A REVIEW OF MARIE ANNHARTE BAKER'S
BY NIKKI REIMER
The Rusty Toque | Issue 8 | Reviews | Poetry | June 30, 2015
ARE TRICKSTERS THOSE WHO RESIST?
"What can I say about being 40? I have learned that kindness has bright speed when you want things done. I have learned that the world is as hard as it is beautiful, and you must keep your teeth and claws sharpened. I have learned our flaws contain our power. Our frailties hold the dark matter keeping us together. Mysteries and bravery keep us curious, comparisons keep us dark and envious. The only way to receive is to give, but if that fucker is using you, cut em out.” [i]
This quote from a high-traffic Facebook post by throat singer Tanya Tagaq echoed in my head as I read Annharte/Marie Baker’s indigena awry. Baker’s poems in this, her fourth poetry trade collection, have their teeth and claws sharpened. Cutting, scathing and frank, Baker’s poetics build towards a fatal blow: the violence of settler colonialism meets with razor-sharp critique; you think the cat is playing till she severs the neck of the mouse.
At other times the humour is hyperbolic, building towering metaphors that threaten to topple white structures of power, as in the poem “help me I’m a poor Indian who doesn’t have enough books.” This piece imagines a re-appropriation of appropriation: a call for aboriginal-themed books by non-aboriginal writers to be used as bricks in a barricade. It’s bitingly, bracingly funny--“send me your used Kinsellas (even the ones you read & liked).” Where white writers have profited from the appropriation and/or complete misrepresentation of aboriginal stories, this speaker seeks to dismantle that profit, ripping through “white guilt table of contents” and “white privilege footnotes” to take back power in the form of a metaphorical barricade. Though in my mind I see a literal barricade as both possible and necessary. In yet other pieces, the tonal affect is flat, quiet, matter of fact. The narrator’s psychic pain laid out on the table without flourish:
on her list of childhood incidents she put first the alcoholism
The speaker(s) throughout the poems shift subjectivity, exploring the construction of the feminine and of female sexuality with complexity and depth. Annharte’s “Cyber Grannies” have screen sex with gusto while “Gynegran” strikes down fakery wherever she sees it. Go ahead and call her “old fat bitch.” It’s nothing she hasn’t heard before. She remains unfazed, undisturbed. Teeth and claws intact. The speaker might wrestle with the term grandmother, but she ultimately folds it in to each “she,” each “I” who dances through the pages, shifting, trickstering, resisting; she contains multitudes. Though as a feminist critic I am inclined to call these poems feminist, Baker may disagree (as is her right): “Feminist Not. No complacent matriarchal vision.” Or feminist but not complacent, feminist and “Priestess, Poetess, Prophetess, Visionary and Seer.” Also: girl, woman, elder, lover, animal, shifter, trickster. “Coyote is flexible and inconsistent.” Baker takes the limiting and racist characterizations of indigenous women in popular culture—Tiger Lily, squaw--(characterizations which have real, violent impacts upon women in the present day) and confronts them head on:
they were being good Canadians
A reminder to the “good Canadians” among us that true patriotism is de facto racist; that being “nice” doesn’t preclude being racist; that often being a nice, good Canadian means being racist. We descendants of settler colonialism would do well to pay attention.
I would like to suggest that indigena awry be read within the context of the structural violence and systemic racism of Canada’s colonial past and present. Yes, Steve, I am willfully committing sociology. [ii] As I type these words the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is drawing to a close after a six year process; I see in my newsfeed that Justice Murray Sinclair has made a public statement that at least (emphasis mine) 6,000 aboriginal children died while in the residential school system. Sinclair and others have also called this shameful period in Canadian history “attempted cultural genocide.” [iii] As I type these words there are at least 1,000 murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls. As I type these words, the Canadian government still refuses to call a national inquiry. [iv]
Contrary to what Stephen Harper and friends might posit, the Canadian government’s official apology at the beginning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission neither excuses nor rectifies these wrongs. As David Gaertner argues in his essay “Sorry, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: Canadian Political Apologies as Lacanian Drive,” the Canadian government has
“built apology into the national imaginary via elaborate displays of regret . . . Currently, however, the theorization of political apology is caught up in what Lacan would call “the metonymy of desire” in which the partial object (“sorry”) stands in for the impossible Thing itself (the healing of the wounds cause by colonialism).” [v]
To paraphrase: we don’t have any more work to do, we already said sorry!
“What do we mean “we”,” Annharte wants to know. “If that fucker is using you, cut em out.” She is summarizing the ways in which trauma resides in the body: “I am stuck somewhere psychology does not map.” Her criticism is damning stuff, and the poetry almost always hits the mark. Don’t get me wrong: the poet’s critical eye never veers into polemic--Annharte pays too much attention to language for this work to be mere treatise. And it’s not only or not always pointed and political--here too there is pleasure in sound and language, sultry sexual exultations, strength and pride:
Are tricksters those who resist? Do they need permission
Do I at times, reading indigena awry, “feel uncomfortable” vis a vis my subjectivity, white great-granddaughter of settler usurpers that I am, in relation to Annharte’s pointed criticism? Yes. Do I believe this discomfort is a necessary part of decolonization? Yes. Do I urge myself and my white colleagues to shut the fuck up more and read more writing by our indigenous colleagues? Yes, for fuck’s sake, yes.
[i] Tanya Tagaq’s birthday facebook posting as quoted in CBC. http://music.cbc.ca/#!/genres/Aboriginal/blogs/2015/5/Keep-your-teeth-and-claws-sharpened-Tanya-Tagaq-turns-40-writes-awesome-Facebook-message-about-aging Posted May 5, 2015. Accessed May 26, 205
[ii] http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2014/08/22/stephen_harpers_dangerous_refusal_to_commit_sociology.html Posted 22 Aug 2014. Accessed 31 May 2015
[iii] http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/residential-schools-findings-point-to-cultural-genocide-commission-chair-says-1.3093580 Posted 29 May 2015. Accessed 31 May 2015.
[iv] http://www.amnesty.ca/blog/missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women-and-girls-understanding-the-numbers Accessed 1 June 2015.
[v] http://novelalliances.com/2015/05/21/sorry-sorry-sorry-sorry-canadian-political-apologies-as-lacanian-drive/ Dave Gaertner, ““SORRY, SORRY, SORRY, SORRY”: CANADIAN POLITICAL APOLOGIES AS LACANIAN DRIVE.” Novel Alliances. Posted 21 May 2015. Accessed 4 June 2015.
NIKKI REIMER'S poetry has appeared in anthologies from New York to Winnipeg. A writer concerned with emotional ecology, Reimer has published two books--DOWNVERSE and [sic]—chapbooks and essays. She is a contributing editor to Poetry is Dead and a founding director of the Chris Reimer Legacy Fund Society. Visit her website (reimerwrites.com), or Calgary, where she lives.