The Malahat Review - Burning in this Midnight Dream
Reviewed by: George Elliott Clarke
In her fourth poetry collection, Burning in This Midnight Dream, Louise Bernice Halfe hath achieved a canonical work of Anglo-Canadian letters, one that will always be as relevant as the Constitution and First Nations and Crown Treaties. In this book, which is less a traditional collection than it is a putative drama, the Cree poet, also known as Sky Dancer, excavates the voices and stories buried in the volumes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report on the sadistic “Christianity” and cultural genocide pedagogy of the Residential Schools. Those verbs—”excavates” and “buried”—are too often literally applicable in Sky Dancer's recovery (in two senses) project due to the murderous oppression and exploitation to which generations and thousands of Indigenous children were subjected, and the resultant side effect of suicidal depression for suddenly childless parents, as well as for the sudden, de facto orphans stranded in a Hell of deviant clerics and fiendish nuns. Halfe follows in the documentary-poem tradition of Dorothy Livesay, whose “Call My People Home,” presents a collage of voices of 1940s Japanese-Canadian fishermen, swept up from West Coast harbours and dispatched to sugar-beet farms on the prairies, due to both war hysteria and the greed-fuelled racism of B. C. whites craving their neighbours' boats and outfittings. So Halfe documents the Canuck Gulag, the outposts of government in which Native children were immured—and injured—so as to become Christian and capitalist, even if they could never be Caucasian.
These poems are confessions, witnessings. Each poem, beginning usually with a Cree title and its English translation, testifies to odious sins and wanton crimes, but also to the presence of speakers whose beauty is their strength, whose triumph is their survival. Yet, nowhere does Sky Dancer indicate where or how she found these poems. It is only my guess that she has had access to some of the papers of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. If I am wrong, then she has gleaned these lyrics from the sayings of friends, family members, and even from her own memories. No matter the actual origin of these poems, they exude urgent and plangent authenticity.
Introducing this volume, historian Paulette Regan casts these lyrics as “teachings.” I differ. Rather, these oral testimonies are retorts to everyone who imagines the Residential Schools were staffed by Mr. Dress-Up and Mary Poppins and that the system was a déclassé Disneyland. No: these poems are, in a sense, epitaphs to Louis Riel. Had his second Northwest Rebellion succeeded, French and Cree would be the official languages of Saskatchewan and the abuse and brainwashing of Indigenous kids would not have happened. Thus, it is not extravagant to name the schools as concentration camps for the youth of a conquered but dissident people.
The sequence opens appropriately with “Dedication to the Seventh Generation,” wherein a chronicling griot advises, “Hold your soul / but do not weep.... / Weep for those who haven't yet sung. / Weep for those who will never sing.” Sky Dancer's persona asserts that the work of mourning is not for ourselves or for our own era, but rather for those not yet even conceived, who will also feel the repercussions (the wrongs of teachers and administrators), these supposedly long-past griefs lingering on to even the seventh generation. Another lyric instructs us that the incarcerated children were victims, were innocent: “Confusion was the ultimate glutton. / He came from far away / wore black robes and carried a crucifix. / He was armed with laws, blankets, / and guns. / He fixed us with a treaty / that he soon forgot.”
Homespun diction supports homely deductions. ”Fixed” can be read triply as “castrated,” or “did us in,” or “held us fast”—imprisoned us.... The Rez was made a jail. Also, one cannot overlook the effect of the simple, declarative phrases that, as they accumulate in our consciousness (if not consciences), begin to draft a martyrology: ”Sometimes when I walk my left ankle calls, / buckles and I stumble. / When I was young / stumbling was a frequent conversation / between my ankle and my heart.”
Crucially, the principal lesson of the Residential School was violence, violation, viol (rape). Granted license to outrage modesty and mock virginity, the clerical pedagogues did the Devil's work with gusto, or so one witness indicates in “nepewisiwin - shame”: “When I was in the plundering school / I often visited the confessional. / The earth moved under me / and my knees wobbled into the pew. / A rolling plough wind darkened / the small light above the priest's head / and bile spewed from my mouth.” These lines may or may not disclose an instance of sexual battery. However, it is impossible to not think so, given the Hemingway-echo of “earth moved” and the wobbly knees (a result of standing or kneeling in a sex act), and the “bile” could be either cussing or the by-product of fellatio. Soon, we do read of the speaker's “morning breath foul from the confessional,” while “hail mary's slid down my belly.” I shouldn't stress this sexual reading; it's possible that the poem gives an account of an alienated girl, jealous about another girl. Yet, I find the poem enables a doubled reading. The effect of all this sexualized instruction is that, later, the speaker sees herself as being “a dog-in-heat.”
Burning in This Midnight Dream is rich with arresting language, startling, vivid, and utterly original—”indigenous” to Sky Dancer I'm tempted to say—diction. Her imagery seethes with her patented knowing—of weakness, folly, anger, need, and the endless damage of profound wounds:
I dream I wore a skin of X's across my chest
and down my torso. Granny prints of the midnight world.
Thick lenses moved inside my skull
magnifying but still I could not see.
The X awkwardly signed by my great-grandmother
another burned ink onto my skin for Treaty Six ....
I was earth, burning in this midnight dream.
The documentary aspect of the poetry is augmented by Sky Dancer's inclusion of vintage photos, black-and-white, which show Indigenous families, citizens, as simply themselves, not as anthropological subjects. That these persons are likely relatives to Sky Dancer underlines the truth that, although she's a poet—and the former Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan, she is not merely a chronicler of memories and fears and anxieties, but is herself—as well as family members—a survivor of the oppression to which her lyrics attest.
Occasionally, and only arguably, the poetry, descending from speech—oral prose—risks paling into mere prose. Yet, even these moments are tinged with the contradictory beauty (or Keatsian truth) of horror. In the end, though, Sky Dancer's performances of verbal witness are formidable, overpowering, nightmarish, bien sûr, but suffused with the light of eventual—or potential—reconciliation. I believe these poems are deathless, for their witness is timeless.