1854 Gifts of reconciliation
Entre Rive and Shore
By Dominique Bernier-Cormier
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2023
$19.95 / 9781781773102870
By Selina Boan
Gibsons, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2021
$18.95 / 9780889713963
By Joseph Dandurand
Gibsons, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2022
$21.95 / 9780889714328
By Délani Valin
Gibsons, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2022
$19.95 / 9780889714281
Reviewed by Harold Rhenisch
Every culture has spirits that change harsh landscapes into inhabitable ones. In Britain, Merlin, Arthur, and Robin Hood were transformers of this kind. Here in British Columbia, Raven and Kojoti played a part. And now poets.
Four transformers in British Columbia right now are Joseph Dandurand, Délani Valin, Selina Boan and Dominique Bernier-Cormier. All four bring gifts of long experience and healing visions born from long isolation.
Dandurand and Valin have survived being declared mentally ill. Valin and Boan have diverse intelligences and acuities. All four have been formed by cultures that excluded them, and yet together they speak from the deep British Columbian roots of cultural integration into Indigenous worlds.
They have also survived the consequences of over a century of efforts to erase that integration. As Bernier-Cormier notes, the Jewish poet Paul Celan walked a similar path out of the Holocaust. He wrote in German, the language of his mother’s murderers, because it was the language he knew best, even though the birth of every word repeated the violence.
Vancouver’s Bernier-Cormier is in a similar bind. His oral tongue is French yet he writes in English, the language of the people who drove his people from Acadia because they refused to swear allegiance to the British king. That they swore allegiance only to the land and not England’s enemy, France, was ignored. Bernier-Cormier acknowledges that English is not the language he knows best, yet it is the only one he can write fluently in. He illustrates the dilemma well in his visual poem “Courant | Stream”:
In other poems, imagery gives him a path to voice. As it comes from bodily experience, it is connected to lost land in ways that would remain silent and powerless if poetry didn’t communicate it. Here’s an example:
I don’t always pick
when I write or what I write about,
that more often than not, the page
is a sky waiting for weather.
He continues these transformations throughout Entre Rive and Shore by experimenting with combining French and English. The experiments start hesitantly, but grow in power as the book progresses. I hope we see more in his next work.
A Kwantlen First Nation resident, Dandurand’s first lost language is Kwantlen. A second is the language of his body moving easily through its own space. With an imagination responding innately to its environment, his bodily journey fishes and dances through his English language stories. With intense kinetic energy, we feel his heart beat as a drum at a winter ceremony, form itself into a fist and strike out in a brawl, dance with traditional footwork, and get led off into the rhythms of Catholic liturgy and the call and response patterns of the catechism. None last for long. All return to an interwoven sequence of braids of flowing water.
This kinetic narrative settles into honest, direct storytelling stripped of the influence of settler culture. Dandurand shifts his weight from foot to foot, or rocks himself back and forth from line to line, telling the story of abuse in residential school, alcoholism, drugs, incarceration in psychiatric institutes, the loss of loved ones, the living dead, the redemption of children, and his (Fraser) river.
The major transformers in this work are chum salmon. Dandurand sets out fishing. He works hard to bring salmon into his boat. He hauls them home, guts them, gives many away, keeps some to eat, sells some, dries the rest for the winter, and returns their bones to the water for them to be reborn.
His bones are poems, too. They remember when some of the Kwantlen left the river, followed the salmon inland, and became a new people. They remember hunger, smallpox, and rebirth. As they set his stories free, they do the salmon’s work, reclaiming, in “Kind Words,” the land’s and water’s voices, out of the unsettling experience of English:
and we pick the hundreds of fish from the net
and that is the end of the day as we have caught
enough and tomorrow we will drum and sing
and pray and throw our nets out.
This wisdom is in narrative poems, not political position papers—an example of Kwantlen educational methods in action. There are no lectures here, only immersive gifts of sight, not all of them easy ones, as “The Familiar Scent” notes—
and liars gorge themselves on overcooked fish and carrots
and rice and lemon pie and when they are done
the black birds sweep in and take over the empty tables…
By reading them, the wisdom flows into us, like his river. What frustrates Dandurand is people who ask him to respond to poetry that is not a story rising from the land in this way. He writes, in “Poetic Inspiration,”
I just want to keep writing
in peace without the drama of telling them
that they really need to live more.
The official history of British Columbia is one of settlement and development, all matched by unsettlement and loss. There are thousands of empty Indigenous settlements in the territories British Columbia claims, and thousands of colonial ones. Even global Vancouver takes part. Settled neighbourhoods become marginal, are unsettled, redeveloped, and then settled again, always more into an imagined city than into the land and water that have imagined it.
We all share this story. In Shapeshifters, Valin, a writer residing on traditional and unceded Snuneymuxw territory in central Vancouver Island, makes it very clear that to develop and settle such stories as land and water is to scar the bodies of people who are of that land-and-water.
For her, the scarring includes innocence, mis-placed trust, and rape.
Per “Storytelling,” it includes negative body images, a lack of reflections of herself in social environments, and confinement in a social world as silent about complexity as the English that forcibly replaced her ancestral languages, Michíf, Nehiyaw, Saulteaux, Canadian French, and Czech with a language that did not connect with the women’s bodies through which the land speaks—
They aren’t alone in inheriting
vocabulary. Mine, for instance,
outcast. For instance, loser.
this Cinderella slipper fits,
shards of glass bound
to me by the heat of nameless
It is also a language that contains the trauma that haunted Celan and still haunts Bernier-Cormier. In the same poem, Valin writes in simultaneous joy and pain of her origin story:
The blond onlooker
is a great-grandfather
seeing a great-grandmother
wash her feet by the shore.
It is, however, also a language of love, acceptance, and trust. Valin writes finely-shaped and sophisticated responses to the formal traditions of Canadian English language verse. Language flows strongly here, reclaiming the developed and settled social spaces called “self” and “society,” which Valin has experienced directly through a long series of therapies for divergence. Here is room for the kind of anger that Dandurand used to fight against with his fists and try to deaden with drink. Like Bernier-Cormier, Valin finds a space to move between the settled buildings (words) and streets (grammar) of English, as much a colonial language mapped onto the land as British Columbia’s roads, cities, laws and streets. This is a space of transformative visions. Consider “Here’s What Happened,” for example:
A portal swallows me at twenty-two, twenty-five, twenty-seven. Sometimes I emerge elegant, slender, teeth bleached white. And I meet the relentless sharpness of each repeating world: there are the same discarded cigarette butts, there’s my classmate’s cratered arm used up like an ashtray. I dive into these shimmering pools so often I get portal-sick.
This is visionary, transformative shamanic imagery and experience. That the combined weight of language loss, bodily estrangement, and scarring have not prevented poetry from providing an environment in which it can speak through her, is a gift, and not just for Valin.
Given that English, the dominant vehicle for British Columbian speech, has a habit of extending colonial perceptions, this kind of message from the Earth through bodies is welcome. For all its glories and capacities, English is neither the ancestral language of most of us in British Columbia nor a language connected socially to land and water. My ancestral language, for example, is German, yet I write in English. In German, I can write more deeply of land and visions rising from social connections with it, but it’s German land. It has a deep call, yet the basalt regimes within British Columbia that have formed my bones have a stronger one.
Selina Boan knows such two-world experiences intimately, too. Her lost tongue is nehiyaw, a language which, she notes, “created the world.” In her work, nehiyaw creation blends with white settler roots. The results display passion, playfulness, wonder, a grounding in Earth and bodily experience, many hurts and losses, and an accomplished sense of European form. To this blending of cultures, she brings the energy of a specific diverse intelligence, synaethesia, the ability to view information from one sense in another. That’s how Boan puts it, at any rate, when she set aside the struggle to learn her language from Twitter, and in the poem “have you ever fallen in love with a day?” takes on the more pleasurable task of learning it from bodies instead:
for every forest or room u touch every spot there is light
It is exciting how this ability and an Indigenous experience of land, body, and water match. These are poems that don’t just speak about experience, hard as it has been, but embody it and set it flowing. Like Dandurand, Boan’s past moves through her poems.
In “ongoing conversation with nitôn,” there is dance, quilt making, a language of blended word forms, and exquisite verse-making in European traditions:
ur grief holding
like a day, inside
prayer for endless sky
tumble and fling
language like a lighter
like a flame turning to dance
The blend is masterful. With such achievement and promise, Vancouver’s Boan represents one of the young people, the new ancestors, leading the older ones, such as Dandurand, myself, and British Columbia into wholeness again, both as individuals and as a community united with all living things. As she observes in “my mother’s oracle cards said,”
I’ll keep sticking notes to the wâsênikan till i learn
body blending kisses for no one but the ground
and my grandmothers.
English might divide this united, multigenerational bodily energy into “land,” “fish,” and “people,” but these four poets do not. Instead, they bring gifts of transformation, voice, inclusion, and vision.
Harold Rhenisch has written some thirty books from the Southern Interior since 1974. He won the George Ryga Prize for The Wolves at Evelyn (Brindle & Glass, 2006), a memoir of German immigrant life from the Similkameen to the Bulkley valleys. His other grasslands books are Tom Thompson’s Shack (New Star, 1999) and Out of the Interior (Ronsdale, 1993). He lived for fifteen years in the South Cariboo and has worked closely with the photographer Chris Harris on Spirit in the Grass (2008), Motherstone (2010), and Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2016), as well as on The Bowron Lakes (2006), all published by Country Lights; and he writes the blog Okanagan-Okanogan. He is working on Commonage, a history of the Okanagan region, highlighting the American history of Father Charles Pandosy and situating the roots of the Commonage land claim in the North Okanagan in American colonial practice in Old Oregon. Editor’s note: Harold Rhenisch has recently reviewed books by Robert Bringhurst, Rayya Liebich, Sarah de Leeuw, Roger Farr, Stephan Torre, Don Gayton, and Calvin White for The British Columbia Review. His recent book Landings (Burton House, 2021) was reviewed by Luanne Armstrong; The Tree Whisperer (Gaspereau, 2021) was reviewed by Adrienne Fitzpatrick. Harold lives in Vernon.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: 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 now 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. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster