Review of A Really Good Brown Girl
From Barbara Carey , The Malahat Review (119), summer 1996

A Really Good Brown Girl by Marilyn Dumont

Consider the qualities you’d want in a dance partner: grace, surefootedness, versatility, a sense of rhythm. These attributes make for good poetry too. So it’s fitting that “What More than Dance,” one of the poems in this writer’s first book, celebrates the joy of moving to music. The collection as a whole is a spirited dance in words, fully engaged with physical sensation, shifting from the linearity of forthright statement to cadenced, lyrical turns.

Humour and lightheartedness are here, but the dance isn’t carefree. The animating force in A Really Good Brown Girl is Dumont’s experience as a Métis, “growing up in rural Alberta/ in a town with fewer Indians/ than ideas about Indians,/ in a town just south of the ‘Aryan Nations’” (“Helen Betty Osborne”). In the first poem, “The White Judges,” the poet speaks as a young girl uneasily aware of how she and her family constantly are being judged—and found wanting—by a watchful white society. Dumont renders the oppressiveness of that disapproval vividly throughout the collection, but even more affecting is the sense of its being internalized as shame and guilt.

“The great white way” of standard English, Dumont writes in “The Devil’s Language,” “has measured, judged and assessed me.” What’s ironic is that a number of the poems stay within the tidy confines of its “picket fence sentences/ and manicured paragraphs”; without a doubt, Dumont can talk that talk. She experiments with several syntactic styles, including the slangy, offhand colloquial and the honed lyric. She gives narrative prose poems a whirl too. But the most memorable poems are those in which the awareness of being a “halfbreed” creates a powerful inner tension manifested in the form itself. The “Half Human/ Half Devil (Halfbreed) Muse,” for instance, viscerally conveys the speaker’s feeling of being torn apart: the syntax is deliberately halting and awkward, and words such as “gnawing,” “gripping” and “grinding” imply relentless pressure.

Dumont also experiments with the space of the page. In “Recovery” blanks within the body of the poem are visual pauses that suggest the effort of the lungs and the process of emotional healing: “you enter by breathing in deep.” Here, as in several other poems, breath carries the symbolic weight of both the spirit and the flesh. Nowhere is this more movingly rendered than in the elegiac “Let the Ponies Out,” addressed to the speaker’s dying father:

… to have your breath leave, escape you, escape the
weight of bone, muscle and organ, escape you, to rise up, to loft,
till you are all breath filling the room, rising, escaping the white, the white
sheets, airborne, taken in a gust of wind and unbridled ponies, let the ponies
out, I would open that gate if I could find it, if there was one
to let you go…

Poems of loss and lament—both personal and cultural—are carefully balanced with those of tenderness and celebration. This too is a kind of breathing, a dynamic of tension and release that serves the collection well. Adding to the book’s appeal is its handsome and appropriate design, which features Jane Ash Poitras’ mixed-media piece Children’s Blackboard on the front cover. Altogether it’s an attractive package.

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