Struggles for and with Indigenous Poetics

Reviewed by Nazeer Patel

This non-Indigenous reviewer approached two works—Mareike Neuhaus’, The Decolonizing Poetics of Indigenous Literatures, and a collection of essays edited by Neal McLeod, Indigenous Poetics in Canada—cognizant of the fact that the meaning and purpose of Indigenous poetics are creative acts that, regardless of how earnest and engaged the reviewer, are centrally concerned with issues and concepts that can never fully be appreciated or understood by non-Indigenous readers. But this does not mean that these books should only find Indigenous audiences, or that their work on Indigenous poetics is intended only for a specific group. Instead, both works demonstrate that “engagement” with Indigenous poetics is fraught with difficulties and challenges (especially for non-Indigenous readers), and demands more than a cursory understanding of what Indigenous poetics means. It is in this spirit that I hope to converse with these works.

Both books have great relevance for Indigenous peoples in Canada who continue to live in an existential and practical colonial project. Both raise several important questions that, when taken individually, address the meaning and purpose of Indigenous poetics; but when taken in their totality, these questions point to a central concern. Namely, how do Indigenous poetics confront and challenge the colonial project, and lead not only to a spiritual (artistic) emancipation, but real political and individual agency? For at its heart, Indigenous poetics is not simply aesthetic expression, but like all good art, it has a political imperative. McLeod confirms this: “Indigenous poetics is inherently political because it is the attempt to hold on to an alternative centre of consciousness, holding its own position, despite the crushing weight of English and French.” This is relevant for Indigenous peoples, especially considering that the attempted colonial destruction of their cultures was facilitated by the wilful nullification of Indigenous languages. The first step toward “decolonization,” then, necessitates the re-acquisition/re-affirmation of Indigenous languages. Neuhaus’ contribution is most welcome here.

Neuhaus raises important questions: what is Indigenous poetics without Indigenous languages? How can Indigenous stories and poetry fully articulate an Indigenous experience using the colonizer’s language? The short answer is they cannot. Neuhaus thus seeks a corrective to this problem by offering the following definition of Indigenous poetics: “I think of Indigenous poetics primarily as a way of making sense of Indigenous expressions, as a set of tools that readers may use when they read Indigenous texts—as a map, if you will, that can help guide their readings.” This map or method for reading Indigenous texts focuses on “holophrastic reading,” showing that although there are many different types of Indigenous literatures and expressions, they all generally share one dominant feature: holophrasis. Holophrases are, according to Neuhaus, “grammatically complete sentences or clauses because they include an expression of both the verb and the subject, and if applicable, its object(s).” The first part of the book presents a primer on finding “holophrastic traces” and “relational word bundles”—important features of Indigenous languages. Her central aim is to show how to “think outside the English language while simultaneously using that language.”

Neuhaus’ book is challenging and daunting, as it should be. As a manual or method it requires more than a single reading. It is incumbent upon the non-Indigenous reader to struggle with these difficulties, and not to assume Indigenous narratives can be adequately conveyed in English. Neuhaus’ method is best used as a constant reference and reminder of how to “read” Indigenous literatures written in English: “The presence of holophrastic traces in Indigenous writing in English is based on negation: holophrastic traces evoke (the use of) a language structure that does not exist in English grammar. And yet, holophrastic traces remain significant elements of discourse.” Most importantly, holophrastic reading has particular “discourse consequences” that speak directly to important characteristics of Indigenous languages. First, the holophrastic “nature” of Indigenous languages demonstrates the importance of “evidentiality,” or “the process of identifying or qualifying one’s (source of) knowledge.” Second, Indigenous literatures employ figurative uses of language. And third, holophrases allow for a “minimalism of text” to tell a story.

All these elements combine and allow the reader (the follower of the map) to engage with Indigenous literatures and see the influence of ancestral languages, to see how Indigenous narrative structures differ from their Western counterparts, to accept the “sovereignty” of Indigenous literature, and to understand how these literatures contribute to healing the historical trauma that continues to affect Indigenous peoples. These elements are given life as Neuhaus moves beyond a “method” of reading toward a substantive consideration of the works of Richard Wagamese, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Bernice Halfe, amongst others, to illustrate how holophrastic reading can contribute to a fuller engagement with Indigenous literatures written in English.

Neuhaus’ work is thus a useful complement to McLeod’s collection of essays, which defines Indigenous poetics as “a theoretical activity grounded in narrative and language.” The essays in this volume challenge how we understand and articulate poetry from an “Anglo-môniyâw interpretative matrix.” The book is divided into the poetics of memory, place, performance, and medicine. These divisions do not signify different categories of analysis or meaning, but show how Indigenous poetics are artistic, cultural forms of expression that speak to rich histories and traditions, and are also “political” acts of personal and communal “decolonization.”

The French historian, Ernest Renan, famously argued that, “Forgetfulness, and I would even say historical error, are essential in the creation of a nation.” The creative acts of Indigenous poets help confront the colonial “forgetting” necessary for Canada’s creation and perpetuation. The poetic endeavour from an Indigenous perspective addresses what Warren Cariou refers to in his essay as “wilful forgetting, a choice to not look at something that might destabilize Canada’s wholesome idea of itself.” Cariou’s essay, “Edgework: Indigenous Poetics as Re-Placement,” examines the work of Marvin Francis to show how Francis’ poetry breaks down boundaries that “enabl[e] the relatively wealthy and privileged to enjoy their place in the nation without being bothered by the horrific inequities that typify colonial reality on this continent.” The poet as “edge walker” is able to challenge and complicate these divisions, thereby confronting the very nature and meaning of Canada.

But this remembering cannot be done without understanding the central role that the storyteller plays in Indigenous cultures. Essays by Duncan Mercredi, Janet Rogers, and Lindsay “Eekwol” Knight all speak to what Mercredi terms the “keeper of the fire,” the storyteller and his/her role in both narrating and cataloguing the lived experiences of Indigenous nations, but also in pushing back against the “forgetfulness” foisted upon Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. The “stories” of residential schools are most powerfully understood (heard) through an appreciation of the oral traditions of Indigenous peoples. Mercredi writes:

Their stories were told in a manner consistent with the way stories were related when I was a child. These were emotional, gut-wrenching stories, told from memories and hearts of the storytellers so that they would have the most impact but, more importantly, they were told in such a way that they would remain embedded in the memories of those hearing them for the first time. They were poetic, with a rhythm that would rise and fall, depending on the emotion in which the story was told.

This circles back to the characteristics of Indigenous literatures identified by Neuhaus—figurative use of language, minimalism of text, and the qualification of knowledge—that shape how the storyteller recounts the narrative and allow for “silences” to bring the listener into the story. The memories of residential schools thus become at once historical and contemporary, creating the consciousness necessary for the decolonization that Indigenous poetics affirm.

Essays by Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy and Alyce Johnson demonstrate how a unique connection to the land contributes to decolonization. Sy’s spoken word poem about the sugar bush opens up a “personal decolonization” through a revised understanding of the “erotic.” Sy also addresses the question posed at the beginning of the review. She writes: “The point is to inscribe contemporary Indigenous poetics with the work of decolonization so that we may reduce cultural voyeurism or tokenism and even prompt critical praxis in a non-Indigenous audience; prevent the recreation of a new kind of romantic Indian, the romantic Indigenous person . . . and nurture the personal in decolonizing practice.” I take this to mean an engagement—the type offered by Neuhaus’ work—that appreciates and seeks to understand both the limits and possibilities that Indigenous poetics offers, without degenerating into the type of crude cultural co-optation that has characterized the “Canadian” relationship to Indigenous cultures.

Both Neuhaus’ and McLeod’s books show that Indigenous poetics offer a powerful cultural, aesthetic struggle against colonialism while creating discourses that non-Indigenous people must rightfully struggle with to appreciate and understand Indigenous narratives in Canada.

This review “Struggles for and with Indigenous Poetics” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars 2. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 228-229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 256-259.

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