Mother’s death spurs poetic memoir

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Red River Métis-Icelandic poet Jónína Kirton, now living in B.C., opens her third book, Standing in a River of Time (Talonbooks, 224 pages, $20), with a description of the moment she discovered her mother was dying: “I am afraid to spit you out/ welcome the feel of grit in my teeth/ defend my need for you/ not interested in letting go.”

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Red River Métis-Icelandic poet Jónína Kirton, now living in B.C., opens her third book, Standing in a River of Time (Talonbooks, 224 pages, $20), with a description of the moment she discovered her mother was dying: “I am afraid to spit you out/ welcome the feel of grit in my teeth/ defend my need for you/ not interested in letting go.”

Beginning with this death, Kirton travels backward and forward in her life, weaving poetry and lyric prose into a formally taut, spiritually expansive memoir of trauma, loss and survival.

Kirton turns frequently to the question of belonging, threads that knot in the death of her mother and brothers as well as the abuses and precarity she endures. “Never sure of my place and suspicious of the need to always agree, I never fully entered any room. I always kept a part of myself outside and did not feel like I belonged anywhere.”

From the moment she promises her younger self to protect her going forward to the connections she traces in All My Relations, all of these moments of coming home are hard-won: “at my centre a galaxy/ in my skin kin worlds/ painful memories swirling/ next to an ocean of joy/ … ./ she is gone but still with me/ all the Ancestors are gone but still with me.”

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In the letter with which she closes You Might Be Sorry You Read This (University of Alberta Press, 92 pages, $20), Michelle Poirier Brown writes: “To even imagine being in the same room with the secret takes my breath away.”

This is a book that refuses secrets, that seeks to transform dark and unsettling experiences by confronting them with clarity and fury.

The first of two sections centres the speaker’s coming of age in Selkirk. Among the things she confronts are her brother’s sexual abuse and her mother’s complicity: “And we do not talk about the mothers/ The mothers who know./ And are silent./ … ./ The time will come when you will lie on your bed, knowing./ She never came./ She left.”

After she is told of her Indigenous ancestry, Poirier Brown documents some of the process of revising her identity with the same clarity with which she faces the violence done to her. Here nothing is protected, not her own behaviour toward a Métis boy in her elementary school class, not the need for others to see themselves innocent of colonial genocide: “How much longer do we have to hear about your very real pain/ before you will have a conversation with us about ours?”

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Winnipeg poet Sarah Ens’ second book, Flyway (Turnstone Press, 120 pages, $18), follows three generations of women from Ukraine in 1929 to the Canadian Prairies in the present, exploring war’s dislocations, family connections and environmental degradation.

The poem is divided into five movements. Three of them, called Tallgrass Psalmody, are set in the present, and focus on what it means to call this place, steeped as it is in colonial violence, home: “I don’t know what I thought would happen/ when I came to this last stand/ of tallgrass/ holding field guides, family archives, & prayer/ stones in my hands.”

The other two movements follow Anni, Lydia and their mother through the violence against Mennonites in Ukraine during the 1930s, the Second World War, emigration and disconnection from their brother, and, finally, uneasy settlement.

Throughout, the speaker is careful to not let her desire “to be absolved in the homecoming/ … ./ to be undone & remade, like my body is not a memory/ I keep confessing into some promise of land” to paper over the darkness of the migration story, but she holds all the context with tenderness and a grounded, careful touch.

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Melanie Brannagan Fredericksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.

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