The People of the Grassy Don’t Have a Mercury Problem, They Have a Drinking Problem

Mercury     Blood     1.42 ug/L

They were no longer themselves and there was talk of making a national park to solve the problem. This kind of talk was the part of the problem where the problem-people are spread onto maps and folded into animal shapes on long car trips through the wilderness. There was talk of the problem in a few arms and legs that couldn’t talk and so folded in on each other and clenched on something no one could see, which seemed heartbreaking and unnecessary, but was a way of signaling that the problem was all around us, that the problem could be touched and when touched it would grab back like the rapids in that river. There was talk that the waters were not polluted, and if they were polluted, then the company was not responsible. There was talk that nothing escaped from the plant, and if anything did escape, the company did not know it was harmful. There was talk that bodies were not actually poisoned, and if they were poisoned it was because of what goes into them, the weekends in Kenora, the altered dream-states that break into leaf in this culture but culture urine and vomit in the streets of that culture. There was talk that they couldn’t hold their liquor, as if liquor were a front door you held open for a crowd pouring in to pound your liquor. The fur trade was in there burning in a shooter. There was talk about how drinking was one long peristaltic protest against colonialism, an attempt to clear the throat as perfectly good protein threw itself into rivers, through car windshields. Some people went on talking like this. And here I have it in my blood talking, a settler methylated by the privilege afforded by the problem’s extremities shaking with poorly connected dreams. All this talking and I am beginning to repeat myself. Myself.

The title of the poem “The People Of Grassy Don’t Have A Mercury Problem, They Have A Drinking Problem” is a paraphrase of a persistent prejudice expressed during the 1970s by, among others, the largely white community of Kenora toward the Indigenous residents of nearby Grassy Narrows. The community of Grassy Narrows had been and continues to be poisoned by mercury spilled into Wabigoon-English River system in the 1960s by a pulp and paper mill in Dryden, Ontario. I found mercury in my blood and it made me think about my connection to this issue as a privileged settler in southern Ontario.

Questions and Answers

What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?

The Anthropocene continues to leave its chemical signatures in the atmosphere (greenhouse gasses), the fossil record (plastiglomerate), and in our bodies (chemical pollution). It seems to me that expanded forms of literacy are required to read this new writing. I tested my body for a whole range of chemicals and microbes to look at the way the “outside” writes the “inside.” What is inside me is most likely inside you, too. I found PCBs, flame retardants, pesticides, and heavy metals, among other substances. I found western-diet-influenced microbes in my stomach. My goal was to tell the stories of these chemicals and microbes as they live within me and in the bodies of the people around me. How did they get into my body? What is their relationship to the companies that produced them? What healthy problems, or (in the case of some microbes) health benefits are they associated with? How have they been implicated in events in political history? What does it mean to understand a body overwritten by its environment in this way? These are the kinds of questions I asked myself in composing this poem.

What poetic techniques did you use in this poem? How much attention do you pay to form and metre?

I deliberately wanted to use a prose poem to create the effect of a report or analysis. The narrative in the poem makes use of repeated words and long sentences to convey a sense of urgency that emerges from its subject matter. I also chose the prose poem as a form because the book in which these poems appear is structured—in a general sense—like a hormone, with the chemical and microbial prose poems floating in the stream of a long poem in sections. Many of the chemicals and microbes that I discovered in my testing have effects on the production and management of hormones in the body. Hormones are metabolically active by way of complex sequences where particular stimuli lead to specific results. It seemed to me that the prose poem, with its emphasis on narrative sequence, was one way of exploring a kind of hormonal poetics. This was one of the reasons I chose the prose poem as a form for this poem.

How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?

This poem responds to mercury that I found in my blood. My specific level is indicated in the epigraph to the poem. The presence of mercury in my body made me think about the problems mercury pollution has caused in Canada, particularly for the indigenous community of Grassy Narrows in northwestern Ontario. I would propose that having found mercury in my blood makes me more responsive and accountable than I would otherwise be to the situation in Grassy Narrows and the poisoning that has resulted from industrial and government mismanagement. It is hard to avoid being confronted by the systematic racism involved in this tragedy. I certainly don’t claim to know what it is like to suffer from mercury poisoning, and I am in no way speaking for the people of Grassy Narrows, but the poem is an attempt to understand the way chemical pollution can redefine the boundaries of our bodies and make the plight of others signify in ways it hadn’t before.

What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?

My challenge was to write about Grassy Narrows and the legacy of mercury contamination in a way that was sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation and the fact that I am a white settler writing about this situation. As a result of my research, I decided to openly acknowledge my position as both a sympathetic and horrified observer as well as a person of privilege in southern Ontario protected to a much greater degree by a government that does not protect all of its citizens equally. I tried to be self-conscious of my position in the act of writing the poem.

This poem “The People of the Grassy Don’t Have a Mercury Problem, They Have a Drinking Problem” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 28-28.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.