Re- View #1: Page As Bone Ink As Blood
Jónína Kirton, Talon Books, 2015
Jami Macarty & Nicholas Hauck
Advisory Board & Editors
NH: I keep coming back to the epigraph as a reminder. “Our people,” “surrounds us,” “ourselves” but then “the land” and “the people.” I’m looking for a reminder (or remainder) of the movement from the specific to the general, from a particular experience to a common one without diminishing or emptying personal experience of its worth and singularity, which is an important experience. I look for this because I sense the writer/speaker in the collection wants this, and without it I wonder what the poems are doing.
JM: My reading of the epigraph focuses on the collective “our” and the individual “I,” the ancestral and the inheritor, the familial and the personal. By opening the book with an epigraph by Jeanette Armstrong, considered the author of the first novel by a First Nations woman in Canada, the author seeks and assumes her place among First Nations writers. Taking my cues from that, I expect, as I think you’re saying you do, the poems to take as their subject the collective and individual experiences associated with First Nations and artistic expression. I should also say, I read this epigraph as a warning—to a reader or reviewer, potential tyrannical silencers of one who has come here “to speak of the worth” of herself and her heritage. Right on! The collection focuses predominantly on the personal. When the poems gaze beyond the personal, it is to the near personal of the family, like in “revelation.” It’s only in the end poem, “Otipemisiwak (the people who own themselves),” that the gaze is on the collective, and even with that, the poem ends personally, “I want to own myself.” Generally, as a reader, do you want more of the common, general, collective from poems or…?
NH: I don’t necessarily want anything as a reader. I don’t feel that’s my place, but I’m looking for these things because I feel the collection both invites and excludes. That’s a pretty powerful thing for a writer and poetry to be able to do. For me, this shows up in Kirton’s use of pop culture references that are embedded along with the violence of personal experience. How do you navigate the common references layered with the specific self-realizations, or what is both familiar and deeply personal?
JM: For me, the pop culture references, those references that may be common to anyone of the same age as Kirton, and the references to personal experiences of violence join in the feeling of coming from a real-life person. They are both of the writer’s/speaker’s life, so, I don’t have the experience of “navigating” them as differences to be reconciled.
NH: Right. I don’t see them as differences to be reconciled, I find them interesting as common ground versus the personal violence. The poems swing between a hermetic lyricism—or a search for—and a willingness or invitation to be understood, and so are heard to the extent that this is possible. This oscillation is present within the book’s early poems. Between the placelessness and unrecognition of “page as bone,” questioning identity and origins in “Half-Breed” (one of the few poems with capital letters in the title), and the concrete tragedy of “the doorbell,” we quickly realize how language struggles as well. And so, lots of questions arise—explicitly (“revelation,” for example), and implicitly—suggesting that this language, English, is unprepared. In the third stanza of “dear pain” this breaks out; how to reconcile with the past and talk about living and going forward, let alone any sense of future when the past’s voices/languages are speaking from within and through.
JM: That first poem calls attention to itself because it is the first, and it is the title poem. In it, the writer/speaker appears dancing her words “across the white linen floor.” At first, the writer/speaker does not “recognize” the words, but as she delves into the unknown she is held “in the arms/ of the Creator” and smells “cedar” (one of four sacred medicines in Aboriginal healing practices, signifying the south and having purification properties). With this poem, the ritual of writing as purification begins. This poem is also the first in a series of reflexive poems; some of its companion poems are “hungry ghosts,” “neat and tidy endings not required,” and “(re)vision.” Writer as an identity is an important subject to this collection. That’s a specific.
NH: Yeah! But a specific not yet determined. A specific in the making maybe, or in process. I’m interested in exploring how the apparent search for identity and voice are revealed in the form/structure etc.
these are poems out of a woman’s experience and the matriarchy
JM: Generally, yes, I see identity as an exploration of the poems. From the first four poems, the reader learns the many ways this writer/speaker identifies herself—as a writer, half-breed, clairvoyant, historian, storyteller, publicist, and archivist “from the distaff side of the family.” Perhaps more than any of these identities, though, this writer seems to be woman-identified, for these are poems out of a woman’s experience and the matriarchy. Some of the most moving and affecting poems within the collection are love letters to the writer’s/speaker’s mother, who has died from breast cancer. “What do Frida Kahlo and My Mother Have in Common?” and “mother” are representative poems. Ordinarily, I would take the view that the writer is not necessarily the speaker within the poems, but the speaker within these poems seems also to be the writer of them. We know this from many of the utterances, but perhaps none more plainly and clearly as in “mother,” where the writer/ speaker says she is “the child of Emily Denham” and the “granddaughter of Jónina Buason/your mother and I share a name.”
NH: Generally, when the distinction between writer and speaker is narrowed or removed I question the writer’s/the speaker’s intentions. Here my questioning is put at ease because Kirton avoids outright confessional by raising the question of what voice is and can be, and does this as a poet. It’s the explicitly confessed [sic] search and unknowing. The title tells us this. Poems point to this. “lucidity” talks about compliance, about voice vs institution, and how within certain structures the speaker is “dry mouthed.” Similarly, in “unclaimed baggage,” the past’s unheard or silenced and “documented by the town folk.” Then the poem wonders if it really wants to remember. Does it even have a choice now that the closet is open? These are some of the moments where the lack of distinction between writer/speaker becomes interesting rather than something of which to be skeptical.
Moments like this in writing are hard won and as such are to be treasured and sustained.
JM: “crone” speaks to the theme of identity while it also sings “songs of carnage.” For me, this is a poem that reaches compellingly toward consciousness surrounding the underpinnings of “story.” By stating, “the authorized versions/ what I think I know/ what I would like to know,” the writer/speaker makes it clear that these are her “versions,” that she is aware of the differences between what’s “authorized” and not, of the uncertainties associated with memory. For me, introducing the awareness of human fallibility and how “story” is fraught, gives the writing authenticity and the writer welcome authority. Moments like this in writing are hard won and as such are to be treasured and sustained. For me, Kirton’s authority is later undermined in “obsidian,” “missing,” “exile,” etc., where their hermetic, as you say, or encoded, as I’d say, mode of expression cuts off connection and with it understanding. I sense a controlled withholding and a tension from maintaining such control. In these poems, the voice feels less relaxed and open, less able to say what it wants to say. I wonder if the encoded lyrics speak to an inner conflict, suggesting that the telling of secrets is at odds with the telling of truth.
NH: I’m glad you brought up “crone.” Like you, I am drawn to its awareness of the dubiousness of “story” and claims to truth; the way Kirton uses a well-known cultural reference point and steps out of it into a “criss-crossing of my own making.” For me, the epigraph in this poem is the opposite of the opening one. While it is also a warning (as you say re: opening epigraph), here the warning comes from a canonical white male cautioning against what the poems in the collection are doing. Grimm warns against and silences women spinning, to which the poems create a voice in protest: “weaving begins with spinning.” But as we read in “mother” later on, by “weaving a life… there are holes I could not fix.” So, I do see a conflict, or a struggle, maybe, to come to terms with the desire for truth, needing secrecy and privacy, and acknowledging that voice/story occupy the in-between that comes up in many of the poems.
JM: Like you, I noticed the irregular capitalization of certain poems. Some of the verse poems, “Half-Breed,” “& Now,” “Fortify,” etc. use caps, while others don’t. Looking for a reason for this irregularity distracts my reading and risks undermining the poems. So instead, I’ll go here: I notice that the prose poems in the collection use standard capitalization and punctuation. I find the prose poems among the most affecting. That form seems to match very well to Kirton’s narrative and prosaic aesthetic. Why? Because the prose form allows for prose thought, a thinking that’s extended and perhaps more “about” being whole. These poems seem opposite to the encoded lyrics. The writer’s/speaker’s voice seems more relaxed, open, and patient—willing to take the time to say what most wants to be and has to be said.
NH: The prose poems that stand out for me are “What Do Frida Kahlo and My Mother Have in Common?,” “Something and Nothing,” and “Dear Gabriel.” Kirton seems to be the most at ease in these poems. I get that sense from the language and the way she uses it. In “What Do Frida Kahlo and My Mother Have in Common?,” the ravages of cancer and the faceless/meaningless medical/institutional response is met with the reality of clothes unfit for life and the acceptance of a body unwhole, and acceptance that verges on playfulness. The last line of the poem doubles up on the play—brings language into the game. “Something and Nothing” is very clever and performs itself as its own answer. Its cleverness doesn’t undo the nothingness of father, but is one of the ways the collection as a whole deals with that pain. “Dear Gabriel” is, for me, the most fun, witty without losing historical importance. The third and fourth sentences—“Things didn’t exactly work out for either of us. Sure wish that you had not listened to me.”— have an odd place, at the beginning of this poem and the end of the collection. The undermining, ironic tone is perfected in the P.S. as an historical footnote/prophecy: “I was right about a few things… it will be the artists who will give them back their spirits.” It’s deliberately subtle, making it that much more important for the voice(s) in the poems. As if to say, as a P.S., “we’ll still be heard.”
JM: OK, interesting; if not convincing me, you’re getting me to see “Dear Gabriel” in a different light.… Onward. Many of the poems address “you,” but not the same one. I found it challenging to keep tabs on the various second persons throughout the collection. On the positive side, the use of second person invites intimacy within the collection. In each case, the poems are written directly to a particular “you,” and act like epistolaries, though only “dear pain” and “dear new-age self” claim that status directly. By implication, this means the reader is an eavesdropper, an interloper, or an interlocutor.
NH: I also struggled keeping up with the addressees assumed by the varying uses of “you.” Considering your remarks, I feel the reader is both eavesdropper and interlocutor, reading/hearing/witnessing, but is also invited to step out of passivity and become an active listener. There are clues to this invited engagement (as I’ve suggested) in the general cultural references that draw one in, or at least have the potential to.… In “the temple” and “unclaimed baggage,” the body takes center stage as the ambiguities of physicality are stretched, exercised, and worked on. As the site of abuse and pain, but also in all of its potential to heal; a body violated and lost, but not lost all hope. And so the title of the book: both body and language are as familiar as they are foreign. “Then” captures this well in the first few lines, describing a routine of unknowing, where expectation and the unexpected cancel each other out. Around page 37, just after “Then” and “& Now,” as one could expect—if we dare—present time becomes important. “Unfinished” has conviction in itself as poem; exposing the necessary incompleteness of the present has the potential for coming to terms with the past. Poems that follow seem to expose in this way. “Find” stands out because of its openness to and for intimacy. It invites. Is generous. It no longer turns away from, nor toward the past.
JM: Yes, literally language struggles out of the body—of the writer/speaker and of the poems—to form a coherence when what is being spoken through language is unfathomable, unspeakable. The poems, “nightly visitations,” “Fortify,” and “unfinished,” that document abuse, courageously speak, and remove the taboo of speaking the unspeakable. In the process, they enact “restitution,” which is fully realized by the end of the poem, “the one who burns skin with his eyes,” when the writer/speaker states: “I am at ease with a body that holds the truth.” Interestingly, “sweetgrass” (the north), another of the four sacred medicines used in ritual cleansing appears in this poem. Its appearance points me back to the “cedar” (the south), that appeared in the first poem. From there, I consider that the writer has traveled in all four directions, seeking healing and restitution.
NH: “the one who burns skin with his eyes” is a where I first get a sense of restitution, the ceremonial healing, which becomes clearer than in, for example, the self-reflexive epistolary “dear new-age self” where turbulence is unavoidable and “there is nothing new in this new age.” So coming to terms with the possibilities (and some of the impossibilities) of healing is, for me, part of the arc. Hesitation (“cowboy songs…”) leads to self-healing via healing others (“good medicine”), and in “Mystery Man” acceptance is working on levels and within different actors, but the writer/speaker has stepped out, leaving a generational gap where grandfather speaks to son.
JM: Throughout the collection, I’m heartened when the writer/speaker claims her voice and says straight what has to be said about being a woman. Along these lines, I see one of the important expressions in the book as the writer’s/speaker’s claim of her own desire. I read expressions of that in several poems, but perhaps it comes most to the fore in “good medicine.” I think the ownership of desire is among the most important revelations in the book for it shows the writer/speaker as a complex, multi-dimensional, and real woman, and it works to break her identity as victim. Though identification as victim may be implied by the presence of the perpetrator of abuse, I wouldn’t say the writer/speaker identifies as victim. Rather, this writer/speaker sets her sights on healing, an unmistakable locus of empowerment.
There are many voices being taken up in these poems, voices that are not light—sometimes witness, sometimes victim, then healer and healing, among others still.
NH: There are many voices being taken up in these poems, voices that are not light—sometimes witness, sometimes victim, then healer and healing, among others still. But at no point in the collection do I feel that the writer/speaker takes the clear, sole position as victim. There’s too much in process for it to be reduced to victimhood. Healing, I agree with you, there is empowerment in that. I’m wondering if this empowerment can lead itself from personal trauma to collective restoration or does it remain encoded (which is better than my “hermetic”) within the singular writer/voice?
JM: I think personal healing and restitution has to lead to collective healing and restitution because the personal is part of the collective. In the poem, “(re)vision,” “old papers” are “shredded in the co-op office” and the writer stands “at the threshold of a new life.” From here she can see the complexities of the man who is her father, who in “Mystery Man” reveals himself and his pain from leading a life of denial of his identity as an Indian and talented sportsman. This poem is one of the most important and significant in the collection for it expresses acceptance of the past and the perpetrators in it. This recognition will resonate backward and forward through personal and familial lives. That’s how it will affect the collective. There are some “good men” in the collection—the partner and the son. This point is not to be taken lightly in a book that chronicles sexual abuse. Representing all sides, rather than one side, adds to the book’s authority and consciousness.
NH: I’m glad you brought this up; I wasn’t sure how to. “Mystery Man” comes late in the collection, as honest acceptance usually does. Previous iterations and images of the father have been unambiguously negative. Here his past is questioned but what I find most interesting is the tension the writer/speaker feels about her father’s relationship to her son: silent to her (an extension of the physical/sexual violence of the past), he tells all to her son—the one she kept safe in “Then,” the same one who helped begin healing/justice/restitution in “nightly visitations.” There are the “Tuxedo Park boys” (“collective history”), the riders/cowboys who get on and off (“cowboy songs and carousels…”), and the distant dreamt Brando figure (“dream kitchen”) who are not absolutely typecast as perpetrators. “good medicine” speaks to this ambiguity, or to the danger of being too quick to reconcile: the tension between “remove rote” and “compulsive in his efforts” is powerful, especially when thought of within the larger context of abuse, patterns of abuse, and how to escape the male perpetrator. As he “divines salvation / in the untying / of her ponytail” there is caution— needed but perhaps not always heeded. Then we read that she’s the good medicine, the healer. In “the temple,” it comes to light that the body “holds my place, keeps my records” and is “saying things” that may never be heard.
JM: After the high point the poem “Mystery Man” offers, the book moves to one of the only poems in the collection that focuses on land or a place, “Manitou Lake.” This is another poem that remains encoded for me. And, more significantly, the poem seems to turn away from the beautifully intimate and restitution achieving note of the previous poem. Plainly, I don’t understand why the writer and the book go there. I do see how the order of poems lead the book there, but I’m saying up until that point the order renders a book about a woman telling “the truth about her life” (Muriel Rukeyser). Why end on a series of poems about men and their lives? The most surprising turn away from the personal, which by now at page 60/63, the reader’s come to expect, comes from the poem that deals with the relationship between Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont in “Dear Gabriel.” What’s that poem doing here? I said when I got to it. I know that the writer’s father has “told… of the family’s connection to Louis Riel,” but why is the poem one of the end notes? In the collection’s last three poems, I feel like the woman deflects and capitulates to men. After all that, we’re right back where we started. Or, are we?