“The Slave Ship” (1840) by J.M.W. Turner (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Auntie Ida’s Thanksgiving Blessing

My people are a beautiful
people. We are still here despite

your best efforts. Hear the echo
of our experience.

Our truth grounds us. Our roots
dig deep, searching for magma to

fuel our warmth or to burn those
who expect us to accept their

outdated stance of ignorance.
Guardians of amber, our

ability to accept what
is while creating what will be

proof of our integrity.
My people are a beautiful

people and we know our place
is where we choose it to be.

 

19th-century design for wallpaper and textile, Creative Commons via Smithsonian Design Museum

 

Just a Minute

15 June 2020

Yesterday, I saw the blue line take a knee.
While Kaepernick’s maligned and side-lined like the
redlined. His gesture of dissent, snatched, a forced
publicity stunt run on every station.

Take a minute to breathe.

Out of chaos, a shooting star burns out in
atmospheres of fear. Plummets past chores and chance
and stories—26 stories, fallen—
another broken body on our concrete trail.

Take a minute to breathe.

Social feeds serve bodies, bludgeoned and lynched.
Post pokes, keeps the corpse swaying. Likes swarm like flies,
colonize video-fresh flesh.

Take a moment to breathe.
Take another one.
And another, ad infinitum.

A lady of business caught in a low-stakes
game, rakes the Birder, hoping he’ll draw dead. She
plays a racist card then a victim. Terror’s
trill quivering her voice. Drills instilled by the
lady who lied on Emmett Till never die.

Take a minute to breathe.

 

Model of a slave ship, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture


Author’s note:
The following poem includes an embedded message. The hint for deciphering the message is in the title of the poem, placed after the colon. The solution for deciphering the poem’s message can be found in the endnote.[i] (The messages may reflect linguistic variations.)

  

Olivier LeJeune, First Black Slave in New France:
First of One, Then Second of Two . . .

Some Kirkes snatched a little boy
From the Madagascan shore.
Steeled aboard a naval ship,
Only 7, his past, scorched.

Some Kirkes off-loaded this boy
To the turncoat Le Baillif.
For a mere 50 écus,
Le Baillif’s honour would renew.

Le Baillif now coveted
A rank other than coward.
To prove his worth, he gifted
The boy to Guillaume Couillard.

Guillaume lent the little boy
To Father Le Jeune. The priest
Mocked his innocence, claimed he’d
Groom him into a Christian.

Le Jeune schooled the pint-size boy,
Taught him to read, write, and pray.
Anointed him with water
And the name we know today.

Even at 13 years old
Olivier knew what’s best.
He prayed with one eye on God
And stoked pale, prideful breasts.

Olivier recalled the
Smell of dumplings and fish stew.
Lullabies sung by his mum,
Burnt, lingering residue.

Olivier recounted
In court, notes passed between Nick
Marsolet and Le Baillif.
Nick counter-sued double-quick.

Olivier recanted
His claim. (Nick gerrymandered.)
They threw him in jail: One day
In chains because he’d slandered.

Olivier LeJeune died
In 1654. He
Was thirtyish, just like Christ,
When he slid from human form.

Olivier LeJeune had
A name from his family,
Bristling with ancestral lore, kept
Alive in melodies.

A little boy spent his youth
Shuttled between men. His true
Name marooned on ancestral
Land, like shells the oceans strew.

 

Note: This poem is part of a larger collection about Black individuals who contributed to Canada between 1604 and 1917.

 

Work consulted:

Trudel, Marcel. L’esclavage au Canada français: Histoire et conditions de l’esclavage [Slavery in French Canada: The History and Conditions of Slavery]. Québec : Les Presses Universitaires Laval [Laval UP], 1960. Print.

 

[i] Solution: The poem includes an embedded message or idea. The hint for deciphering the message is placed after the colon of the title of the poem (“Olivier LeJeune, First Black Slave in New France: First of One, Second of Two . . .”).

To decode the message, create a sentence from the first word of Stanza 1, the second word of Stanza 2, the third word of Stanza 3, and so on. Family names in French count as one word.

Message: Some Kirkes coveted little boy Olivier and nick him, like ancestral name.

 

 

Costa Rica Waves, 2012 © Blossom Thom

 

Stardust and Moonlight: A Love Poem

Beaches built of melted
Sun. Iridescent air
Lavender thoughts sprinkle
Yearning on sun-whipped skin
Oceans shout to the shore,
“I will sing to you of love.”
Waves recede with a kiss.

 

Any Afternoon, Early Autumn

Between the sigh and
Her smile lies lit
Space. Full. A growing

Gathering of dust
Bunnies. Tidy
Piles of laundry wait

To be transported
From basket to
Drawer. You have her

Attention. Complete
Solitude, shared
Anticipation.

 

Echoes of History

Dark skies offer favorable omens. Earth grows
Moist to green as luck hopes to live. Sorrows melt in-
To slush, coffee-coloured tinctures to harden your
Response to pain. In time your armour becomes too
Heavy. Not a sign of weakness, but one of faith.
Echoes of history stain our days. We wait,
Gold dust coats our throats, water’s wasted in wine.

 

Karmic Drift

I collect sleep in remnants.
Like an urchin counting each
Grain of rice, I lie in bed,

Wonder how I’ll last the day.
Well-fed and full of unrest,
Minutes tick by in my head.

 

We Read Omens in the Sky

Before the wind shifts
We hear rhetoric
In voices golden

As dried turmeric
Like our parents
We read omens in the sky

We scent blood before
Another mob turns
We carve paths through stone

With voices fresher
Than coriander
We paint omens in the sky

 

The Garden of Dutiful Women

Damsels swallow doubt, dance on the edge of blades.
Angels sew seeds into the hems of our skirts,
Noisemakers, guide us to build futures of ease.

Grudges fall, rot on the Garden’s sterile soil.
Eve plucked and left to spoil, easily bruised like
Ripe fruit. Too heavy for boughs, we fall, skirts rattling
Our secrets rich as port wine, sweeter than spite.

Under the guise of fragility, we wait,
Sabres drawn. Sun glints from blades shiny as thoughts.
Ideas dropped and trod upon take root. Shoots toil,

Draw our minds to harvest feasts. We’ll share wine, dance,
Expose bloodied ankles with each twirl. Angels
Acquiesce, sow seeds under the realm of our
Skirts. Whirling, we step on the edges of blades.

 

“We wait” © Mary Perchanok

 

Note by the author

“The Garden of Dutiful Women” first appeared at Poetic Notions: A Weaving of Poetry and Visual Arts (February 2020) alongside this painting by Mary Perchanok. My thanks to the co-curators Carolyn Boll and Holly Friesen for the opportunity to show my poem and to work with an artist of Mary’s calibre.

 


What We Remember: Poetry that Reframes History

 

Lisa Bird-Wilson combines two forms of remembering in The Red Files. Her poems mix archival sources with oral history to reconstruct the stories we tell about the residential school system and its legacy. Bird-Wilson’s collection weaves the two sources together seamlessly. The resulting poems change the way we look at archival data and its stories. What invites readers to look, though, are the poems’ tone and detailed descriptions:

hats askew and mitts bejewelled
with snow, coats open
to the weather, the girls play
in the shadow of the school, just inside
the invisible fence line
they make snowmen and snowwomen
while a huddle of trees holds watch

the girls’ class grows up in nine years
of sharp-edged photos, each time exposed
after play, exhausted— (“Miss Atwater’s Class,” 1-10)

Archival data creates a frame for our collective history. Oral histories fatten the stories told by archival data. Bird-Wilson’s poems challenge the reader to consider the stories created by archival data and to reconsider our collective history by focussing our gaze on what is captured within archival sources as well as what—and who—is excluded. Bird-Wilson uses several techniques to challenge and shift the historical frame.

In “Indian Preacher,” she notes the men who are named in a “history of the area” created by a women’s auxiliary (3). One is “a model of a good Indian / the Christian Indian” (12-13). The reason for his inclusion is so simply stated, it stings:

no history would be complete without a reference
to the Indians, they say
as if they must explain the inclusion
apologize for their shortcomings, their failure
to exclude:
the exclusion of exclusion (6-11)

Bird-Wilson juxtaposes this named Indigenous man with the countless unnamed Indigenous individuals and named White men found in archival documents:

one of the few named Indian men
among countless unnamed
women, men and children of treaty
(naturally the Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest Territories
“presided over” the treaty signing
and he had a name) (19-24)

That Bird-Wilson excludes the names of these named men shifts the historical frame. By losing their names, the historical hierarchy of individuals collapses. These men are now on equal footing with the unnamed. The children of the residential schools are among the unnamed. Bird-Wilson shifts the historical frame further by creating names, throughout the collection, for the unnamed children.

In the prose poem “Girl with the Short Hair,” Bird-Wilson writes about the children lined up in a school photograph. Their images are captured, but not their names: “…she has / a name but history hasn’t recorded it…” (7-8). Bird-Wilson shifts our gaze from the group and focuses it on an individual, gleaning the image for a trait to distinguish this child from the other girls. This child becomes, and perhaps always was, “…the one with / the wind-knotted hair” (18-19). Although these lines come from the poem titled “Girl with the Short Hair,” in the photograph “they’ve all got short hair” (2).

A poem about the haircut that children were given when they arrived at a residential school, “Mourning Day,” opens the collection. The emotional weight of having their hair cut is revealed in beautiful imagery:

these braids remember the women

trembling clump of girlflesh
eyes cast down and away
unfamiliar now
to one another
they mourn the loss
of their hair

dropped

like so many laments
clipped connections
to mothers, kohkums or aunties (1-11)

In this poem and throughout the collection, Bird-Wilson creates an emotional connection to the subject of her poems. The imagery of each poem captures a moment, a remembrance. In the poem “Drowning Girl,” she builds a bridge between missing and murdered Indigenous women and the observations of a girl:

later she finds herself sitting small in front of the bank building on
East Hastings Street noticing the leftover bodies of red cedar leaves that
lie here and there across the sidewalk, residue from last fall, their
brown skeletal impressions stain the pavement (1-4)

In “Apology,” Bird-Wilson compresses the historical frame to outline how the principles that created the residential school system continue. “[The] story endures” with “sixties-poached babies” who “learned to slide ‘birth family’/ around on budding tongues / subtext: momma wasn’t good enough” (the sixties scoop), “a mother under a boil-water order / so long her babies all become adults” (ongoing boil-water advisories), and systemic racism—“education pushes Samuel out / of a seat not meant for an Indian graduate” (33, 34, 35-37, 46-47, 50-51). Even though an apology was given for the degradation endured in the residential school system, Bird-Wilson focuses our attention on what is left unsaid and unacknowledged within the frame of the apology:

you say the hard facts while the soft ones
float in the background, inch around
the room, like a buffalo

soft facts like baby fat, like children’s cheeks

not in so many words, but
the cult-quality photos tell a portion
of what there is to be remorseful for: not one fat child
for over a hundred years (6-13)

Bird-Wilson’s poems include the soft facts. Her work broadens the historical frame by revealing context. In “Beside a Residential School,” a poem about unmarked graves at residential school sites, we are faced with the soft facts of locating the remains of these lost children:

kohkums dig
their crooked fingers
earth-deep
in remembering

like overgrown children
they scrape
in a twenty-foot square
garden plot
hunched on their haunches
they till the soil

small buttons, from school
uniforms, unearthed
alongside bantam bones

imagine: boys on one side
girls on the other
sent to slumber without
a goodbye
in unplanned
graves, their hide
coverings long ago
melted away
into clay

while grandmothers search out
lost children,
nearby, the Elders
lightly drum
singing the spirits home
a handful of buttons and bones

The Red Files by Lisa Bird-Wilson commemorates “the children who attended Canada’s residential schools, the survivors, and the ones who did not come home” (80). This collection reminds readers that archivists and historians are storytellers who help to frame our collective history and it challenges us to look for the soft facts that fall outside of the frame of their stories. The collection inspires us to reconsider how we look at archival data and, ultimately, how we frame our collective history.