Anger in ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ nêhiyawêwin
June 06th, 2023
by Carellin Brooks
Wanda John-Kehewin’s third book, Spells, Wishes, and the Talking Dead: ᒪᒪᐦᑖᐃᐧᓯᐃᐧᐣ ᐸᑯᓭᔨᒧᐤ ᓂᑭᐦᒋ ᐋᓂᐢᑯᑖᐹᐣ mamahtâwisiwin, pakosêyimow, nikihci-âniskotâpân (Talonbooks $19.95) plays with form, language, meaning and words. Like a memory box, it yields a rich jumbled trove: verse, prose, family photos and art. Yet this book was not written merely to illustrate a life in all its richness, even if that is a benefit for the attentive reader. Its intentions are deadly serious: to take back the author’s life, and reclaim her traditional language through rewriting, reappraisal and outright sabotage. The threads that stitch these lines, paragraphs and stanzas together are made of gut: a gut steeped in mother’s blood and cured with a daughter’s tears.
The subjects of Spells’ poems include John-Kehewin’s Indigenous Cree identity, her childhood, motherhood, relationships to her family, lovers, friends, Catholicism, intergenerational trauma, COVID-19 experiences and the past to which she is deeply connected by blood if not experience. Despite the intensely personal nature of the events recollected and chronicled in these verses, there are strategies in this book that invite the reader into the poet’s experience. A timeline at the beginning of the book reminded me, in a completely different context, of that cast of characters one finds at the beginning of a classic detective novel, hoping vainly to figure out who the killer is before even reading the first page.
Including this timeline was a wise choice. Studying it helps the reader to figure out who the killer is before even reading the first poem. It’s colonialism. It also situates John-Kehewin’s experience within this history that reverberates through the book.
The repeated poem “ᐁᒋᑫ ᐃᐧᔭᓯᐁᐧᐃᐧᐣ” is simple and devastating. A roll call and death knell, it describes the fates of John-Kehewin’s family, both biological and chosen. Each person’s epitaph is allotted a single, spare line.
The first iteration of the poem uses nêhiyawêwin (Cree) syllabics for its title and to refer to each person at the beginning of a line: aunt, friend, grandmother. Each line begins with that relationship, then slips into English to chronicle the person’s fate. The non-Cree-speaking reader, cross-referencing with the helpful glossary at the back of the book, only gradually absorbs the poem’s cumulative impact: “…drank herself gone… died with a bottle.”
Encountering Cree words not just transliterated into English but in the original syllabics is an interesting reading experience. Just as Wanda John-Kehewin struggles with the much larger issue of reconnecting with her Cree heritage after generations of trauma and displacement, the reader experiences the much more minor struggle of being very partially displaced from the centre of things, reading not solely in English (John-Kehewin’s first language and this reviewer’s only one) but also in Cree, rendered both in syllabic form and in English letters. As the poet notes at the beginning of the glossary, “I was angry in English, writing about colonialism, and even angrier that I could not express that anger in ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ nêhiyawêwin.”
A second version of the same poem, ten pages later, uses Cree rendered into English lettering to delineate the relationships that herald each line: nohkom (an older form of the current kokum, or grandmother), nitôtêm, (friend), and niya (the first-person poet). Again, repeated reference to the glossary reinforces the reader’s sense of mild displacement. The poet’s deliberate use of Cree underlines how, just as the non-Cree speaking reader has to look up the meaning of unfamiliar words, the English tongue distances John-Kehewin from her own cultural history.
The third version of the same poem is written entirely in English. It shifts from first to third person in the poem’s final lines: “Me witness and survivor // She tells a story – .” The line break, with its suggestion of continuation, mimics the turn where the poet, from being a “witness and survivor,” transforms herself. No longer simply one who suffers, she now begins to speak.
The poem, “Probably Politics,” suggests that all of this suffering, all of these varied catastrophic reactions to trauma of one’s own, as well as others’ history, are not individual but actually systemic.
This book depicts the painful grappling of a single individual with the overwhelming weight of societal racism and colonization’s ongoing effects. The bravery of this collection is that it does not tie things up with a neat bow, but rather it simply chronicles the devastating process of coming to terms with that crushing reality.
John-Kehewin unflinchingly faces her own failures and successes as a mother whose children were lost to the foster care system for years. Heartbreakingly, once her third child learns at the age of six about the legacy of residential school, the child lives in terror of being taken herself. Her daughter only begins to feel safe during her extended time home with her mother during the pandemic lockdown. How long does it take? Two full years.
Not that these poems are uniformly sombre. Humour is much in evidence, as when John-Kehewin records, amusingly, the girl’s lockdown cajoling in “Isolation with an Eight-Year-Old”:
Mom! Mom! Mom!
Come play with me!
You have to play
You’re my mom!
Mothers of every stripe, but especially those who have tried to write in the midst of parenthood, will smile and perhaps wince, recognizing the child’s unavailing attempts to turn her mother’s attention from the poem back to her.
Tragedy is never far from these pages, however. An essay in the middle of the book, “Heartbeat of the Drum Calls Us Home–Not Everyone Hears It” is an extended description of, and discussion with, a fellow mother who bolstered John-Kehewin during her first faltering years as a parent; who John-Kehewin thought lost but who resurfaces with her child, now grown, to reminisce about early parenting years.
There is an easiness to this essay that provides a resting space amidst the justified urgency of the poems. Yet the lessons here also reverberate with the experiences John-Kehewin shares elsewhere. Her friend tells the story of how she took her young son to a powwow, where he excitedly demanded to dance. Not knowing the protocol, the mother floundered. Like John-Kehewin, she was raised not by her own relations, but in foster care, so her connection to her cultural heritage has to be remade through her own determination. But like the poet, she has come through and out the other side, proclaiming–as does this collection, in myriad ways – “It’s a good day to be Indian.” 9781772015126
Carellin Brooks’ fifth book and first book of poetry, Learned, was published in November by Book*hug Press.