Realism & Conceptualism

Reviewed by Tom Wayman and Susan Gingell

Though Wanda John-Kehewin’s In the Dog House and Paul Zits’Massacre Street are both first trade-book collections of poetry focused on Indigenous-Euro-Canadian contact zones, two more different books would be hard to imagine. The two books speak eloquently to different readerships. John-Kehewin’s poems use the realist mode to chart what she herself identifies as a healing journey, and they rely largely for their effects on the unflinching honesty of her female-centred, social-realist account of the personal devastation wrought by colonization. Zits’Massacre Street, by contrast, is a work of conceptual poetry focused on the Frog Lake Massacre early in the Northwest Resistance of 1885. As is typical of a poetry that Marjorie Perloff compellingly characterized as that of “unoriginal genius,” Zits’ book juxtaposes fragments of others’ writing to invite readers to ponder the concept of reconstituting history when the low fog of racism attends cultural difference and shrouds events, when personal investments of witnesses to that history are so divergent, and when oral and written versions of events tell incommensurable stories.

In the Dog House is structured by the four directions of the Medicine Wheel, which John-Kehiwin explains in a four-page reconstruction of the concept based primarily on her father’s teachings. However the book somewhat oddly mixes an Indigenous oral-traditional style of rhetoric and decolonizing political commentary with Western-style confessional lyrics and shape poems. Their success is varied.

On the least felicitous end of the range are the almost unreadable “Chai Tea Rant” in a seventeen-loop spiral in small print imitative of a circuitous city drive that constantly circles personal sadness; the pain-laced “Alcohol,” shaped as a bottle and wine-glass but nevertheless feeling it needs in its final line to tell readers “I am alcohol”; andearnest poems like “A World at Peace” whose energy is so attenuated by abstract nouns that these texts struggle for life.

Further along the continuum is “Twinkle Twinkle Fallen Star”, a moving exposé of the crippling feelings that spring from growing up with a mother “who tasted whiskey / and it stained her lips / a golden five-star brown.” The daughter, told to wish upon a star, wishes fervently that her mother didn’t collect those golden stars and would come back “from indian [sic] school” to her daughter and her world. Also largely successful is “Luna,” whose concrete detail of an isolate bow whale calling mournfully to her pod on a moonless night serves as objective correlative for the persona’s condition.

Most compelling of all is the chilling neo-gothic of the title poem. So cliché has the expression “in the dog house” become that the realization that the poem is literally about a child huddled in fetal position, and hiding from unidentified horrors behind a shivering dog in its kennel, comes as a shock. When John-Kehewin’s poems work best, they are poignant documents impelled principally by suffering and loss, though beauty also emerges in more hopeful poems like “Pow Wow Dreams,” with its vision of a mother, abandoned as a child, finally finding freedom in lovingly providing her own child with a carefully-sewn outfit for her dancing.

Zits’ theoretically-impelled but varying avant-garde poetics demand far more of his readers than do John-Kehewin’s of hers. Zits guides readers about the nature of his work with epigraphs from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project method of literary montage, of showing only rather than commenting; from William Burroughs’ envisioning of copying others’ words to make another book; and from Michel Foucault’s intellectual collaging while knowing that words may be resurrected but not their human authors. Zits thus signals an abdication from any sovereign rendering of all he surveys as he looks down the symbolic gravel road running through Frog Lake to Fort Pitt, known after 1885 as Massacre Street. Yet Zits concedes the impossibility of non-interventionist repetition in his reproduction of documents from the Glenbow Archives, like a brief letter from the Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest Territories acknowledging receipt of we know not what. This letter appears to be overwritten in a modern hand and is reproduced off-centre so that words at the far right are obscured. Readers may want to hurry through the disconcertingly fragmented and often deliberately uninformed footnoted transcriptions of tapes and through the incoherent texts headed “Rough Work.” However, readers may also be haunted by the re-ordered echoing of the titular words of massacre survivor William Bleasdell Cameron’s Blood Red the Sun as Zits submits to a poetics of constraint and by the glimpses of experience recorded in the female captivity narratives that Zits re-sites.

This review “Realism & Conceptualism” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 162-63.

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