Rabble.ca Review - Burning in this Midnight Dream

Reviewed by: Clarissa Fortin

The legacy of colonization: Two poets 'dance with memory' and 'cock a fist'

Experience Canada's residential school history through the eyes of two skilled poets

 

In Burning in this Midnight Dream, Louise Bernice Halfe takes on residential school stories, and other tales of injustice at the hands of Indian Affairs, in a profoundly personal way:

"This afternoon I have my hearing

For Truth and Reconciliation.

I must confess my years of sleeping

In those sterile, cold rooms where the hiss

Of water heaters were devils in the dark

 

I want to walk these thickets

To that far horizon and not look back"

 

[...]

 

Burning in this Midnight Dream tackles the past through the personal

Halfe's book begins as a memoir. From the start she invites the reader into an intimate space:

"Sometimes the end is told before the beginning

One must walk backwards on footprints

That walked forward

For the story to be told

I will try this backward walk."

From here Halfe does take us back, back to her childhood, and to the childhoods of her father and mother, and back all the way to the early settlers, men in black robes carrying the crucifix, "armed with laws, blankets and guns."

This is a startling way to begin a story for me personally as the product of early French Canadians I sometimes hear tales of how my ancestors "built this country." No one ever wants to acknowledge the destruction they left in their wake.

Halfe acknowledges it in a lyrical, personal, and engaging way. She isn't sure what happened to her parents but she can imagine it.

Her mother went to St. Anthony's Residential School and her father to Blue Quills, an Albertan residential school that is now a First Nations owned and operated college. Halfe herself spent time at Blue Quills when it was a residential school.

Her stories are memories of a chaotic homelife. "We were the children/that mother and father tried/yes tried to raise," she tells her readers. She writes memories of parents and siblings fraught with conflict and pain.

In "Residential School Alumni," she remembers the fates of a family: an uncle who shot his wife. The son who died in Vietnam. His brother who died in a police chase. Another brother lost to addiction. And the final brother left alone. "I remember them,"  Halfe says and the strength of the account is in it's simplicity. She does not judge or interpret, just lays the facts of lives and stories in front of us and leaves it to her readers to interpret and try to understand on some level.

In a chilling piece called "The Reserve Went Silent," Halfe imagines the empty spaces left when "the pied piper played his organ through the reservation." It's something her parents never spoke of she says -- so she's speaking of it now.  

In her final poem "Owners of Themselves," Halfe wishes for every teller at the Truth and Reconciliation commission to have two grandchildren beside them as they speak "so they could support the old people as they fell into the dark holes/of memory/and so they also could start to draw the lines that connected sense of self/of those grandchildren to the lives of the old people."

That's what this collection seems to be about in the end -- a Cree writer shaping her own narrative, taking ownership of her own history and revealing her own story on her own terms.

Halfe weaves in and out of recollection and memory to more abstract and fragmented poems. She also includes actual photos of the people whose stories she tells -- her father, mother niece and herself as a child all appear on the pages in black and white making the reality of the narrative hit home for the reader even more effectively.  

Halfe acknowledges the pain of repeatedly telling these stories, but decides that "It is better to dance with memory/than be noosed by the gut."

But when dancing with memory one shouldn't be alone she concludes.

 

 

 

This excerpt is taken from an article of the same name that originally appeared on Rabble.ca which you can access here: http://rabble.ca/books/reviews/2016/04/legacy-colonization-two-poets-dance-memory-and-cock-fist.

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