this aloud.