Unsettling Love Codes

  • Anahita Jamali Rad
    for love and autonomy. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Tenille K. Campbell
    #IndianLovePoems. Signature Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sylvie Vranckx

While love poetry easily devolves into the patriarchal and/or clichéd, these two collections demonstrate its subversive potential: they both tackle feminist decolonial themes of how “race,” gender, class, sexuality, culture, history, and the body intersect in relationships and society. However, these two books of prose poetry are fundamentally different in style, tone, and philosophy: while Campbell’s is written in deceptively plain English and rooted in Indigenous realities, Rad’s is an uncompromisingly deconstructionist investigation of alienation and reification.

Campbell’s (Dene/Métis) acclaimed debut #IndianLovePoems is fresh and humorous, like a wink in poetry form. The book’s tone is announced by its cover, a professional photograph by Campbell (whose process she describes on her collective blog, tea&bannock). Superimposed on a forest landscape, the young Indigenous woman with a sensual, playful expression also establishes the collection’s themes of self-confidence and connectedness with the Dene lifeworld. Indeed, the speaker’s sexual agency is framed as part of a story repeated since time immemorial. Her free, unashamed one-night stands counteract the patriarchal colonial discourse that disparages overtly sensual women—especially women of colour. Asserting her “sacred womanhood,” she addresses a poem to a white man who shelves her “in that dirty little section / between Squaw and Slut / because pure sexuality is too broad a concept for [him].” One is reminded of Cherokee Two-Spirit/Queer scholar Qwo-Li Driskill’s sovereign erotic, the notion that (re)claiming one’s body and sexuality is a decolonizing gesture of healing from historical trauma. Thus, the speaker describes her encounters in their emotional and sometimes political complexities, as sharings of universes. She longs to understand the canoeing traditions of her West Coast lovers; admires a Cree woman’s “bannock bum / flat and lean / yet fluffy and thick” as she dances at a powwow; learns “exotic syllables” from a Nakoda Fancy Dancer; and creates a medicine wheel with her partners of the four “races.” She feels unable to see her clueless white lovers outside of the framework of colonization and often depicts mingling bodies as claiming territory and signing treaty—including with the Cree, traditional enemies of the Dene.

These are resolutely modern poems written for the great variety of women and LGBTQ2S people of today. They turn the stereotypes of the “Vanishing Indian” and “unchanging cultures” upside down with mentions of campus life, sexting, Tinder, and of course Twitter (the poems have non-serialized numbers with hashtags). There is power in Campbell’s creative use of imagery and everyday language. #IndianLovePoems is a must-read from a very exciting new voice who will undoubtedly become an established name.

The first pages of for love and autonomy from Iranian Canadian poet Anahita Jamali Rad follow an iterative syntax that constantly reveals new, almost subconscious meanings. Such layering characterizes the whole book, calling for several readings. This feminist materialist collection is very challenging; Rad even helpfully provides a selective bibliography. The research that it can require may lead to interesting surprises, like Marx’s hilariously trite love poetry quoted in the epigraph. The tone of this manifesto is mostly distressed and disillusioned, though the multilayered “I” wields dark humour like a weapon and will not accept passivity. Rad describes existences so thoroughly colonized by mechanization and capitalist ideology that even intimacy might inadvertently be complicit (“fearing your bedroom eyes may have ties to a petroleum politics”). In that system (which, due to the all-pervasive sense of confinement, one hesitates to call a “world”), the gendered and racialized bodies of the working class have become cheaper, more disposable than machines. Violence as well as a sense of mutilation and homelessness abound on the workplace, at street corners, in bedrooms, and in the mechanisms of institutions.

The most intriguing section of the collection’s ten is probably “post-harem heavy breathing,” built on fragmented, often unfinished or overlapping lines (“no I won’t / shed a tear / gas or shot / with rubber”). Each poem title is taken from the previous poem, creating a mise en abyme. The main theme of the section seems to be the implication of capital and the media in the Iraq War, although it is never mentioned by name. The shattered prose evokes bombshells or the exploded consciousness of the disenfranchised, as well as the panting of a panicked or aroused character. To conclude, Rad’s semiotic experimentation would almost necessitate a new critical language.

Both #IndianLovePoems and for love and autonomy are groundbreaking collections in unique ways, and will certainly foster engaging academic discussions.

This review “Unsettling Love Codes” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 137-138.

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