Poetry Review by Amanda Merritt

Selina Boan, Undoing Hours (Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2021). Paperbound, 96 pp., $18.95.

Undoing HoursIn her debut collection, Undoing Hours, Selina Boan challenges her reader to reach further than the oed, requesting an attention of the mind as well as the heart to the matter of how something, or someone, comes to mean: “[A]sk / what is the history / of a word” and will you discover “a field of hours …” “pulled apart like the insides of a clock,” “a love story that doesn’t travel all the way to the end.” This preoccupation turns the speaker inward: “to read herself past syntax,” she must seek a remembrance that belongs with the body and is beyond it.

Boan grapples with the dilemma of origins in many of her poems. She alludes to the structural inequities that prohibit many from calling a piece of land their own, and with grace confronts the paradox of one’s desire to own that which is “not ours to name.” “[P]art prairie, part invasion,” Boan attempts to re‐collect the self that is the product of an enduring colonial legacy, one that is shaped by the “violence [that] forms a country,” and the systemic silence that maintains it, as in “how to find your father”:

4. as a kid, learn quick that being native is okay as long as you aren’t too native, as long as your skin is as yt as it is, as long as you’re pretty, and you fit in with the other yt kids, and you don’t talk too much, don’t make ppl uncomfortable, read fantasy books at lunch against the portable.

The process of unearthing those “stolen selves …” involves undoing the pain of personal disappointments; the toxic, colonial narratives that reinforce “the / fear that this body is not where you belong”; the hours of grief, and the grief of displacement. This collection teaches, as it learns, that “if sadness is a legacy so is joy.” Ultimately, this lesson carries the speaker through her grief, allowing the self to heal and transform by remembering through a language of forgiveness not only “where [she] come[s] from,” but also where she is.

Locating herself in time, within the context of her family’s history, is an essential part of the speaker’s journey to realizing herself outside it: “each piece / of self a brand‐new self.” The search for belonging and kinship lead her to the recognition that “being” is not a static concept, but rather an unfolding (“a run, a burn, a beck”):

Your name             a story
of moss tiptoeing its way along the
underbelly of language

Having lost a lover and a father in the same month, the speaker returns to the source of her pain through a new language. The collection begins with the breakup, the speaker’s search for her estranged father, and the challenge of learning his language. Throughout, we follow the speaker across the lake of her losses, learning in nêhiyawêwin the name for father and brother, for lonely and after. On one shore she seeks her lineage, “strangers with the same cheeks, smiling numbly.” On the other, she ritualizes release, “my everyday unbuttons itself out of yours.” It is in these tender moments where this collection sings truest.

The full range of human emotion captured in this collection is barely contained by the page. Boan’s long lines are expansive and challenge convention by simulating enjambment with the use of backslash, while also reproducing the linguistic compression born of instant messaging. Few poems explicitly call attention to their sonic devices, with the exception of those poems about the meaning and pronunciation of Cree words. Boan’s natural cadence has its own distinct music and wisdom. The mid‐way point of the book turns the reader sideways with the poem “minimal pairs are words holding hands,” preserving the length of each couplet and at the same time demanding new ways of looking.

This poem explores, rather than defines, the way word pairs in Cree relate to one another by recreating their qualitative meaning to the speaker. This marks a transitional moment in the book, one that moves from the romance of lost love and the anxious idealism of kinship toward an intimacy with loss and longing that characterizes the speaker’s development. The poems in the second half of this collection root themselves in the mess of the body, address the mouth, the heart, “stretch / a kindness over what has been hard …” “that leaves / any pain in the room confessed, ruined.”

Undoing Hours is as much about encountering the self through a new language as it is an elegy to the parts of self that fall away, that are undone before they were ever named. At its core, this collection is a testament to loss and survival. Boan navigates the “bright red possibility / that we can destroy ourselves from the inside out,” while demonstrating in poem after poem that, despite our wounding, “[a] heart does not need a brain or a body to keep beating.” Just as the verbs in nêhiyawêwin are never alone, are always at the centre, so too is our becoming, dependent as we are on the context that transforms us, the people who inspire our grief or hold us through it. With this knowledge Selina Boan has created meaning out of suffering, has answered her own question.

—Amanda Merritt

As in The Malahat Review, 217, winter 2021