Alberta Views Review - Burning in this Midnight Dream

Reviewed by: Christine Wiesenthal

A single poem in Louise Bernice Halfe's fourth poetry colection seems to stand out, bound to the title of a specific date: "April 30, 2014." Recounting the raw, "frost-bitten" day that the Cree poet prepared to face "my hearing / for Truth and Reconciliation," this poem, foreboding an awful emotional trial before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), is actually representative of the much more difficult task which the poet sets for her gripping volume as a whole. With remarkably firm determination, Burning in this Midnight Dream explores the anguished confusion of Halfe's traumatic upbringing in a family and a community ripped asunder by the residential school system, endemic racism, and internalized "lessons" of sexual abuse and self-alientation. In doing so, Halfe--also known by her Cree name Sky Dancer--deploys poetry as a powerful mode of ancillary testimony. At the same time, this is a poetic witness that excavates the autobiographical past in order to move resolutely forward. If the dedication page photograph of the poet's young grandchildren doesn't signal this, the anticipatory purpose is soon made clearn in "sīpihkēyihta--endure": "I've thought of you generations ahead / and your need to understand."

One of the truths that Halfe's poems insist readers must try to understand is the sher difficulty of even articulating an indigenous experience at once intensely intimate and historical in magnitude. Poems such as "Residential School Alumni" grimly record the overwhelming odds against such telling. But the effort it costs to tell the truth is also honoured in unflinching detail. "I've struggled tonight with what needs to be pulled / from my gut," as Halfe writes in "pakosēyimo--hope." From the perspective of a survivor of the residential schools (or the children of such survivors), the TRC looms as an excruciating demand: "Now others ask me to turn my / skin inside out. / They want to know / how I survived this hot-coal trail." Halfe reminds us that the personal costs of decolonization--mobilizing wrenching memories of loss, humiliation and violence--entail work, a difficult labour requiring both particular inner strength and external support. 

Ultimately it is "tipiyawēwisīw--ownership of oneself" that emerges as a keynote of Halfe's volume. Tracing the life's journey of one Cree woman who finds the strength to peel back her self-protective "turtle" shell and confront the world with her inner truths, the poet is inescapably changed by pain, but also reinforced in strength. As Paulette Regan writes in her foreword to the collection: "These poems are testimonies of truth, justice, and healing...They unsettle us in a good way." 

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