Who owns this body? Who will sit with me? Where does it hurt?
These questions thread through Jόnína Kirton’s second poetry collection, An Honest Woman, as she unravels the norms of femininity and the complexity of race, gendered violence, loss, and family in relationship to womanhood. Reading through the collection, I felt Kirton’s poems inhabit my body and breath; to feel pieces of my own experience reflected back with honesty and tenderness is a reminder that poetry is, in Kirton’s own words, “another language, one more intimate with the liminal world” (Pulp Magazine interview, 2015) that offers the necessary space to express what can be difficult to say aloud.
In the poem, “who owns this body,” Kirton confronts the difficulty that surrounds truth-telling in the shadow of toxic masculinity and colonization. She utilizes parenthesis and blank space to voice the tensions between the crucial act of telling and the toxic expectations of a woman’s silence. Word repetition lends a sense of pressure and momentum as the poem concludes, “the need to tell (crisis)….is doing battle (crisis) in my mouth (critical) / with my father’s need (for silence).”
Kirton’s embodied use of space and the collection’s sparse and precise language call to mind the work of Gregory Scofield and Joanne Arnott and offer the reader time to pause and reflect on the fact that “complexities arise / as we move through words.” This is a collection unflinching in its consideration of colonial and patriarchal structures that perpetuate “fantasies of Indian princess” and target violence at Indigenous bodies.
The intimate lens that punctuates the book widens as Kirton interweaves narratives that include Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. Though Kirton’s exploration of American politics effectively highlights pervasive, toxic attitudes towards women, I find her return to the personal offers the most compelling moments in the collection as she unpacks familial expectations and womanhood.
For example, the poem “beauty tips 101” unpacks racist ideals of feminine beauty as the speaker recalls her mother’s “small pink nipples were better than mine / my lips too full / hers thin more appropriate.” Kirton’s exploration of female sexuality and womanhood circles moments of racism and frustration from a Metis/Icelandic perspective and, although the possibility of decolonial love with a romantic partner is there, the speaker fears “my loss of culture / will only further colonize us both.” For me, it is the speaker’s honesty and effort to vocalize that which is not always easy to vocalize that centres this collection.
In “water daughter fire mother,” a speaker asks a mother figure questions surrounding the prevalence of male violence and loss in her life. The mother responds with a question that hangs at the poem’s conclusion: “what can one do?”
This tender and heartbreaking question is what An Honest Woman reconciles through language, land, and poetry as Kirton both explores “that letting go / is not giving up” and seeks “to live as if we are / of great interest / to the ancestors.”
Selina Boan currently lives on unceded Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh land. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in CV2, Room, Poetry Is Dead, and The New Quarterly, among others. She won the Gold National Magazine Award for poetry in 2017 and was shortlisted for the 2016 CBC poetry prize. She work as the Circulation Editor at PRISM international and is currently working on a collection of poems exploring her Cree and European heritage.
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