Poetry Review by Délani Valin

Michelle Porter, Inquiries (St. John's: Breakwater, 2019). Paperbound, 96 pp., $19.95.

InquiriesOf the many people that have alluded to the stage of childhood possessing a sort of “magic”—through innocence, imagination, or some combination of the two—few of them have been able to capture that magic and store it, perhaps in a refrigerator, where it could be well-preserved and taken out, intact, to be experienced rather than to be explained. Michelle Porter makes no outward reference to such a trite thing as childhood magic. Yet her debut collection of poetry, Inquiries, summons a powerful magic nonetheless. For the speaker of these poems—who is Métis, experiences poverty, racism, the hum of instability
that comes with chronic relocation, and who, perhaps most notably, often speaks as an ensemble of children rather than with a singular voice—magic isn’t a party trick: it’s survival, and one of the most powerful spells in the speaker’s arsenal throughout the course of the poems is that of witnessing.

There is no sense of an adult looking back upon their memories here, no sentimentality or any wishful what-could-have-beens. Rather, many of the poems embody the lived experience of a child observing and accepting their realities as they unfold, while others speak from the perspective of the mother of a new generation, facing many of the same challenges from the speaker’s family of origin. To detail difficult scenes of hunger and longing without the spectre of bitterness is a testament to this poet’s empathy and compassion throughout the entirety of this collection.

This empathy is prominent in the poems that imbue appliances, doors, and kitchens with personalities and extend to them that powerful ability of witnessing. These are some of my favourite in the collection—surreal, yet eminently believable. In “The Fridge Thinks about Moving Out,” the family refrigerator laments a time before the obligations of feeding hungry kids: “Children expect things / the fridge will tell you that, / even when they learn to expect nothing / you can see it in their faces, / the low-wattage bulbs / that light up when any door opens a crack.” This deft passage provides a parallel between children and fridge, both of whom ultimately rely on others to fill their bellies. Taken another way, the fridge becomes the burdened “Mama,” with her wanting children at her feet. But it is kinder to veil the mother’s ambivalence by casting it into an appliance, allowing the humans in the poem to be afflicted with something physical, like hunger—something tangible and guiltless.

Hunger is also visited in “Métis Mother Returning from the Grocery Store, Alberta.” The speaker is a group of children helping their mother carry groceries back on their bus. Struggle is witnessed in ardent details, as the mother “scrapes the bus fare from the lining of her purse” and wants to “take a break from creating the world” as her children are “borrowing her eyes to see places you’ve never been, holding stories you’ve never lived, grafting futures not meant to be yours.”

Yet while figures such as Mama often appear towering throughout the collection, as is often the case when caregivers are seen through a child’s eyes, the poems remain grounded in unsentimental authenticity. Small, dexterous poems that pack meaning and nuance—sometimes in less than ten lines—offer scepticism and counter-narratives that cut through the risk of rose-tinted nostalgia by surrounding the adults with honest humanity. In “The Es,” the speaker recounts a time in school during which she had to write about her mother: “She wrote ‘my friend / and my foe’ with the Es / finally facing the right way. On / the way home, she wondered / which mother would be waiting.” This illustrates the speaker’s sense of awareness and balance. It is a skilful way of exploring the shock of awakening to a parent’s duality
while honouring the child’s perspective.

Inquiries features rich motifs of kitchens, relatives, appliances as storytellers, fiddles, rhythm through skilful repetition, and well-timed rhymes. Surprising instances of these elements are found in “If the Table Had Been Stronger,” with playfully dark lines: “Mama fell and turned the tables. / She wanted to belong to us, but / Mama lied and fed us fables. / Legs and arms were strong and able, / She could have been our safe house—but / Mama fell and turned the tables. / Mama’s telling rocked our cradles. / Our tales might have been longer, but / Mama lied and she fed us fables.” The poem has the aura of a nursery rhyme, juxtaposed effectively against the hard truth of the children’s experience. It also adds to the diversity of poetic forms found throughout the collection.

While Inquiries explores difficult themes like poverty, the tensions inherent in having to adjust to city life, and what it means to be home when home is always in flux, the collection is highly readable. It skilfully punctuates emotions like anger and grief with liveliness and humour. The poems are deeply anchored in Métis culture and identity, and I saw myself reflected in these pages—in the warmth of family, the integration of narratives from the past, and the yearning for home. And with the chorus of children who speak most of these poems, Porter sings a song of countless more who grew up bewildered, armed only with the dual spells of witnessing and acceptance. Inquiries is that rare magic act that shows me someone else’s world while making me feel seen.

—Délani Valin

As in The Malahat Review, 211, summer 2020