Colonial archive explored in verse

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Begun as “thoughts on treaty and [his] obligations to the land in this time,” Matthew James Weigel’s debut collection, Whitemud Walking (Coach House, 166 pages, $24), dissects the logic of the colonial archive.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/06/2022 (226 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Begun as “thoughts on treaty and [his] obligations to the land in this time,” Matthew James Weigel’s debut collection, Whitemud Walking (Coach House, 166 pages, $24), dissects the logic of the colonial archive.

Weigel, an Edmonton-based Dene and Métis poet and artist, brings these skills to bear when the speaker of the poems enters the archive and finds erasure: “to touch a document is to take a piece with you/ and to leave a piece of you behind,/ and it is this exchange we must climate control,/ in de-reciprocal programming./ And when only the dead and programmed can see my kin,/ no one will see my kin.”

He connects archival erasure to the disappearance of the buffalo and the impoverishment of ecosystems: “I now cherish each attempt by a mosquito to bite me, understanding as I do that there are fewer insects every year than the last. I wonder about nineteenth-century anxieties of buffalo, and I cherish the remaining buffalo.”

In opposition to the colonial archive, Weigel’s poetics turn to the body and the land, and his techniques extend from the line to erasures, photographic alterations and visual and conceptual pieces. In The Buffalo Will Soon Be Exterminated, Weigel moves the text from Alexander Morris’s 1880 book describing treaty negotiations to the margins of his own: “The margins of that book invite you to the gutter/ of this one.// Behind this through the middle and out the spine/ is the treaty.”

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Lot (Caitlin Press, 175 pages, $20), B.C. writer and scholar Sarah de Leeuw’s latest book, gathers a miscellany of historical documents, natural histories, personal and traditional stories and deploys them in a relational account of Haida Gwaii.

From its spellbinding beginning, Lot uses repetition to highlight the power of myth-making, of how we speak about a place and its origins. Using a Biblical construction, she recounts a traditional Haida story: “In the beginning/ this land was// nothing/ but// sea water/ so they say.// In the beginning/ it was both// light and dark/ so they say.”

The way de Leeuw continues to use repetition and incantatory diction implicates 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, the historical to the Biblical, this enables de Leeuw to attend in unexpected ways to the way stories are told and where stories lead: “the moment/ I am born is not// a moment but all/ that was born before/ me so my birth/ is a swimming/ a bringing to this coastline/ … ./ of everything that/ leads me here.”

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

Bige draws a clear connection between deforestation and the way settlers have severed Indigenous connections to land and language, and the way settlers have tried to erase their agency. In Too Abstract, they connect a writing professor’s criticism that colonization is too abstract to write poetry about to “Clear-cut trees […] falling deep in a forest,” the cultural prioritization of Christian holidays over personal bereavement, their brother’s death and “this lived experience/ constantly called into question.”

Throughout the collection, they turn to trees as a way not only of documenting the ravages of colonialism but as incitement to fight, decolonize, “dedoctrinate.” In old growth genocide they write of missing “the trees/ we still see towering tall in parks.” The speaker looks back, through these park trees, “drained of generations” and sees “back this far/ we have our history/ my history// yours is across the oceans/ documented in the genocide/ of clear-cut old growths/ […] please go back there.”

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Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.

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