Have you ever wondered what reconciliation sounds like? The title poem of Janet Rogers’ fifth poetry collection, Totem Poles & Railroads, powerfully declares “I AM NOT NEXT” from the centre of the page. This bold line—an answer to the question raised on poster boards at vigils and protests on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls—combines the book’s two thrusts: to reject victim narratives and to make sound. Totem Poles & Railroads is an incisive critique of the overly-simplistic and bureaucratic state of reconciliation, certain forms of activism, and the mainstream presentation of history in Canada.
Rogers’ latest work sets the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in its crosshairs, while not undermining collective experiences of harm. Dripping with sarcasm that in Canada “we are a victimless nation” (“The People”), Rogers’ disillusion about reconciliation is as clear as the shouted words and sounds that punctuate her poetry. The poem “Final Report” labels the residential school system a “mind raping,” and “Calls to Action” equates the TRC to the mafia. Still, Rogers does not neglect Indigenous readers, reminding them that “a survivor’s blood / is in you” (“Final Report”).
The painful redundancy of the preamble to each of the TRC’s 94 recommendations in “Calls to Action” (“We call upon the federal, provincial, / territorial and aboriginal governments…”) stands in stark contrast to the sounds Rogers’ poetry makes. Her titles scream at you with their large and thick font, and joyous words and verses like “whey-ah-hey-hey-ya” and “t-t-t-t triples” demand to be sung or rapped. “Lemme See You Dance” is, perhaps, Rogers’ greatest feat in bringing sound to the page. Beginning with the verses “Double Buffalo Double Buffalo / Flap Shuffle Step / Heel toe Heel,” the piece is motion – a powwow dance in the form of a poem. Other attempts to display movement were not as successful. In the poem “Calls to Action,” Rogers assembles a tattered flag of “R” words – rights, reconcile, response, relocate – and uses differently-sized fonts, but this section appears overly engineered.
In “Bears Repeating,” Rogers transforms the representations of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls from highway memorial markers and missing persons posters to viscerally remind readers that these women are spirit and flesh, asking:
point to the part
on your body
does it feel
In her poetry, the women and girls rise from a legacy of strength that Rogers imagines through the lenses of historical figures Sacajawea and Pocahontas, whose “mind and spirit was my only true territory” (“Sacajawea”).
While expressly critical, Totem Poles & Railroads does not leave readers without directions to the way forward. If she couldn’t be more forthright, Rogers titles one of her poems “Make Sound.” The poem demonstrates how to confront oppression by living loudly: “large as mountain beings / connected to stars / recalling our songs / our sounds.” For Rogers, the sound of reconciliation is not a report or a protest sign, but Indigenous voices and a drum beat.
Mallory Whiteduck is from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Michigan.
ARC: POETRY THAT DEMANDS TO BE SUNG!