ENGL 215 Lecture: Contemporary Poets (Dumont, Barton, and Scofield)
$ Marilyn Dumont Biography (Lecker, ed. 585-86)
For a biography of Marilyn Dumont, see Robert Lecker’s headnote in Open Country. For more information about Dumont, see her interview with Margery Fee in Canadian Literature.
8 Canadian Literature: Interview with Marilyn Dumont
In this interview, Dumont reflects on how her status as a Métis person living in a predominantly white society created confusion about her First Nations identity and led to the loss of her traditional Cree language:
I grew up in the fifties in small, redneck town Alberta where there were few “real” Indians, meaning the Indians that were in the Calgary Stampede parade or in John Wayne movies. Even though both my parents were Métis—from a long line of Métis who spoke Cree, who hunted and trapped—who maintained ties with Métis culture, I never knew where I fit in the stratification of the Aboriginal
community. What I realized when I went to Mount Royal College or the University of Calgary, as I began to make friends with other Indigenous students from reserves, was that the lifestyle I grew up in was more traditional than many and this was in part because we were not living on a reserve or settlement. Unfortunately, my parents wanted us to learn English better than Cree. We did and lost our language. For more information about the Métis people, see Adam Gaudry’s article in The Canadian Encyclopedia.
8 The Canadian Encyclopedia: Métis
& “The Devil’s Language” (Lecker, ed. 587-88)
“The Devil’s Language” appears in Dumont’s first collection of poetry, A Really Good Brown Girl (1996), in which the poet constructs “a series of dualities” to present “a vivid portrait of what it means to be a Métis in Canada” (Lecker 586). The poem appears in a section of the collection entitled “White Noise,” which contains poems that engage with the impact of white language, history, and culture in First Nations communities.
The duality that Dumont depicts in “The Devil’s Language” is between English and Cree, the two languages she learned while growing up, and which were in constant conflict with each other as she navigated her life at home, church, school, and society. Dumont received her formal education in a predominantly white community in rural Alberta (Lecker 585), where she learned that “English” (2), with
lily white words
its picket fence sentences and manicured paragraphs (7-9)
was the “standard” (3) by which people are “measured, judged and assessed” (5) in white society. The “Cree” (25) language, by contrast, is rendered Other in white culture, as the mere “resistance writing” (11) of “native ethnic protest” (15), spoken only by “dumb, drunk or violent ... Indian[s]” (21-22), and worthy only to be “shelved in the Native Literature section” (10) of obscure libraries. At the end of part 1 of the poem, the speaker shifts into
second-person viewpoint to address an imagined audience of First Nations readers, asking them how fluent they are in Cree, the language of their ancestors:
how many of you speak Cree? correct Cree not correct English grammatically correct Cree is there one? (26-29)
By posing this question to her fellow First Nations peoples, the speaker implies that she will no longer stand for the Othering of her Cree language and heritage, that she is no longer willing to allow “the Great White way” to “silence” (16) her and the words of her ancestors.
For Dumont, the purveyors of “standard English” (33) justify their privileging of the English language by pointing to its technical, rule-based history: “Received Pronunciation” (30), Fowler’s “Modern [English] Usage” (31), “the King’s English” (32), etc. By contrast, Dumont asserts that the Cree language is ruled by no such technical standards, but is elemental, intimately connected to the landscape and hearkening back to the oral traditions of many preceding generations of her First Nations ancestors:
back to your mother’s sound, your mother’s tongue, your mother’s language back to that clearing in the bush
in the tall black spruce (37-40)
Far from being “the devil’s language” (35), Dumont suggests, the Cree language is one of the most direct conduits for Cree speakers to achieve harmony with their ancestors and with the universe.
In the final part of the poem, the speaker laments the extent to which the western world’s privileging of the English language has threatened this harmony with her culture, identity, and way of life. Shifting again to second-person viewpoint, she observes that the incursion of English into her traditional Cree community has resulted in the diminishment of Cree among the youngest generation: “you can’t make the sound / of that voice that rocks you and sings you to sleep / in the devil’s language” (46-48). By referring to Cree as “the devil’s language” in the closing words of the poem, Dumont suggests that the pervasiveness of English is complete, and that it will take a monumental effort by First Nations peoples to drive out that devil, to re-establish their traditional languages within their respective communities.
& “The Sound of One Hand Drumming” (Lecker, ed. 588-89)
“The Sound of One Hand Drumming” appears as the last poem in the “White Noise” section of A Really Good Brown Girl.
The poem begins with a quotation from Canadian poet Robert Priest’s poem “Thirst,” which appears in his collection Sadness of Spacemen (1980). Here is Priest’s prose poem in its entirety:
I come only to be niggardly in the huge vastness of things. I won’t emphasize the wrongs I have done willingly to flowers and slender trees. Release me as you would a hawk—one from each wrist in ritual suicide. Release me as you would a trapdoor into fire. I can quench all the bloodlust in you with a single red kiss. I know you are still afraid, even now that all the stars have gone out and day has come on with its habitual grey slanting of light. So ducks spiral over swamps in you. So grey hunters perch on limbs your roots thrust up leafless. It is not the end of all being. Just a small stunting of a road in you. Things will grope on. Just look at the sun. Almost white now. Almost bursting with its amniotic milk. So someone is closing the great door in you. So someone has fallen by the stream of you and with black indelible kisses is muddying the source. Look, the stain has filled your own lips. Look, thirsty one, you are drinking again. (55)
In “Thirst,” Priest contrasts humankind’s mortality with the vastness of geologic time, reminding humankind that it is but an infinitesimal blip within an infinite cosmos. When a person dies, Priest asserts, “It is not the end of all being,” but “Just a small stunting of a road.” A human being should not be so narcissistic as to think that his or her death is of any consequence “in the huge vastness of things.” Rather, Priest writes, “Things will grope on” even when the last human being perishes.
In “The Sound of One Hand Drumming,” Dumont again uses second-person narration directly to address her fellow First Nations peoples, asserting that they have within them a “nationstate” (3) and exhorting them to “branch out into all directions of this country” (2) and “claim independence from the founding fathers of
confederation / or thought” (4-5). The result will be that their First-Nation-state will finally “come of age” (3) in the form of a restoration of First Nations communities, languages, and ways of life:
print-dressed women will greet you and say, “kayas,” and kiss you on the cheek
call you relative,
call you to them for everlasting life (10-13)
The alternative, Dumont suggests, is for First Nations communities to continue to cultivate white culture’s forms of community, language, and ways of life, which may be compellingly modern like a “digitized ... bible / of technology” (14-16) or sophisticated like “theories as ornate as rococo” (23), but which result in the gradual disappearance of traditional First Nations culture:
the small single words of brown women hang on clotheslines stiff in winter and thaw only in spring but
no one takes them off the line because no one wants last year’s clothes
they’re the wrong colour and out of fashion.... (27-33)
White culture has become so pervasive in First Nations communities, Dumont suggests, that even if dead-white-men stopped writing for one thousand years and
only brown women wrote that wouldn’t be enough
time for all the Indian youth to say what they had to or enough time for me and those of my kind, the sharp-toned-and-tongued kind
who keep railing on about this stuff (34-40)
She impugns so-called “well-mannered and sophisticated Indian types” (41), those First Nations peoples who have willingly adopted white language and culture, for dismissing Dumont’s concerns as mere “guilt-provoking ... rhetoric” (43-44). Whereas they may find Dumont’s words to sound like little more than “a broken record of an Indian beating a drum” (45), Dumont knows her words are “like an Indian breaking a drum over a record / whose sound is digitized, on CD-ROM / complete with video and CD quality sound” (48-50). Her words are essentially an exhortation to all First Nations peoples to readopt their traditional ways and customs (“a drum”) instead of cleaving to the modern-day trappings of white technology and culture (“a record,” “digitized,” “CD-ROM,” “video,” “CD quality sound”).
& “monuments, cowboys & indians, tin cans, and red wagons” (Lecker, ed. 589-90)
“monuments, cowboys & indians, tin cans, and red wagons” appears in Dumont’s second poetry collection, green girl dreams Mountains (2001), which “probe[s] family relationships and the intersections of race and class in urban life” (Lecker 586). It appears as the second poem in the “Homeground” section, which “invokes themes of loss and memory as it explores the difficulty of intergenerational relationships” (Lecker 586).
The poem begins with a vivid description of the town of Olds, Alberta and environs, where Dumont grew up. “The community in which she was raised was primarily white,” Lecker writes, “but it was located near a large Native reservation” (585). In the opening verse paragraph, the speaker focuses exclusively on the natural features of the area, such as the “field / flat as a table and the colour of deer” (2-3) and the “deep cliff / that fell to ... [the] Red Deer River” (5-7). This strategy is known as local colour, which J.A. Cuddon defines as “The use of detail peculiar to a particular region and environment to add interest and authenticity to a narrative” (407). Dumont’s use of local colour suggests that the poem is an autobiographical—or at least a semiautobiographical—account of her childhood.
In the second verse paragraph, the speaker continues this reflection on her childhood by shifting her attention to the network of family, friends, and other Métis community members who peopled her childhood landscape:
an extended family of half-breeds
kids scattering to cowboys and indians, tin cans, red wagons teenagers jiving to Del Shannon
migrating Settlement relatives searching for work their wives or “old ladies” in tow
and on Saturday nights with two weeks pay the Silk Tassle, Pilsner, and fiddle tunes would flow
weave through auntie’s rank laughter, mom’s stepdancing and my brother’s yodelling (14-22)
Disrupting these festivities is the “old school house” (10), which symbolizes the incursion of white culture into this First Nations community: the speaker asserts that it “jut[s] out of th[e] flatness / like a misplaced monument” (11-12)—a monument, perhaps, to the process of assimilation and western education that will eventually rob the community of their language and way of life. Amid “the partying,” the speaker asserts, the Cree language “would occupy the house like a new code” (23), suggesting the extent to which Cree is already becoming strange and unfamiliar to her, one of the youngest generation, thanks to the English that is no doubt being systematically taught between the walls of that old school house.
Turning her attention more fully to the school house in the final verse paragraph of the poem, the speaker describes it has having “long divided windows” (26), symbolizing her own identity that is divided between English and Cree. She describes the “the sun’s rays” as “a potato peeler / that curled the paint away from the boards” (29-30), symbolizing the extent to which the incursion of white language and culture has peeled her away or separated her from her traditional Cree language and culture. The poem ends with the “sun [sinking] into the wet field ... ending [their] days like forged steel dipped in water” (33-35), symbolizing how white language and culture has diminished the speaker’s community by extinguishing their traditional ways of life.
$ John Barton Biography (Lecker, ed. 610-12)
For a biography of John Barton, see Robert Lecker’s headnote in Open Country.
Barton is one of Canada’s best known contemporary gay poets. He is the co-editor of Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets (2007).
& “Great Men” (Lecker, ed. 616-18)
Barton begins “Great Men” by providing a catalogue of famous men throughout history who were gay but who had to remain closeted because they lived during a time when their respective societies were unwilling to accept their sexual orientation:
• Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), the French Symbolist poet (2);
• Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), the French Symbolist poet (3);
• W.H. Auden (1907-1973), the Anglo-American poet (4);
• Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986), the Anglo-American novelist (4);
• Michelangelo (1475-1564), the Italian artist (5);
• Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the American poet (11);
• Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), the Greek poet (19);
• Hart Crane (1899-1932), the American poet (23);
• Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), the Japanese writer (23); and
• Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), the Russian composer (24).
Rimbaud and Verlaine were sexual partners for a time, as were Auden and Isherwood. Michelangelo had a close, possibly sexual relationship with a young man called Tommaso de Cavalieri. Many of Whitman’s and Cavafy’s poems contain homoerotic elements. Crane and Mishima committed suicide, some scholars contend, because of their feelings of guilt over their homosexuality. Tchaikovsky reputedly had numerous male sexual partners, including his nephew, Bob Davidov.
Barton goes on to assert that these are just ten of the millions of men all over the world who love other men but who must do so “furtive[ly]” (31) because of the potentially “dangerous” (35) consequences of their actions:
And there are others who lie in the quiet arms of their lovers, their bodies intimate,
hidden behind drawn curtains in London, Vienna, and Prague,
Sydney, Tokyo, and Montreal. (26-30)
These men are great, Barton suggests, not because they are famous writers, artists, or composers, but because they have the bravery to embrace and express their homosexuality even if it means condemnation or persecution from their respective societies:
lips on nipples, on stomach, and penis hardening
This is courageous. (42-45)
Barton also suggests, however, that there is something cowardly about these men’s unwillingness to uncloset themselves: “Desire turns to lust in the thin / fingers of their cowardice” (64-65). Barton makes the transition from courage to cowardice almost seamlessly, employing repetition (“This is” (32, 45), “This is the hand” (35, 38), “This makes men” (46, 49, 54), “walk” (54, 55), “ponderous” (57, 58, 59)) to reflect the way in which these men struggle through their lives in a repetitive cycle of secrecy from which they cannot escape. For Barton, these great men are simultaneously courageous and cowardly, living on the cusp between these two states, existing as two different people.
& “The Living Room” (Lecker, ed. 621-22)
A glosa is “A Spanish metrical form invented by the court poets late in the fourteenth century or early in the fifteenth” (Cuddon 306). Perhaps the best-known practitioner of the form in Canada is P.K. Page, whose collection Hologram (1994) is composed exclusively of glosas. In the Foreword to Hologram, Page describes the conventions of the form:
I was introduced to the glosa through the ear. Its form, half hidden, powerfully sensed, like an iceberg at night, made me search for its outline as I listened. The eye, of course, sees it at a glance: the opening quatrain written by another poet; followed by four ten-line stanzas, their concluding lines taken consecutively from the quatrain; their sixth and ninth lines rhyming with the borrowed tenth. (9) One of Page’s glosas in Hologram is entitled “In Memoriam.” She borrows the four consecutive lines from W.H. Auden’s elegy “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”:
The provinces of his body revolted, The squares of his mind were empty, Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed: he became his admirers.
She then uses each one of these four lines as the culminating line of four ten-line stanzas, creating a glosa. The idea of a glosa is that the new “stanza explains or ‘glosses’ the [original borrowed] line” (Cuddon 306). The form was traditionally used for encomiastic purposes; the glosa writer celebrated a poet from the past by reciting and then expanding upon one of his or her works. Page writes that the glosa is “a way of paying homage to those poets whose work [she] fell in love with in [her] formative years” (Foreword 9-10).
Barton’s “The Living Room” is not just a glosa, but it is a glosa of a glosa. He borrows four lines from Page’s glosa “In Memoriam,” including one of the lines Page originally borrowed from Auden:
Their rubbish alone was left. He was a vacant lot,
he had become an exemption. The squares of his mind were empty.
He then proceeds to use each one of these four lines from Page’s glosa as the culminating line of four ten-line stanzas, creating a new glosa. For Barton, this compounding of one glosa upon another serves to pay homage to Page, a poet he admires. Even more importantly, however, it enables him to link himself to a long and unbroken tradition of modern poets: Barton’s poetry connects with Page’s poetry via his glosa; Page’s poetry connects to Auden’s poetry via her glosa; Auden’s poetry connects to Yeats’s poetry via his elegy, etc.
This interconnectedness of a tradition of modern poets is also reflected in the theme of the poem itself, which is essentially about the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the gay community. In the opening two stanzas, the speaker
describes his experience of seeing gay men dying of HIV-AIDS “At the drop-in clinic near the centre / of town” (1-2). They have “grey skin” (3), their “flesh thins under the shaking / force of their scapulae” (5-6), their “ribs ris[e] through / jaundiced skin like stains” (13-14). This spectacle horrifies the speaker (15-20), but he nevertheless feels a sense of unity with and responsibility for these men: “I slip inside / his flesh. Its slim vitality sits / amply on my shoulders” (21-23). As a gay man, the speaker realizes that he is a part of a community, and that community includes both joyful elements, such as love, as well as tragic elements, such as death:
His world opens up: his death is my death his love my love, the men he kissed and held are men like us who’ve passed
In much the same way that Barton is one in a long and unbroken tradition of modern poets, the speaker in “The Living Room” is one in a long and unbroken tradition of gay men living in a world with HIV-AIDS. In a 2002 interview with Shane Neilson, Barton says:
AIDS is a third partner between two men, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged, spoken about directly or merely alluded to by actions or words. I firmly believe the disease has had a powerful impact on the ability of gay men to bond.... And it is important to point out that the gay community has
prospered despite the losses, despite AIDS. It has learned to take care of its own and has become a more mature, responsible community as a result. So, AIDS has not pushed it to the brink of extinction, though at times it might look like it has.
& “Plasma, Triangles of Silk” (Lecker, ed. 622-23)
In the same 2002 interview with Neilson, Barton says:
However, a new generation of gay men are coming into their sexual maturity, and sadly, as part of their youthful rebellion, they are having unprotected sex as a way of throwing aside the lessons and fears of their elders…. [A] lot of gay men, the young included, are engaged in what the community calls bare-backing—or barrier-free (i.e., condomless) sex. They figure that the new medicines represent a cure, which they patently are not. They do not rid the body of HIV, they simply control it…. I am afraid another generation of gay men will begin to suffer the losses that gay men older than I am have—and continue to endure.
In “Plasma, Triangles of Silk,” Barton meditates on the ease with which HIV can be transmitted between gay men through this kind of casual, unprotected sex, and the implications it has for the gay community as a whole.
In the first section of the poem, the speaker describes a “shirt” (1) that holds a special significance for him: it has been “passed on” (1) from friend to friend, it is “yellow silk the colour / of plasma” (1-2), and it is so “worn out by years of wear” (2) that it is now being cut into triangles and sewn into a quilt (2-5). The shirt, reborn as a quilt, becomes a symbol for the speaker of the restorative power of “love” (8).
In the next section of the poem, the speaker shifts his attention to the history of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the gay community: “no one at first understood” the “virus” (10-11), it took “years” to discover a “model of how it disperses through the body” (13-14), and it took a “dark hold / on the imagination” (14-15) as it killed “thousands” of “men like us” (10, 12).
Barton then brings these two seemingly disparate sections of the poem together by using the quilt from the first section as an extended “metaphor” (16) for the HIV in the second section. The “lethal viral load … in the blood” (16-17) becomes the “triangles of plasma-coloured silk” (17) in the quilt. HIV is insinuated into the
bloodstream as tightly and as inextricably as the scraps of fabric from the silk shirt are sewn together into the quilt (18), and in just as “arcane patterns” (19). HIV can also be a cultural identifier for members of the gay community because it prompts them to take responsibility for one another, in much the same way that the quilt has strong memories and associations for the speaker because it used to be his favourite shirt (21-23).
For Barton, the practice of unprotected sex among some younger members of the gay community runs the risk of erasing those cultural memories and associations: “yet today we read some men forget, joining / their bodies without protection, unmindful the porous, spontaneous / membranes between them are still thinner than silk” (24-26). The gay community, close-knit like a quilt, threatens to “unravel” (35) as this younger generation loses the thread of what HIV-AIDS meant to the generation that preceded them. For Barton, barebacking is an abjurement of the responsibility that members of the gay community have for each other.
the quilt stitched
with quiet knowing hands toward something no less bold in design than the shirt: silk the colour of plasma, of inspiration, its triangulation never
once undoing your gift—a contagious, heartfelt gesture that healed us both (37-40)
The quilt, even with its “painfully ripped-out threads” (36), will always represent for the speaker the restorative power of love, because it will always still be, on some level, his favourite silk shirt. Analogously, the gay
community, even in the face of painful tribulations—the lack of a cure for AIDS, discrimination, persecution—will always endure.
$ Gregory Scofield Biography (Lecker, ed. 662-63)
For a biography of Gregory Scofield, see Robert Lecker’s headnote in Open Country. For more information about Scofield, see Brian John Busby’s article in The Canadian Encyclopedia.
8 The Canadian Encyclopedia: Gregory Scofield
All three poems by Scofield anthologized in Lecker’s Open Country were originally published in Scofield’s collection Singing Home the Bones (2006), in which the poet “honours and reclaims the history of his Métis family while exploring newly discovered secrets about his long-lost father’s Jewish heritage ... [t]hrough a series of powerful and ambitious ‘conversations’” (back cover). Scofield divides Singing Home the Bones into three sections: “Conversations with the Dead,” “Conversations with the Missing,” and “Conversations with the Living.” The poems “Conversation with the Poet” and “No Peace” appear in the section called “Conversations with the Missing.” The poem “Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes” appears in the section called “Conversations with the Dead.”
& “Conversation with the Poet” (Lecker, ed. 664-69)
Scofield gives “Conversation with the Poet” the subtitle “Who didn’t know my aunty,” indicating that the poem will take as its subject matter the life and death of Scofield’s aunt. More specifically, the poem “express[es] how difficult it is to recover the life story of his dead aunt” (Lecker 663), since the circumstances surrounding her death are shrouded in mystery for him. For this reason, Scofield consciously places “Conversation with the Poet” not in the “Conversations with the Dead” section of Singing Home the Bones, but in “Conversations with the Missing.”
In the preface, Scofield writes, “This story is told in oral tradition in a voice much older than mine, a voice whose thought process and first language is Cree,” indicating that Scofield is writing the poem “in the style of the Cree oral tradition,” with its characteristic “series of variant repetitions” (Lecker 663) designed to aid the listener in memorizing and retaining the oral narratives to pass down to succeeding generations. The poem alternates between sections of free verse, with “no regular meter or line length” (Cuddon 290), and prose poetry, “A composition printed as prose but distinguished by elements common in poetry” (Cuddon 564).
In the four free-verse sections of the poem (2-11, 16-35, 38-53, 56-85), the speaker recounts “a reading / of erotic poetry” (2-3) at which “a poet read a poem / by another poet / about a toothless Eskimo woman” (3-5). The first five lines of each free-verse section are identical, but then each section diverges in focus, as if a series of oral storytellers are recounting the same story but in different ways, varying the emphasis to give prominence to what each storyteller considers to be the story’s central theme: the first storyteller focuses on the sexual exploits “that Eskimo woman did for a drink” (11); the second storyteller depicts the woman as a fleeing victim of “a white man”
(30); the third storyteller objectifies the woman as “fat” (43), “dirty” (45), and “dumb” (48); and the fourth storyteller, who seems to be the speaker himself, suggests that the woman is his “aunty” (73), and that the man she flees from is her rapist and eventual murderer:
or it could be
my aunty’s rape bed, the man who took her like a monument, step after violent step
or it could be
her deathbed, all sixty-nine years of her
lost in the translation
of a policeman’s report (72-80)
Scofield’s implication may be that the oral narratives of his Cree culture are ultimately unreliable because they depend on the fallible recollections and biases of imperfect human beings, and thus are of only limited help in recovering lost life stories or other memories.
The four prose-poetry sections of the poem (12-14, 36-38, 54-55, 86) contrast sharply with the four free-verse sections both in form and content. Scofield’s use of prose suggests that these sections are a more objective, fact-based account of his aunt, as opposed to the subjective, impressionistic account of the free-verse sections. Scofield integrates factual details about his aunt—where she lived and travelled (13), how many children she had (14), her relationship with other family members (36-37), etc.—in an effort to recover a more concrete narrative about her life. As Lecker points out, Scofield “employs tense humour and anecdote” (663) in these sections to provide a more realistic and immediate account of his relationship with his aunt. An anecdote is “A brief account of or a story about an individual or an incident” that has its roots in “secret” or “unpublished ... histories” (Cuddon 37). The humorous story of how the speaker used to watch his aunt sew moccasins (37-38), for example, is an excellent example of an anecdote because it provides an important glimpse into the speaker’s loving relationship with his aunt, even though it is a highly personal (i.e., “secret,” “unpublished”) episode in the speaker’s life:
... Now, my little mother used to sew with very long threads and her needle would move
very quickly. But this time I did not pay attention, so engrossed with the moccasins was I. She must have known this, for she took her sâponikan, that needle, and poked me right on the nose. awas, ma-kôt! she said. Go on, big nose! That is what she told me. (37)
The fact that these sections are in prose foregrounds their written (as opposed to oral) nature. Scofield even asserts in the preface that “The story, though written in English, is a translation.” Scofield seems to be suggesting that it is necessary for him to transcend the unreliable oral narratives of his ancestors by committing his own recovered memories to the permanence of paper. By passing down his written poems about his aunt to succeeding generations, he will ensure that her memory is not lost or obscured in time by the fallibility of human recollection and bias. The poem, in other words, is Scofield’s tribute to his aunt, who taught him “many good things” (55). Scofield writes, “I’ve spent a great deal of time writing about my aunty. Her influence and voice has only become stronger, more powerful. Always, I think of her in the present: a warrior woman who cannot be killed” (“Notes” 107).
In the final section of the poem, the speaker admits that he has not been able to recover in his memory a complete portrait of his aunt: “This is as much as I am able to tell about my aunty” (86). Nevertheless, he
concludes the poem by writing, “ekosi, I am done” (86). Lecker writes, “This comfort with uncertainty implies that Scofield has ... found peace, however provisional,” in recovering what memories he can of his beloved aunt, even if his recognition that those memories are incomplete prevents the poem from achieving definitive “closure” (663).
& “No Peace” (Lecker, ed. 670-71)
“No Peace” was inspired by the 2001 documentary film Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) by Mexican-born filmmaker Lourdes Portillo. Scofield writes, “The film examines and documents the kidnapping, rape, and murder of over 230 young women in Juárez, Mexico. These murders continue to this day” (“Notes” 107). For more information about Señorita Extraviada and to view a clip of the documentary, see Portillo’s Web site:
8 The Films and Videos of Lourdes Portillo: Señorita Extraviada (2001)
Calling her “Señorita” (1), Scofield directly addresses one of these murdered young women, invoking various images from Portillo’s documentary to paint a vivid and disturbing picture of the epidemic of violence against women that plagues this large Mexican urban centre: he refers to the women’s “burning ... bodies” (3-4), their “charred remains” (15), and their “bones” left over for scavenging “lizards” (19-20). In one stanza, he refers to the unnamed young woman’s mother, who feverishly searches the streets for any remnant of her dead daughter’s body:
But tomorrow your mother will sift for your bones in daylight,
though she has turned every stone, folded back the pavement
from Juárez to El Paso. (6-10)
This stanza is inspired by the episodes of Señorita Extraviada in which the relatives of the missing and murdered young Mexican women speak out about the impact of their loss. Scofield writes:
Señorita Extraviada ... had a profound effect on me.... The disturbing testimonies of the victims’ families reminded me of my own aunty’s unsolved murder and its place in a legacy endured by many First Nations across our continent: a shared suffering of missing mothers, aunts, and daughters, a suffering that is allowed to happen time and time again. (“Notes” 107)
For Scofield, these sections of the documentary are particularly affecting because of how similar they are not only to his own loss of his beloved aunt, a recurring motif throughout Singing Home the Bones, but of the losses of thousands of other First Nations families who mourn the abductions and murders of the young women in those communities. Close to the end of the poem, Scofield makes this connection explicit:
two countries away
my own dark-skinned sisters turn in a grace of silent rages. But tonight in Ciudad Juárez
the streets are held up by candles (31-35)
By repeating the image from the beginning of the poem of “the streets [being] held up by candles” (2), Scofield quickly returns in this stanza to the topic of the missing young women of “Ciudad Juárez” so as not to dilute his tribute to the unnamed “Señorita” (38) and her grieving “mother” (40). Nevertheless, it is clear that Scofield writes “No Peace” in honour of all women, including First Nations women such as his own aunt, who continue to be victimized in a society that seems unable or unwilling to do anything to stop it. For more information about missing and murdered First Nations women and girls, see the CBC’s Web site:
8 CBC: Missing and Murdered
& “Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes” (Lecker, ed. 671-72)
“Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes” appears in the “Conversations with the Dead” section of Singing in the Bones, and is the opening poem of the entire collection. The poem was inspired by an experience Scofield had in Winnipeg, near his ancestral homeland in Manitoba. In “Notes on the Poems,” Scofield writes:
I recently went on a reading tour in Manitoba with seven other First Nations writers to promote awareness and appreciation of aboriginal literature to both Native and non-Native communities…. When the tour ended in Winnipeg, I visited the Exchange District’s antique stores….
I spoke to one store’s owners at length about my collection and my desire to find a small candle table. The women were so gracious and helpful that I felt I’d found kindred spirits. They did a phone search for the table, and after finding a store that sounded promising, I asked them to call me a taxi. They grew silent, looking at me like I’d said something terribly wrong. One of the women busied herself behind the counter while the other one cleared her throat: “You may want to reconsider that. The Indians around here use taxis like public transit. They’re really dirty.”
I felt as if I’d been slapped. I often take taxis; so had my late mother…. I was tongue-tied and tearful…. I left the store in a daze, hating myself for appearing weak, for not speaking up. I wandered the streets back to my hotel, counting the cracks in the sidewalk and considering the generations of my family who had helped to create this province and this country. On the corner of Portage and Main, I saw an old half-breed woman holding a bag of bones. From her bag she withdrew her finger and said, “ni-châpanis [my ancestor], take this and make good medicine.” (102-03).
In “Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes,” the speaker directly addresses this old woman, referring to her as “ni-châpan [my ancestor]” (1) and asking her a series of rhetorical questions about the various types of bones she carries with her: “ki-cihcânikan [your fingerbone]” (1), “ki-tôkanikan [your hipbone]” (13), “ki-kiskatikan [your shinbone]” (21), “ki-tâpiskanikan [your jawbone]” (24), “ki-mâwikan [your backbone]” (29). A rhetorical question is “a question not expecting an answer, or one to which the answer is more or less self-evident” (Cuddon 606). Taken together, the speaker’s questions interrogate the extent to which “non-Native communities” are aware of or care about the contributions to Canadian culture of the First Nations peoples:
ni-châpan [my ancestor], if I take ki-cihcânikan [your fingerbone], press it to their lips,
will they remember the taste of limes,
sea-salt bled into their grandfathers’ skin? (1-4)
Rhetorical questions are useful “for stylistic effect” and “to work up the emotional temperature” of a work (Cuddon 606). The questions in “Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes” are rhetorical because, as the poem unfolds, it becomes increasingly obvious that the answer to all of them is “no,” and Scofield wants to call attention to this tragic fact. Non-Native communities have completely forgotten about—or were never cognizant in the first place of—“the faces of our ancestors” (9) and the injustices committed against them for “at least four generations, to the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Country Wives—Cree women whose Indian names have long since been forgotten” (“Notes” 102):
the city is made of blood, wîni [bone marrow] stains their grandmothers’ aprons,
swims deep in the flesh, a grave of history, a dry bone song. (17-20)
Scofield employs code-switching throughout the poem—shifting back and forth from one language to another, in this case from English to Cree—to call attention to the linguistic and cultural distance that exists between non-Native and non-Native peoples. That the presumably non-non-Native women in the antiques store would reduce Scofield’s long and rich Native cultural history to a thoughtless insult about a dirty taxicab is deeply hurtful to Scofield because it elides the contributions and sacrifices of his First-Nations ancestors:
I’m not afraid of gunshots, stones or the table I sit at—
this table where I drink tea with ghosts who share my house and the words to keep it clean. (31-35)
In the poem’s closing lines, Scofield’s final rhetorical question expresses hope that the old woman’s bones will remind the other women of these contributions and sacrifices, and make them “hold silent their sour tongues / for once” (39-40), but the poem ends with no specific assurance that any “good medicine” exists to reduce the distances between Native and non-Native peoples.
Dr Robert G. May
Marilyn Dumont Works Cited
Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Fifth Edition. London: Penguin, 2013. Print.
Dumont, Marilyn. “The Devil’s Language.” 1996. Lecker, ed. 587-88. ---. green girl dreams Mountains. Lantzville: Oolichan, 2006. Print.
---. “monuments, cowboys & indians, tin cans, and red wagons.” 2001. Lecker, ed. 589-90. ---. A Really Good Brown Girl. London: Brick, 1996. Print.
---. “The Sound of One Hand Drumming.” 1996. Lecker, ed. 588-89.
Fee, Margery. “Interview with Marilyn Dumont.” 2014. Canadian Literature. 2016. Web. Gaudry, Adam. “Métis.” 2009. The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2016. Web.
Lecker, Robert. “Marilyn Dumont.” Lecker, ed. 585-86.
Lecker, Robert, ed. Open Country: Canadian Poetry in English. Toronto: Nelson, 2008. Print. Priest, Robert. “Thirst.” Sadness of Spacemen. Toronto: Dreadnaught, 1980. 55. Print.
John Barton Works Cited
Barton, John. “Great Men.” 1990. Lecker, ed. 616-18. ---. “The Living Room.” 2001. Lecker, ed. 621-22.
---. “Plasma, Triangles of Silk.” 2001. Lecker, ed. 622-23.
Barton, John, and Billeh Nickerson, eds. Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2007. Print.
Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Fifth Edition. London: Penguin, 2013. Print.
Lecker, Robert. “John Barton.” Lecker, ed. 610-12.
Lecker, Robert, ed. Open Country: Canadian Poetry in English. Toronto: Nelson, 2008. Print. Neilson, Shane. “TDR Interview: John Barton (I).” 2001-2002. The Danforth Review. 2004. Web. Page, P.K. “Foreword.” Hologram 9-12.
---. Hologram. London: Brick, 1994. Print. ---. “In Memoriam. Hologram 34-35.
Gregory Scofield Works Cited
Busby, Brian John. “Gregory Scofield.” 2007. The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2016. Web.
Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Fifth Edition. London: Penguin, 2013. Print.
Lecker, Robert. “Gregory Scofield.” Lecker, ed. 662-63.
Lecker, Robert, ed. Open Country: Canadian Poetry in English. Toronto: Nelson, 2008. Print. “Missing and Murdered.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 2016. Web.
Portillo, Lourdes. “Señorita Extraviada.” The Films and Videos of Lourdes Portillo. 2016. Web. Portillo, Lourdes, dir. Señorita Extraviada. 2001. Film.
Scofield, Gregory. “Conversation with the Poet.” 2005. Lecker, ed. 664-69. ---. “No Peace.” 2005. Lecker, ed. 670-71.
---. “Notes on the Poems.” Singing 102-09.
---. Singing Home the Bones. Vancouver: Raincoast, 2005. Print. ---. “Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes.” 2005. Lecker, ed. 671-72.
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