Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: Nora Gould

33. Katherena Vermette, North End Love Songs

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
that is
her name:

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
toothless gums
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
bannerman avenue
elms tower
branches overhead
interlaced like fingers
cup around her
hold her in

grey street goes
bone straight
right under
fingers making a steeple
a church adorned

black leaves
across pavement

branches wave
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
they said
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.

Works Cited

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.

31. Nora Gould, I see my love more clearly from a distance

gould i see my love more clearly from a distance

I was asking around about contemporary poetry about place a while back, and my friend Michael Dennis (who blogs about contemporary poetry here) suggested I take a look at Nora Gould’s I see my love more clearly from a distance. I’m so glad he did. It’s a wonderful evocation of place, similar to but so different from the works of creative nonfiction I’ve written about here in the past couple of weeks.

One of the reasons I see my love more clearly from a distance is so powerful is the relationship Gould creates between herself and the ranch in central Alberta where she and her family live, and which is the subject of these poems. In many of the poems, Gould reads (or writes) herself (and particularly her bout of endometriosis and the surgery it occasioned) into the land or the cows she and her husband raise. Take, for example, the poem “Downer cow”:

The bellow, the swing of the head,
scrabble of front legs, the breath,
points north.

Coyotes uncork the belly south,
magpies follow
and if the season’s right, blowflies.

In the hospital room I opened
my eyes to blues, dull gold, white
cranes flying behind the morphine

pump, across the moon: a swath
of fabric I’d tacked on the wall.
And Cousin Matt with yellow tulips. (36)

So much is happening in this poem. The dying and then dead cow in the first two stanzas is written against two of the cardinal directions (“north” when it is dying, “south” after it is dead and the food of coyotes, magpies, and blowfly larvae). But that animal is juxtaposed against Gould herself (these poems are personal and confessional, and it’s clear to me that Gould is speaking of her own experience here) in hospital, waking up after (I think) her operation to the sight of “a swath” of fabric—and “swath” is an important word here, suggesting the way that grains or oilseeds are harvested—and the oddly springlike “yellow tulips” her cousin (or more likely her husband’s cousin, since “Matt” seems to be a common name in his family) had brought to brighten up the room. One animal dies, and another comes back to life. One animal is perhaps dead in winter—isn’t that why she suggests that “blowflies” will only lay their eggs in the dead cow “if the season’s right”?—and the other, given the colours of the fabric and the tulips, is possibly in spring. In that case, the “cranes flying behind the morphine / pump” would be returning: sandhill cranes, perhaps, flying north in spring to mate and breed—an ironic counterpart to Gould’s (I think) hysterectomy.

So that’s one remarkable aspect of these poems: the way Gould writes her own body into the land and its inhabitants (wild and tame). Another is the personification of the land as “Prairie,” the lover of Orion, a homebred mythology of fecundity and, in the current moment, environmental destruction:

Now, pipes in sections, each joint rigid,
drilled deep in her parenchyma, have shifted, mixed
her fluids, frayed, broken her. Her hills
cut down, long scars converge
where flares stillbirth her northern lights

in sorrow. Sorrow, in the silences between her
measured phrases, she tastes air-
borne emissions, switches from her native

tongue. Frac fluid benzene H2S sulphur
dioxide cannot be spoken with coneflower,
ascending milk-vetch; drilling mud with scarlet

mallow. Prairie turns to Orion, toluene blue
in his blood, his fluids
in her, her blood
loose in her body. (12)

The enjambment here suggests, for me, urgency; the brief catalogue of pollutants that “cannot be spoken” with the catalogue of indigenous prairie forbs suggests what is being lost. Such catalogues—of plants, birds, animals—are one of Gould’s default procedures. But she does not only catalogue the natural environment; her use of ranching and farming language brings her readers directly into a world they might know little about, as in “Roundup Ready® canola”:

Jim says if he didn’t use chemicals, his fields would be all
dandelions and other weeds, some of them noxious.
There’s the pre-burn, the in-crop—hopefully only once—and
the desiccant pre-harvest.
He has ag advisors, GPS and weather monitoring.
He juggles degrees of tillage, crop rotation, seed banks and windows
of opportunity with rainfall, frost and his account balance.
He has a washer in his shop for the clothes he wears under his disposable
coveralls, goggles, hat and nitrile gloves. Otherwise the recommendation
is to wash these clothes alone, then run the washer empty
with detergent, the water level set for an extra large load.
Roundup® extended control product prevents weed control in your yard
for up to four months. The label says to wash your hands after use. (19)

Did you know that farmers would keep a washing machine in their shops for the clothes they wear when spraying? I didn’t. The last two lines of the poem shift away from the fields, either to farm yards or, perhaps, urban yards. How many of us have used some version of glyphosate ourselves? How many of us remembered to wash our hands afterwards?

Another aspect of these poems is their openness to thinking about life and death. Both are part of Gould’s world, and both are intrinsic to the place about which she is writing. Here’s a paragraph from “Allan discerns Psalm 29:6,” a prose poem about a hired man, a “preacher’s kid from Burlington” (68) who helps with calving:

Somehow, live birth after live birth: head back, backwards, leg back,
twins. Allan saw nothing dead until he’d fallen in love with the brown
of Prairie’s throat, her collar open to the sun that dried the calf, its head
twisted under a front leg. The open eyes echoed the crescendo of his
prayer nailing flawless imperfection. Selah. (68)

It’s not just dead calves: everything dies, or must be killed. Gould’s four-year-old daughter asks of a dead horse, “how does Deadstock get Lady to heaven?” (96). A “neighbour kid” shoots a coyote and gets $25 for the frozen body: “didn’t have to skin it” (69). Sometimes in these poems death is an assault, and other times it is a mercy, but it is always a part of life, something that cannot be avoided or turned away from.

I find all of this all the more remarkable because Gould, although she hails from Alberta, does not seem to have grown up on a farm. In “Thank you for Seed Catalogue”—the poem’s title references Robert Kroetsch’s epic prairie poem—Gould seems to acknowledge that fact:

With Robert Kroetsch, and Roger Tory
Peterson, and Vance Jowsey and McLean’s
revised and expanded Wild Flowers Across
the Prairies, and Poisonous Plants Agdex 666-2,
you could grasp the prairies, almost, okay you couldn’t,
but they could remind you if you knew,
if you were, through it all, still, gazing
at three-flowered avens, still startled by Horned Larks. (78)

Like the person referred to here—whom I take to be Gould herself, although I could be wrong—I’ve come to know the grassland through Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds (which lists all of the birds that live west of the 100th meridian) and Wild Flowers Across the Prairies. That book knowledge is one thing, but it’s not the same as the men she has met—Art Spencer and Jim—who “knew,” with a knowledge other than “book knowing,” the prairie (78). But the speaker in this poem, and the two men she refers to, are very different from others whose approach to the prairie is domination and destruction: “Men, who think they’re familiar / with what they think is theirs, / figure they can school Prairie with a D9 cat, push / the Great Horned Owls to other land” (78). “Prairie,” here, is a return to the earlier poems in which the grassland is personified, but more importantly, the suggestion this poem makes seems to be that using a bulldozer to teach that the prairie a lesson, or push the birds that live in grassland somewhere else, is worse than futile. Their familiarity with the prairie is superficial; their attempts at teaching involve its destruction.

I wanted to think about this book through Edward Soja’s “trialectics” (262) of Firstspace (perceived space), Secondspace (conceived space), and Thirdspace (lived space). I’ve been wondering if the distinction Soja makes between perceived space and conceived space could be mapped onto the usual distinction made in the social sciences between quantitative and qualitative inquiry. If that’s the case—and it might not be—then we can see elements of both of these in Gould’s poems. Quantitative approaches are suggested in poems which describe the way the ranch is mapped and named, such as “Our place is medium-sized: the school board deals with sparsity and distance issues”:

This land where we till the soil, raise a few
chickens, pasture cattle, goats, horses, is all named
officially by number. The north half of twenty-eight
we call Johnny’s, after the man who stacked his hay
and when he finished that load, let his fork slide
to the ground, slid down after it. The handle
entered him through his groin.

The northwest of four, the Nelson Place with the little girl’s
grave. The northwest of seventeen is where the Scot
built his stone house to overlook the Watson Coulee.
The steep depression that was Johnson’s cellar, where we
found the calf, the cow worrying us during the rescue.
The old shed on thirty-five where we found the steer
dead behind the shut door, the same way
the neighbours had found Kistner in the house. (17)

The quantitative elements of numbering land according to sections and grids (I’m bluffing, of course: I’m no expert on how land is identified for taxation purposes—isn’t that the reason for the reference to “school board” in the poem’s title?—in Alberta) is, of course, overwhelmed by the fragments of stories about those places, the accounts of deaths and rescues that are referred to, obliquely, here. But if I understand Soja correctly, it seems that both Firstspace and Secondspace are present in this poem.

But what of Thirdspace? Can these poems be understood as representations of lived space? As representations, they are pulled back into Secondspace, no doubt, but to what degree can they be read as lived space? Thirdspace, for Soja, is politically engaged; it is a combination of “a strategic attachment to a new cultural politics of difference and identity, and a radical postmodernist critical positioning” that has become the source of writing “from the wider fields of feminist and post-colonial criticism” (272). Gould’s work is not post-colonial, but I would argue that it is engaged in a feminist politics, in the way it looks, without flinching, at the experiences of farm women, and especially in its focus on the body of its author. Does that mean this book could fall into Soja’s definition of Thirdspace? Since bell hooks’s essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” is Soja’s paradigmatic example of Thirdspace, perhaps I need to return to that essay before I can begin to formulate an answer to that question.

What a disappointment: to find myself drawn back into a text I’ve already read. And yet, how inevitable as well. What is not a disappointment, though, is having read Gould’s poems. I wonder how teachable they might be. I’ve been thinking about teaching a course on literary representations of place, and this book would fit that topic very well—so long as the difficulty of these poems does not overwhelm their beauty. That’s something I will have to think about.

Works Cited

Gould, Nora. I see my love more clearly from a distance. Brick, 2012.

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Between the Lines, 1990, pp. 145-53. 

Soja, Edward. “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination.” Human Geography Today. Edited by Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre, Polity, 1999, pp. 260-78.