Review of A Really Good Brown Girl by Marilyn Dumont, Bear Bones & Feathers, by Louise Halfe, and Native Canadiana: Songs from the Urban Rez, by Gregory Scofield
Native literature is enjoying a growth spurt that is timely and much appreciated by readers all over Canada. Native voices speak of Native experience with no apologies. There is much to learn and enjoy from these writers. No longer are the voices of Native people silenced by anthropologists speaking for a culture. Native writers now speak of a history that has not been kind, the importance of family and the pain that often lies therein, how we as Native people are often forced into realities that mirror the expectations mainstream society has of Native people, and they celebrate their cultures in wonderful, dynamic and sometimes humorous ways. Three such writers are Marilyn Dumont, Gregory Scofield, and Louise Halfe. These writers have each released books of poetry that are straight from the reservation, straight from the street and straight from memories and dreams. This is poetry that celebrates the human experience without glossing over for one minute the harsh reality of First Nations’ people’s lives.
Marilyn Dumont’s A Really Good Brown Girl speaks of the author’s reality as a Métis woman while clearly identifying issues such as racial identity, racism, the exploitation of all things Native, as well as how imposed societal stereotypes become the bindings of the self. At the same time her words convey the beauty found in northeastern Alberta where she grew up. Dumont forces the reader to look through her eyes at what is really there. It is not always easy to read her words, and the imagery she conveys packs a wallop to the senses. For example, in “Squaw Poems,” words become weapons designed to hurt deeply:
“hey squaw.” Her ears stung and she shook, fearful of the other words like fists that would follow. For a moment her spirit drained like water from a basin. But she breathed and drew inside her fierce face and screamed till his image disappeared like vapour.
All that the word squaw stood for became all that she felt she would never become. Here is where the self becomes bound by imposed stereotypes:
I learned I should never be seen drunk in public, nor should I dress provocatively, because these would be irrefutable signs.
This word with a power all of its own became a constant companion. Another example:
I could never react naturally, spontaneously, to my puberty, my newly discovered sexuality or I could be mindful of the squaw whose presence hounded my every choice.
Dumont shows the extreme danger in these stereotypes when she speaks of the violence and judgements Native people are faced with daily. In “Helen Betty Osborne” she reminds readers that the violence and the judgements are not new things. She speaks of her grandmothers who became beasts of burden for the fur trade, only to be left behind for “British Standards of Womanhood.” She writes about how townsfolk believed that Native girls were easy and that they were “less likely to complain if a sexual proposition led to violence.” Her ability to make this connection between belief and consequent action underlines how frightening and dangerous racism and violence really are.
She masterfully used images from the natural world to describe everyday occurrences. In “Wild Berries” she writes about her body reacting to another body:
when I watch you move/ it’s as if/ my eyes are old hands/ uncovering and furtively picking/ wild berries/ before they fall/ it’s as if/ I am parched/ and you are water/ and my eyes drink/ till I am quenched/ by your smooth taut skin.
The smoothly ironic commentary “Circle of Wagons” speaks of assumptions about all things Native. While humorous at times the piece also clearly describes the danger and the damage that is caused when these assumptions become something expected, like a gauge for Nativeness:
Yet I feel compelled to incorporate something circular into the text, plot, or narrative structure because if it’s linear then that proves that I’m a ghost and that native culture really has vanished and what is all this full about appropriation anyway? Are my eyes round yet? There are times when I feel that if I don’t have a circle or the number four or legend in my poetry, I am lost, just a fading urban Indian caught in all the trappings of Doc Martens, cappuccinos and foreign films but there it is again orbiting, lunar, hoops encompassing your thoughts and canonizing mine, there it is again, circle the wagons…
This is an excellent collection of poetry. Marilyn Dumont has proven to be a writer to be reckoned with. I look forward to reading more from her in the years to come.
Plains Cree poet Louise Halfe makes great use of her language and her gift of imagery to describe her life. Her work is largely based on her family and the reservation and the stories found there. Even a simple wagon ride becomes something to cherish for a small child.
I peer at the skies,/ stick out my tongue/ catch tiny diamonds,/ cross my eyes to look at/ the snowflakes before they/ melt on the tip of my nose.
She enjoys this time with papa because,
Today there is not smashing fist/ and kicking working boots,/ no thunder of an outraged bull,/ no snarling of a rabid cat.
Her poems become stories about the people in her life, both past and present. She describes the people realistically, and speaks frequently of her parents, her grandmother, and other close members of the family. Her poems are living, breathing memories. Her visit home with her mother in “Fog Inside Mama” is a perfect example of the way she can bring the reader right to the spot she is describing:
I’m going to take you home, Mama./ Yes, to that log shack where Papa skinned beaver/ on the dirt floor./ The grass is tall. There’ll be lots of mosquitos./ Yes, Mama, the old fridge is still there and no, there’s no/ lightning going through to make it breathe./ The windows are broken and the barn swallows have built/ their nest where the stovepipe used to smoke./ Oh Mama don’t, Papa hasn’t walked on that land, not for years. Not since the last time he crushed your ribs on that fridge./ He’s on skid row somewhere./ It’s safe. All we have are the old ghosts drifting/ through the clouds of our heads.
Halfe’s use of the Cree language is an important part of the book. Through her use of her language we are able to gauge just how strongly she is connected to and living in a culture that is not static but one that is living and breathing and constantly shifting to incorporate different experiences and meanings. In “Boarding School” her father’s phrase “Namoya maskoc,” translated to “it’s a mistake,” underlines the incredible pain felt by the family as the children are taken away. This deed was unthinkable, a mistake unlike any made before.
Métis poet Gregory Scofield’s second book of poetry Native Canadiana: Song from the Urban Rez is a mixture of memories of a childhood growing up in northern Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan and the Yukon, Cree words and phrases interspersed throughout, love poems, and descriptions of street life. A lot of these poems are hard to read because the images Scofield uses are so painful and direct. He writes about survival of horrific circumstances in a way that is direct, almost stripped bare to the bones. In “Stepfather” the reader is given a glimpse of the horrors the poet and his mother faced:
He stole the sun,/ spoke thunder/ coming down the mountain/ only too proud/ to swallow the last rays. Like raven/ he kept any warmth/ sealed tight/ in a box./ Never ask or beg/ she said, her eyes/ loose hinges/ on a swinging door. I knew then/ not all storms/ were good.
It is very exciting to read published poetry from a First Nations man in Canada. These voices are seldom heard, which is too bad because this is an important volume of poetry. Gregory Scofield expertly conveys the undconditional love of a child, the horrific abuse dished out by those in positions of power, and the racism faced by First Nations people without succumbing to victim.
Scofield’s poems of love list are at time celbratory and painful. With titles such as “Snake-dog,” “Buck & Run,” and “That Coyote Lover,” these poems call to the reader in an enticing way. In “I Want” the celebration of love between men is beautifully conveyed:
to lie in, pick at cherries,
savour the back-rub,
lull my lover
back to dreams, rise
coming & going.
Thanks to Gregory Scofield for Native Canadiana. It is to be cherished.