Colonial archives explored in verse


Started as “Reflections on Treaties and [his] obligations to the land at that time”, the first collection of Matthew James Weigel, Walking in white mud (Coach House, 166 pages, $24), dissects the logic of the colonial archive.

Weigel, a Dene and Métis poet and artist from Edmonton, puts these skills to good use when the speaker of the poems enters the archives and finds erasure: “To touch a document is to take a piece with you/and leave a piece of you behind,/ and it is this exchange that needs to be conditioned,/ in dereciprocal programming./ And when only the dead and the programmed can see my loved ones,/ no one will see my loved ones.

He links the erasure of the archives to the disappearance of the buffalo and the impoverishment of ecosystems: “I now cherish every attempt by a mosquito to bite me, knowing that there are fewer insects each year than the previous one. I wonder about 19th century anxieties over bison, and cherish the remaining bison.

In contrast to the colonial archive, Weigel’s poetics turn to the body and the earth, and his techniques extend from line to erasures, photographic alterations and visual and conceptual pieces. In The buffalo will soon be exterminatedWeigel moves text from Alexander Morris’s 1880 book describing treaty negotiations to the margins of his: “The margins of this book invite you into the gutter/ of this one. treaty.”

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Plot (Caitlin Press, 175 pages, $20), the latest book by British Columbia writer and scholar Sarah de Leeuw, brings together a mix of historical records, natural histories, personal and traditional stories and unfolds them in a relational narrative of Haida Gwaii.

From its haunting beginnings, Plot uses repetition to emphasize the power of myth-making, of how we talk about a place and its origins. Using a biblical construction, she tells a traditional Haida story: “In the beginning/ this land was// nothing/ but// sea water/ as they say.// In the beginning/ c was both// light and dark/ so they say.”

De Leeuw’s continued use of repetition and incantatory diction implicates the settlers in their own destructive myth-making: “It is a violence/to rename places//already named./A violence to//insult stories/ bigger than yourself.”

De Leeuw structures the poem around the multiple meanings of the word “lot”. From the mystical to the physical, from the historical to the biblical, it allows de Leeuw to unexpectedly witness how stories are told and where stories lead: “the moment/ I was born is not// a while but everything/ this was born before/ me so my birth/ is a swim/ a contribution to this coastline/ … ./ of everything that/ leads me here.

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In their first collection Cut to Fortress (Nightwood Editions, 96 pages, $20), Łutselk’e Dene, Two-Spirit Plains Cree poet Tawahum Bige draws on the techniques of spoken word and page poetry in a collection driven by political commitments to defending the land and decolonization.

Bige makes a clear connection between deforestation and how settlers severed Indigenous ties to land and language, and how settlers attempted to erase their free will. In Too abstractthey relate a writing professor’s criticism that colonization is too abstract to write poetry about ‘clear-cut trees […] falling deep in a forest”, the cultural prioritization of Christian holidays over personal mourning, the death of their brother and “this lived experience / constantly questioned”.

Throughout the collection, they turn to trees not only as a means of documenting the ravages of colonialism but as an incentive to fight, decolonize, “dedoctrinate”. In genocide of old settlements they write that “the trees / that we still see growing in the parks” are missing. The speaker looks back, through those trees in the park, “emptied of generations” and sees “from so far away/we have our story/my story//yours is on the other side of the oceans/documented in the genocide /old shaved wood/ […] please go back.

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Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a writer and critic from Winnipeg.

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