Pathos and Presence

  • David Groulx
    A Difficult Beauty. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd.
Reviewed by Michelle La Flamme

A photograph evoking the sombreness of the winter sunset seen through the bro- ken glass of a windowpane is followed by a single black page with the title “A DIFFICULT BEAUTY” in bold black font on cream paper. The visual starkness of the cover and introductory pages of A Difficult Beauty prepare us for the cryptic poems that follow.

This collection of poetry is a passionate snapshot of poignant aspects of life on the rez depicted in simple scenes that are propelled forward with a sparse economy of language. It is little wonder that Groulx has won awards for his poetry and that his poems have appeared globally in over one hundred periodicals. In addition to the stark realism of the poems, the crushing blows of poverty are evinced in poems such as “ONE SET OF TRACKS”: “this is skid row / here everybody drags their body / from pawnshop to bar stool.” The collection includes poems punctuated by ontological concerns, as in

Frozen were
These veins in my throat
Life chains

My bones dripping
Into these rivers
I am being made into memory

The landscape, song, the natural world, and the highway weave their way into the reader’s mind. The symbolism of the widening highway on the rez—“[i]ts teeth clamped down / on the Indians, dogs and their houses”—is a frightening personi- fication of impending encroachment. Some of the poems represent the anger of the impotence that is part of this exist- ence, as in “URBAN INDIAN,” “HATE IS LONG DISTANCE,” “THE HUNT,” and “CHANGING NAMES,” where the uran- ium mine and the highway make adamant demands for social justice. Death themes, hard labour, survival, and asphalt are woven with memoirs on the effects of alcohol on self and family in “DANCING WITH MY FATHER” and “MONSTERS.” These poems that deal with harsh realities mingle with those such as “I AM HERE” and “SWEAT” that offer solace and ceremony, told in storytelling fragments that aid in the healing from the violence of colonization.

The overarching poetic statement “I’ve done my time / America” is understood through the body of poems that chillingly recount the impact of history and personal and cultural memory. The mental, emo- tional, and physical effects of colonization on the soul are told here in a dense and personal poetry that is almost cinematic in its crispness, as when the reservation is described simply as “the colony of broken fridges and worn down / houses” in “RETURNING TO THE REZ.”

These poems ultimately resist and describe the effects of colonization. The visual imagery and layers of symbolism in this frank book of poetry depict survival despite the chaos of an occupied postcol- onial Canada for Aboriginal peoples.

This review “Pathos and Presence” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 161-62.

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