Poetry Review by Stephen Morrissey

Susan Ouriou, ed., and Christelle Morelli, trans., Languages of Our Land, Indigenous Poems and Stories from Quebec, Langues de Notre Terre, Poèmes et Récits Autochtones du Québec (Banff: Banff Centre, 2014). Paperbound, 176 pp., $18.95.

Languages of Our LandIf you read Languages of Our Land / Langues de Notre Terre with any preconceptions about Indigenous writing, then you will be surprised by these twelve writers from Quebec; they are all unique and talented voices. All of these authors write in French and for the most part they live either north of or in the Quebec City region.

I suspect that many readers of this book will be English-speaking. What might be interesting for them is to read the English translation and the French text together. Don’t just ignore the original text; even with thirty-year-old high-school French you can benefit from this reading. With no offense to Christelle Morelli, who translated this book into English, you will see the limitation of translation. There is an almost ineffable quality to a text in its original language that can elude even the best translator. For instance, here is the beginning of Mélina Vassiliou’s wonderful poem “Birthing/Writing.” In English the text is flat: “birthing / writing // writing / my future.” But in the original French you have the wonderful sound of the words, as Mélina Vassiliou wrote them; they have a vigour not found in the English translation. Here is the same passage in French: “progéniture / écriture // écriture / mon futur.” These are powerful words in French, and you can get the full force of the words by reading them out loud several times, “écriture / mon futur”—“écriture / mon futur.” It becomes mantra-like, an inspiring motto reminding poets that the profundity of our existence lies in communicating our vision, it is our present and our future.

In “Roadblock 138–Innu Resistance,” the Innu poet Réal Junior Leblanc asks, “How can we / defend our heritage / and our children’s future / against the moneyed giants?” I used to live near the New York state border on Route 138, the highway that Leblanc refers to. It is mostly a secondary highway that runs its 1400-kilometre length slightly diagonally east and west through country and city across the province of Quebec. In some ways, this road is an asphalt soul of the province connecting, linking, joining people from north to south. I am reminded of the Mohawk blockade of the Mercier Bridge, on Route 138 as it enters Montreal, back in 1990, and the reaction of the majority of the population against this manifestation. Any answer for Leblanc’s question, “how can we defend our heritage?” is both difficult and complicated; however, Leblanc writes, “I weep / for all the rivers / they will divert / for all the forests / they will plunder / for all the lands / they will flood / for all the mountains / they will raze // To them, I will say always / from the depths of my soul / No.”

It might be difficult to maintain a “No” when the force of modernity and so-called progress surround one. So much is political in Quebec: French, English, First Nations. We who live here know that our identity is in the language, or languages, one speaks; it is our endless conversation, our endless dance. Even though writing in French, Manon Nolin, in her poem “The Land of My Language,” is referring to her Innu-aimun—her Innu language:

Roots of our ancestral lands
a word, a language
that of my ancestors
bear my promised land

The language of my cradle
becomes my land
and so the territory of my tongue
remains my life’s Innu-aimun.

If poetry is the voice of the human soul, as I believe it is, then these Indigenous writers are the voice of the soul of their community. As editor Susan Ouriou writes in her Introduction, they bring to us a “reinterpretation of history and a rediscovery of spirit.” There is so much of interest in Languages of Our Land / Langues de Notre Terre that I regret not being able to discuss each author in some detail. However, perhaps the poet Johanne Laframboise speaks for all of the writers in this book when she writes, “One cannot kill / poetry // it withstands all / for us // we owe it to ourselves / to be poets / in this century” (“Emergence”). “One cannot kill / poetry” is a statement of survival and transformation and a wonderful affirmation of the creative spirit. These writers bear witness to their vision and their community in this excellent anthology.

—Stephen Morrissey

As in The Malahat Review, 197, Winter 2016, 135-137