Listening to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson recite her poetry begets poetry. I quickly fall in step with her cadence. She carefully parts the clouds with language.
I was lying on the grass looking up at clouds in a perfect summer sky when I first heard Simpson perform her poetry last summer at the Peterborough Folk Festival. Nick Ferrio was backing her up on the dobro: “bubbling, beating, birthing, breathing“. Her delivery was clear but soft and reminded me a little of Laurie Anderson, although there was no mistaking the personal meaning of the words. But the music of that poetry wasn’t just the music of a perfect summer day, because I heard it again at the Barbeside in the early dark of December with a few inches of white stuff greasing the roads at the launch of her latest book, Islands of Decolonial Love.
In her previous book, Dancing on our Turtle’s Back, Simpson lays down semantic foundations for indigenous resurgence, among them 4 important cornerstones of Anishnaabe philosophy: Biskaabiiyang (to look back), Aanjigone (non-interference), Naakgonige (to plan), Debwewin (truth or sincerity).1 The extensive footnotes of this book are a subtext in themselves. Her contemporary teachers and elders are named, and words are carefully defined. It’s not just about the grammar, or the correct pronunciation, or the People’s names for places and things, it’s an excavation of the shale of the language; it’s 2 languages paddling in tandem down the river of the present; and the seeds of resurgence are sewn graciously throughout the book. I try to pronounce the Nishnaabemowin words to myself to imprint them on my consciousness, because I think words have power even if you don’t completely understand their nuances.
Drawing from both published texts and oral histories, she carefully reconstructs some of the precepts that comprise mino bimaadiziwin – living in a good way. These complex concepts require empathy and respect for oneself and all forms of life, seen and unseen, as well as a clear and carefully considered path. She likens the current relationship with the government of Canada to “an abusive relationship where one person is being abused physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally,” 2 for which empty apologies obviously don’t suffice. Her storytelling connects to and reframes history, imparting ethical teachings and empowering individuals in concert with the collective to vision a better world. “My Creation Story tells me another world is possible and that I have the tools to vision it and bring it into reality. I can’t think of a more powerful narrative.” 3
In Islands of Decolonial Love she shakes off the academic hat and gets her hands dirty. Yet the concepts of her research are embodied within this fiercely present book of poetry and fiction. This book completes a circle, ending with a story called gwekaanimad, a description of “that big nishnaabeg parade,” which could be the same one described in the first chapter of Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, after an event that took place in Peterborough at the 2009 Ode’min Giizis festival.
In Simpson’s words, the book is “about the nation inside.” Her writing is never forced, it isn’t tidy, it leaks off the page into my reality, it rearranges my thought patterns, it leaves loose ends that become part of my own fabric. “And you with your fortress of nice,” she writes in a poem called spacing and it strikes a nerve. There are suicide attempts and thunderbirds, ice fishing and sugar bushes, sexual encounters and spirit bears, spawning salmon and city parks, therapy, cottages, cars and canoes – all the worlds of a contemporary Anishnaabe collide and reassemble in her stories.
“There is heartbreak here but also many moments of fleeting grace, and a wry humour that promises to keep us safe, ” comments local writer Ursula Pflug.
To me the poems are best heard rather than seen, but when I see them on the page I remember how they sound, how she said them. True to form Simpson offers us a giveaway of these poetry readings, available online for listening or download from her publisher ARP Books, with soundtracks composed and performed by some of our best-loved local musicians – Nick Ferrio, Sean Conway, Tara Williamson, Sarah DeCarlo as well as Chris Derksen on cello, A Tribe Called Red and Melody McKiver. It was voted one of the Top 10 Indigenous Albums of 2013 by RPM: “bridging many worlds, storylines, generations, and forms of creativity with effortless poetics and heartbreaking, deceptive simplicity, Leanne Simpson was the only Anishinaabekwe that we know of who dropped a full-volume of published stories and poetry in tandem with a collaboratively composed album of the same.”
I think to myself, who am I to attempt a critique of this work – I don’t even have a clan.
1 Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence, Arbeiter Ring Publishing, Winnepeg, MB, 2011, 49.
2 Ibid, 21.
3 Ibid, 42.