1619 The thing about snow

You Might Be Sorry You Read This
by Michelle Poirier Brown

Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2022
$19.99 / 9781772126037

Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore

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In many cases, the titles for books of poetry come from the poems themselves, whether a title of one or a line from within one. In Michelle Poirier Brown’s case, for her debut book of poetry, the title is a remark tossed off to her editor about a group of poems about her traumatized youth, “You might be sorry you read this.” While it may have been expressed as a warning, Poirier Brown’s wise editor thought it was a phrase that ought to be held on to.

The epigraph to the collection of poetry, and some prose too, is by Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama: “One of the functions of poetry / is to make you uncomfortable.”

Indeed, the content will make readers uncomfortable due to descriptions of the author’s childhood trauma and/or references to settler privilege and non-acknowledgment as such. Family members may be “sorry” to read long-held secrets revealed.

Most important, Poirier Brown has put an end to silence. As she said in an interview for rob mclennan’s blog: “The book has enabled me to be who I am in the world in the way that feels a true representation of my self. Uncensored. Precise.”

Michelle Poirier Brown of Vernon. Photo by Hélène Cyr, Victoria

In the same interview, Poirier Brown acknowledges Robert Bly’s “best piece of advice,” in which he “taught that to write is an exercise of self-sovereignty — and that to rule effectively, one must put one’s realm in order.”

I often look to the back of a book even before reading its contents as I’m curious as to who helped the poet get their poetry into the world.

Acknowledged by Poirier Brown are her husband Stephen Brown; her cultural advisor Bernadette Spence; her editor Chelsea Comeau; her coach and confidante Deb Williams; her mentor and guide Betsy Warland; and others including “all the people who took me in, treated me as family.”

It was Betsy Warland who suggested the poems be presented chronologically. Poirier Brown reorganized her manuscript, leaving out about a third of the poems, leaving in the ones “that followed the arc of a memoir,” she said in an interview with Rafael Zen for Massy Arts Society (June 2, 2022).

The book is beautifully designed by Alan Brownoff with the cover image, watercolour and collage on paper, credited to Caroline Boileau. The dedication reads, “for my father.”

The Grey Nuns Convent, built between 1846 and 1851, now Le Musée de Saint-Boniface. Photo (2017) courtesy Manitoba Historical Society

While Poirier Brown is now an internationally published poet and performer, she wasn’t always supported or seen except as “the brown girl at the birthday party,” or as she also writes in her poem “Duck Ugly,” “I am the brown child in the Grade 4 picture.”

In her prose piece, “Her Breath on My Face,” Poirier Brown writes of her grandmother who was Métis and “taken into the charge of the Sisters of Charity or Grey/ Nuns, at the orphanage in St. Boniface.”

Marie Louise Antonia Vigoureux “read Mein Kampf and cheered for dictators of all kinds.”

I remember long summer days beside her in the grape arbour, where she
smoked through the day playing Scrabble with anyone who came by, her
laugh harsh and loud, her hand warm on my cheek as she lowered her
whiskered face and whispered,
beautiful.

In her poem, “Other Side of the Glass,” Poirier Brown writes of watching Popeye on television, wondering when she looked in a mirror if there might be a playmate in the room behind the glass.

She “came to understand / there was no other room.” Poirier Brown saw herself in the mirror, the self we so often try to alter as young girls and women, so there was “a perm, and a shag cut. The Pill that cleared up the zits.”

Tools that unlocked attractive.

Except, not always.

The poem ends with a glance in the mirror, “a wince.”

You are having an ugly day.
You look like an Indian.

Michelle Poirier Brown’s home town, Selkirk, Manitoba, ca. 1960. Courtesy eBay

“The House on Strathnaver Avenue,” a prose piece, has headings for the segments or paragraphs including Ambition, Disillusionment, and Independence. Under the heading of Intimacy, Poirier Brown writes, “don’t you think I know none of you like me?”

In the paragraph entitled “Telling,” when the teacher, who was a boarder, and her father went to bed — the young narrator, “wearing a filmy, layered nylon nighty with lace straps and bare feet,” holding “my elbows for warmth” — told her mother something, with little response except, “Okay, now you’ve told me. Go back to bed.”

The next section, “Defeat,” describes where the narrator’s brother slept, in a room “intended to be a sewing room,” and is followed by Performance leading to Boundaries.

My brother thought it would be helpful to use lubricant. The first product
he tried was Vicks VapoRub. Although he kept it on his windowsill, I asked
him the next time not to use it.

In her poem, “Mothers Who Know,” Poirier Brown acknowledges

The mothers who know.
And are silent.

Silence has different aspects: the silence in the house that gives an opportunity to a young girl to speak up about sexual abuse; the silence that a mother keeps “because it is her role” (as written in the poem noted above); and the silence that ends when a poet tells her story.

Poirier Brown and I have attended poetry retreats together working with master poet teachers including the late British Columbia poet Patrick Lane. “Poets put an end to silence,” I recall Lane saying.

In “The Thing About Snow,” we learn the narrator is twelve years old, outside in January, in Selkirk, Manitoba, barefoot, wearing summer weight pants and a short-sleeved shirt. The poem is six pages in length with some lines only a word.

My brother
had sex with me
from the time
I
was
six
years
old
until just before
my first period.

Michelle Poirier Brown. Photo courtesy YouTube

As Poirier Brown said about her poems in the Massy Arts interview, “[They] range from genre-blending flights of words to a formal villanelle. But I do feel ‘The Thing About Snow’ is the core poem . . . . [It] is the umbilical cord that ties me to the book. It is the poem for anyone who wants to know me, not my work.”

Again we learn, in “The Thing About Snow,” that “my mother knew / did nothing / to intervene.”

In a prose piece, “Understanding My Face,” Poirier Brown writes of a time in her life when she had a five-year-old daughter and a baby being bathed by her husband when she received a phone call from her sister.

“Guess what,” my sister opened. “We’re Indians.”

This is the point at which readers may chuckle and members of an audience at one of Poirier Brown’s readings may laugh out loud.

The cemetery at Ste. Anne Roman Catholic Church, Sainte Anne des Chênes, Manitoba. Courtesy Manitoba Historical Society

The sister, who had left for a religious boarding school when Poirier Brown was six, is referred to as “the family genealogist.” She had looked for the grave of their great-grandmother Euphrosine Curtaz in Ste. Anne, Manitoba.

Frustrated by not finding the grave, a groundskeeper told her: “Oh, she’s buried in St. Anne, all right,” and went on to say, “But she’s not here. You want to find her grave, you’re going to have to go to the Indian Reserve.”

Poirier Brown’s husband, a labour negotiator at the time, wasn’t surprised when she recounted the telephone conversation with her sister. “I just always understood you to have Aboriginal heritage. I wondered why you never mentioned it.”

She ends the piece with, “Colleagues at work? Same response. I hadn’t been passing as white with any of them.”

Several of the poems have been previously published, including “Wake,” which was awarded the Earle Birney Prize for Poetry in 2019. A beautiful poem addressed to “you,” it appears to indicate various people who are racist and ask impertinent questions, such as the person noted in the first stanza:

You suggest edits to my biography, tell me
my stated identity doesn’t exist, and that you know this because you are
getting a phd in indigenous lit. You ask me flat out if I’m queer, if you can
tick off another box on the grant application.

“Beneficiaries of a Genocide” addresses those of us who are settlers:

You. Who cannot call yourself settler.
That’s
what I want you to call yourselves.

At the end of the book, as an addendum dated September 15, 2012, is a letter addressed “Dear Mother.” In it, “Your daughter, Michelle,” reveals that “Shortly after your visit, I became ill. I have not worked since then and have, in fact, been forced into medical retirement due to mental illness.”

Michelle goes on to say to her mother:

Because of events in my childhood relating to my brother, Stephen, I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and associated depression and anxiety. My condition is severe enough that it has now cost me my career.

The reason I cannot see you is that I cannot be in the same room as the secret. To even imagine being in the same room as the secret takes my breath away. My throat has closed. My heart is pounding.
 
Thus, if you wish to spend time with me, you will need to deal with the secret. Talk about it with me and admit it to others.

Next year is the 50th anniversary of the beginning. Fifty years is long enough.

Originally from Selkirk, Manitoba, Poirier Brown is nêhiyaw-iskwêw and a citizen of the Métis Nation. She has retired from careers as a speechwriter, conflict analyst, and federal treaty negotiator, and now writes full time. The “Listen Now” page on her website offers many opportunities to listen to Poirier Brown’s work.

Michelle Poirier Brown’s “poetic statement” declares:

I write as a refusal to be silenced.
I write to resist shame.
I write as an answer to questions I’m tired of explaining.
I write to put down my side of the story.

Michelle Poirier Brown

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Mary Ann Moore. Photo by Wendy Morisseau

Mary Ann Moore is a poet, writer and writing mentor who lives on the unceded lands of the Snuneymuxw First Nation in Nanaimo. The author of a book of poetry, Fishing for Mermaids (Leaf Press, 2014), Moore also leads writing circles and has published two writing resources: Writing to Map Your Spiritual Journey (International Association for Journal Writing) and Writing Home: A Whole Life Practice (Flying Mermaids Studio). Visit her blog here. Editor’s note: Mary Ann Moore has also reviewed a book by Celia Haig-Brown, Garry Gottfriedson, Randy Fred, & the KIRS Survivors for The British Columbia Review.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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