33. Katherena Vermette, North End Love Songs
I’m not totally convinced that I’m the best person to write about Governor General’s Award-winning poet and novelist Katherena Vermette’s book North End Love Songs, since I’ve never spent much time in Winnipeg and I’ve never made the trip up Main Street to Winnipeg’s North End, the place explored in these poems. And I always feel some trepidation, as a môniyâw, whenever I set out to say anything about a book by an Indigenous writer. But North End Love Songs is a book about place, and I’ve been reading and thinking about and writing about books about place, so it might not be completely out of line for me to think out loud about these poems in this space.
Like Chelsea Coupal’s Sedley, another book of poems about place I’ve been reading, North End Love Songs is an autobiographical portrait of what it’s like to grow up as a young woman in a particular space. But whereas Sedley is about growing up in a rural and white community in Saskatchewan, North End Love Songs is about a very different experience, urban and Indigenous. There are four sections in North End Love Songs. The first, “Poised for Flight,” imagines the good and bad experiences of an Indigenous girl growing up in Winnipeg’s North End through birds. Not all of the poems in that section of the book draw on that conceit, but most of them do. There is a fragility suggested in these poems, as well as a potential for something else, realized or not. But most of all, there’s a sense of foreboding as in “chickadee”:
chickadee loves sun
sits in it all summer
singing the song
when she’s thirteen
she stays at her granny’s
for a summer
the house has a long
screened in porch
that smells like
spilt beer and old people
the floor crunches
with sunflower seed shells
an old man hangs out there
watches the sun
through the screen
when she meets him
he looks her up and down
and up again
well he sighs through
you must be your mother’s (20)
The sun-loving chickadee is transformed into a girl in a musty (and, I assume, shady) screened-in porch, confronting a nameless old man. Who is this old man? If he were her grandfather, wouldn’t he be identified as such? Is he her grandmother’s partner? Someone else? Isn’t there something creepy, even lascivious, in the way he looks at the girl? How does he know her mother? There is a sense of innocence that’s perhaps about to be lost in this poem, as in the other poems in this section. The lines, here and elsewhere in the book, are short, blunt, straight-forward, but the movement from one stanza to the next is what gives the poem its power.
Many of the poems in the book are named after streets in Winnipeg’s North End, and that city’s elm trees are ubiquitous. (I had never seen an elm tree until driving through Winnipeg on the way to Regina.) Take, for example, the first part of “bannerman avenue,” the first poem in the book’s second section, “nortendluvsong”:
girl looks down
interlaced like fingers
cup around her
hold her in
grey street goes
fingers making a steeple
a church adorned
in the sun (41)
The suggestion that the elms grasp or hold the human figures in these poems is repeated throughout this section, much like the way that birds returned in the book’s first section: “girls walk back down / bannerman avenue / sip big gulps/ talk too loud // elms curve / above them / like a roof” (55), or “she is with a boy / in the heavy / summer rain / they are dry / under a shroud of trees // impossible elms / so intertwined / the concrete / underneath / barely changes colour // where the boy / leans her against / the soft bark / cups his palms / to her cheeks” (65). But the elms aren’t always so comforting: “in summer the elms / gentle / thick / intertwined / block out sun” (49), or “in winter the elms / black / skeletons” (50).
In fact, the place of the natural world in Winnipeg’s North End is uneasy, troubled: wildflowers, despite their beauty, are poisoned before they “take over / choke out all those / poppies and marigolds / roses and daffodils / no planted flower / stands a chance / against a pack of weeds” (57), and an elm tree, its bark spray painted with a “bright orange / X / a kill mark,” is cut into pieces by a city work crew “as if carving a sculpture / or trimming hair,” not stopping “until the tree is barely / taller than the grass” (63-64). The lives of the people in the North End are similarly threatened. In “Guy,” a classmate of a young girl is repeatedly beaten by his father: “when he shows up / at school all bruised / tells everyone / how he got jumped / she just nods / like everyone else” (47-48). But it’s not all doom and gloom. A quartet of girls sits on the steps of a church, drinking Big Gulps and eating chips and sharing cigarettes, their conversation both a catalogue of bad experiences and a communal sharing. Like the wildflowers setting seed in flower beds, there is life here as well as death; the poems reproduce that vitality even as they suggest the things that threaten it.
In “November,” the book’s third section, Vermette turns to the disappearance of her brother. He loved 1980s pop metal—one poem, “mixed tape,” is structured through a series of song titles by bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe (78-80)—and, the night he disappeared, wore a concert t-shirt and checked “his reflection / in the mirror” (70), agreeing to let his sister borrow one of his sweaters before he left the house. He didn’t come home. His family put up posters, the photo of him “holding the teddy bear / her mother bought / last christmas” (72) undercutting the newspaper headline: “Native Man Missing After Binge” (71). The police do little:
indians go missing
they tell the family
indians go missing
blue suits shrug
no sense looking
he’ll turn up when
he gets bored
or broke (90)
His body was found in the spring, in the river, and identified through dental records. He had tried to cross “a frozen river / not quite frozen” and hadn’t made it “to the other side” (90). The section ends with the poem “epitaph,” the story of a journey to visit the dead boy’s grave. The speaker leaves a rose there, although she doesn’t know if her brother liked roses, “but somehow / it reminds her of / long haired boys with / good intentions / and mischevious smiles // brothers annoying / and kind // lost little boys / just trying to find / their way / home” (97).
The book’s final section is “I Am A North End Girl,” which I understand to be a documentary poem that reproduces the voices of girls and women living in Winnipeg’s North End. Those voices speak of children, of addiction and the sex trade, of illness and domestic violence, but they also speak of graduating from high school, of celebrating “each full moon with a / drum circle” (103), and of strange and comical acts of resistance to the city’s racism and to being undesired at the same time:
. . . when the night’s been too long, when I get bored or
just mad and cold I run out into early morning traffic,
down by Aikins where those fucking white people are
going to their fucking jobs and I yell, “Hey you know
you want some of this!?” or something. The looks on
those faces, shit, you should see, it’s fucking hilarious.
Have to get some attention some time fuck, they all
stopped noticing me there long ago. (103)
Most importantly, though, those voices—or at least the last one—speak of unflinching witness: “but I’ve never / not once / not for one second / looked away” (105). Nor, apparently, has Vermette herself.
These are powerful poems, but they also reiterate the necessity to know a place intimately before trying to write about it. North End Love Songs would have been impossible without a deep knowledge of that place and its people, a knowledge that could only come from growing up there. In that way, North End Love Songs is similar to Warren Cariou’s Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging, or Sarah de Leeuw’s Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16, which are also books that come from the experience of being raised in a particular place (or, in de Leeuw’s case, in particular places). Nevertheless, Nora Gould’s I see my love more clearly from a distance suggests that an outsider to a place can also gain such an intimate knowledge over time. Perhaps that’s the equation for writing about place? Time + experience = knowledge. Could it be that simple? Somehow I doubt it: nothing is ever that simple. I am going to have to continue my research.
Cariou, Warren. Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging. Anchor, 2003.
Coupal, Chelsea. Sedley: Poems. Coteau Books, 2018.
Gould, Nora. I see my love more clearly from a distance. Brick Books, 2012.
de Leeuw, Sarah. Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16. Newest, 2004.
Vermette, Katherena. North End Love Songs. The Muses’ Company, 2012.