Poetry Review by Michael Greenstein

Jordan Abel, Injun (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2016). Paperbound, 86 pp., $16.95.

InjunFollowing on the heels of The Place of Scraps and Un/inhabited, Jordan Abel’s third collection of poetry, Injun, shows similarities to his previous experimental work. At first glance, the opening poem appears to be written in conventional free verse: “ he played injun in gods country / where boys proved themselves clean // dumb beasts who could cut fire / out of the whitest1 sand // he played English across the trail / where girls turned plum wild // garlic and strained words / through the window of the night // he spoke through numb lips and / breathed frontier{.}2” While the parallelisms in these alternating unrhymed couplets hold the stanzas together, the numbers after “whitest” and “frontier” initiate a centrifugal reading across the scattered texts that follow.

The poet “plays” with and across words, identities, and cultures from “injun” to “english.” Although he speaks with “numb lips,” “dumb beasts,” and “strained words,” his numbers fly off in tangents throughout the alphabet. If this first poem, designated as “a)” appears stable, Abel soon destabilizes his text by the time we reach the second half of the alphabet from “p)” onwards. In these later “poems,” words disintegrate, letters sprawl as constellations across pages devoid of horizontal or vertical axes. By the end of the sequence, the reader has to read the pages upside down and interpret the last two couplets through the window of night.

The final inverted poem in the alphabet, “z),” displays split words that require the reader to assemble them into coherence:

           as   tea  mham  mer
p lay of p  rinci  ples
a   n d w  earines s

                             an                interc our  se
of     title27   and  po           ssess i o n28

               th at br eak s
th e  fing ers

                               o f the riv er

               and lea ves m e
wild ey ed and
e xasp     erat    e   d

                               by the mu d

                                  sp ru  ng sh or  e

This play of scrap syllables comes together as an intercourse between title and possession. The poet breaks words, even as lands and languages have been broken by colonial power. Fragmented and fugitive pieces lie at the heart of Injun.

In addition to Abel’s inversions, his “[NOTES]” section redirects the alphabetical poems numerically. The first note highlights “whitest” in a vertical column fifteen times, while the horizontal lines flanking that central word are in faded print. The appearance of “whitest” as the blackest word on the page emphasizes the irony of Abel’s subversive texts, where shades of grey and blank spaces question western stereotypes. “Frontier” is the second note that refers back to “breathed frontiers”—oral tradition challenging historical notions of geography and colonization. The third note refers to “truth,” the authoritarian version contested by Indigenous precedents.

Further “notes” include tenderness, gold, reserve, silence, discovery, boiled, slanted, bordering, territory, money, warpath, land, business, prospect, squaw, thankful, bloody, scalped, redskin, country, west, half-breed, faith, title, and possession. This highly charged lexicon underlines the ambiguities and subversive strategies in Abel’s universe.

Following the notes section is a prose appendix, a western narrative that features a blank space where the word “injun” should appear. Also under erasure is the word “injunction,” as the writer creates a dialectic between the legalistic restraining injunction and the freedom-seeking “injun.” The telltale tall tale begins: “The boys from the other herds—good men, too—kept shooting them into the water, and inside fifteen minutes’ time we were in the big Territory.” Fluid identities between boys and men extend to overlapping cowboys and Indians, half-breeds and hybrids, varieties of genres, and geographical blurring of territories and frontiers.

“Jim was an Indian of the old school, and the old school did a great deal of its talking by signs.” Abel’s writing belongs to a new school whose signs challenge more traditional semiotics. Through unusual typography, his trickster of texts unsettles notions of language, genre, culture, and identity. His appendix concludes: “You’ll equal an                 if you keep on.” Equality and equations are never exact, while the story that “keeps on” never arrives at a conclusion. Process and project carry on from book to book, and teller to tale.

The politics and poetics of Injun come into clearer focus when viewed against the backdrop of Abel’s earlier collections. The larger format of his first book, The Place of Scraps, contains many blank pages and others filled with illustrations of totem poles, as Abel engages with an anthropologist who tried to preserve Indigenous art while simultaneously damaging it. The title points to the dispersal of native communities, as well as the author’s methodology of displacing scraps of words across pages. Alphabetical blurring and shape-shifting recur in his second book, Un/inhabited. He inhabits and un-inhabits his place of scraps in Injun. With each successive book, his writing becomes more familiar and recognizable, and smaller in format.

Diminished in size, Injun nevertheless has the same astonishing impact as his earlier work in re-establishing the presence of Indigenous culture against silence and absence. Techniques of collage and pastiche restore the margins, invert dichotomies of paleface and redskin, and rearrange legends, myths, and rituals. The poet outlines his process: “Sometimes I would just write down how the pieces fell together.” Through all of his un-making, un-marking, and un-masking, Abel recreates infinite citizens in the ceremonies of his shaking tents and texts. Injun’s brackets alert us not only to what is enclosed, but also to what has escaped.

—Michael Greenstein

As in The Malahat Review, 197, Winter 2016, 128-132