Rita Bouvier’s third collection of poetry, nakamowin’sa for the seasons, is a book of free verse that quietly persuades the reader to consider “a different way of being” when entering the work. Beginning with the title, nakamowin’sa, a Cree term that translates to ‘little songs’ in English, would suggest the songs are light renderings of experiences by a poet. But Bouvier understands the struggles and racial oppression of her ancestors who rowed the York boats, guided the missionaries/explorers in their attempts to adapt to a Eurocentric world. As an Indigenous educator, the poet in the poems encounters banal racism, disillusionment, institutional oppression, empty nest syndrome, love, lust and loss. In this sense, she identifies with the Métis of Ile a la Cross, who survived, despite adversity, by giving vocal expression to an untenable situation.
In poems like “songs to sing,” she says the reasons the Métis were able to survive and thrive was because of the belief in “wahkohtowin” or a deep understanding of being in relationship to ll life. In “wordsong for Ernesto,” a poem about the Mayans, her allusion to the Métis of Ile a la Cross is clear: “…make their living / as they have always done from the land / from the sea / where they can / whenever they can.” This arduous subsistence living described in the Mayans and shared by the Métis required a faith in the land providing. It also required a profound belief that (miyo wahkohtowin – the goodness of our relationships with all living things) would affect the practice of acting in a “balanced and respectful way” even in the face of adversity, and that this way of being in the world would ultimately promote sustainability and survival.
Songs were one way of dealing with hardship or adversity in a “good” way, and the songs the Métis sang to sustain them inspires Bouvier to persevere in her work as an educator today. These poems are rich in tropes about sound/silence, songs and singing. However, Bouvier’s poems are not about merely listening with the ear. They are about a different way of being, of listening with the heart to words that carve out an identity in which the poet declares:
I am neither European or Indian – nor
Christopher Columbus’ lost song for that matter.
I am ayisiyino – a human being;
ewahkotoyak – we are all related.
this place knows me – remembers me,
the soft sounds of my grandmothers’ tongues.
sing her song, oh, oh Canada!
our home and native land!
Award-winning poet, Marilyn Dumont has held Writer-in-Residence positions at five Canadian universities and the Edmonton Public Library. She freelance writes, edits and teaches for a living.