Sinews and Sheaves

  • Tyler Pennock
    Bones. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Angeline Schellenberg
    Fields of Light and Stone. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Carl Watts

Canadian literature has for decades explored the alternate histories percolating beneath the construction called Canada. Increasingly, everything seems to be called into question: any conception of overarching unity is suspect, and few lived experiences seem too specific to be of note. And yet new books by Tyler Pennock and Angeline Schellenberg suggest that our poetic engagements with individual and collective pasts are defined less by intensifying fragmentation than by assiduous re-evaluation of the singularities and similarities among historical oppressions and the lives shaped by them.

Pennock’s Bones is something of a long poem; in its pages the speaker, a Two Spirit Indigenous man, attempts to salvage a positive individual and familial identity from personal trauma as well as the systemic violence done to Indigenous peoples in Canada. The book resists locating such abuses in the past, instead rendering the persistence of trauma and ongoing settler violence in a temporally fluid meditation. The approach creates manifold linkages between discursive and organic imagery:

I’ll speak

 

of blood

 

and wounds and beauty

in terrible things

 

the way the wind pulls a thousand leaves

down an empty street[.]

The widely spaced verse is occasionally broken up with other visual elements. Alongside a section beginning “two paths cross / In darkness, straining // to illuminate the walkway,” the word “EMERGENCY” is rendered vertically along the left margin. The juxtaposition indicates the vicissitudes of perception and complements repeated statements that “[t]he body is a collection / of continuously dying cells[.]”

The memories contained in this structure are described as passed down to newer cells, “each armed with knowing / and stronger than the last[.]” Such passages corporealize and reappropriate almost romantic-nationalist conceptions of a culture’s transcending the generational death represented by “dying cells”:

[T]hen are we not the same—

our deaths serving to make the whole stronger?

 

Is our blood not a constant flow of memories

 

shaped

 

to make us survive what our parents could not?

Pennock also explores the reassertion of Indigenous value systems. The passage “and we aspired / to the same harmony / that animals had,” in being followed by a swath of white space and an italicized characterization of a response—“And you fools called it / animal worship / totemism”—creates a one-sided conversation that critiques and caricatures settler dismissals of Indigenous ways of knowing. Subsequent passages are more literal (in a “boardroom,” the speaker “saw the latest casualty // it was in the silence of the only Indigenous woman in the room / and the anxiety that I could recognize”). Political language emerges as another of the discourses that are themselves rendered as sinews of the living, breathing, verbalizing individual.

Language acquisition generates another conceptual arc. The recurring figure of the speaker’s sister “used to teach me to read // words like story, dog, Shasta, and lasagna // Sioux, Blackfoot, princess[.]” The scene is echoed following Pennock’s acknowledgements, where the author describes choosing to learn “Severin Ojibwe” [sic] because it was the available language closest to Cree—a reminder that First Nations affinities must sometimes be reclaimed from the settler taxonomy of language varieties that is reified in the classroom.

Fields of Light and Stone excavates the relationships between Schellenberg’s Mennonite grandparents, drawing on source material including correspondence, family folklore, and two unpublished memoirs. “Love Letters, 1944-45” intersperses lyric poetry with parts that draw on letters sent between her maternal grandparents. The latter is rendered as dialogue, with one speaker on the left of the page and the other on the right. The free-verse conversation recreates the delays, disjunctions, and hidden meanings typical of such correspondence: “I anew / give you all my love. // Mr. Wiens’ sermons were very good.”

The book moves among various styles and source materials as through sheaves of distinct documents. It resembles not so much a stack of marginalia-covered archival records typical of the postmodernist Prairies as a more tightly stylized dossier. The third section introduces Schellenberg’s paternal grandparents, Elsa Friesen Falk and Bernhard David Falk, drawing on the history of a group that settled in the Russian Empire as far back as the eighteenth century and was forced out in the early twentieth. The beginning of “Generations”—“1586: as far back / as the Mennonite database / can take me”—nods to the online resources that would have assisted Schellenberg’s navigation of print materials.

Here, too, languages are gained and lost amid intergenerational hardship:

In Arkadak’s crowded market,

vendors yelled what sounds like yablooka (apples!)

 

and duraki (you fools!)—Russian words Opa passed me

like forbidden fruit.

Russian vocabulary evokes the history of a Mennonite family driven to participate in Canada’s settler-colonial project because of—ironically—the violence of a quasi-colonial regime. “Plans to Prosper” adds contours to the family’s escape from Ukraine (“they have ten overcoats: they / are rich”), depicting a transcontinental mosaic of interlocking hypocrisies and oppressions with images of “[a] horse-drawn sleigh to another station—a rented room in a / former dacha of the wealthy— // Canada.”

Winnipeg Free Press Passages” is a quasi-erasure poem in which the text of Bernhard Falk’s obituary is alternately bolded or struck through. The technique makes disjunctive lyric (“After / Health / our / evening March”) out of comparatively obscure details, one of which is a request that donations be made to “Gospel Outreach Ministry to Ukraine.” The final proper noun speaks to the dysphoria faced by those whose cultural or familial stories have been defined by recurrent or consistent upheaval—there’s arguably a contradiction in longing for an alien land to which one’s ancestors fled only to be subsequently ejected in the space of a few branches of the family tree. But is this so different from the way Pennock’s present-minded self-exploration ends by reaching toward a language many must learn even as some part of their intergenerational selves remains at home there? It makes little sense, so to speak, except for the affirmation—from the closing pages of Bones—that “[w]e tell stories / That is what we do[.]”



This review “Sinews and Sheaves” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Aug. 2020. Web.

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