A human being denied water will die of thirst in three days; that same human being submerged in water will drown in three minutes. Conflicting impulses―need and power, love and suffocation, healing and destruction―are at the core of award-winning Métis poet Katherena Vermette’s second collection of poetry, which quietly unfolds with the smouldering, smooth-yet-heady, burning clarity most readily found in a mouthful of good whisky.
In river woman, both river and woman are interchangeable forces; they are one and the same, a liminal being which, in the titular poem, is both “bright” and “beautiful,” a source of bounty that’s been “dredged,” complicated by “good intentions / bad regrets,” a living thing “too soon forgotten / like a body / that begs without words.” The river/woman “is a trickster” who “just when you think you have her / … puffs black smoke / and laps off into her next form.”
Moreover, both water and women―the power they hold and the violence which can be inflicted on them―form the crux of the underlying conflict in the book. That the second part of the collection is entitled “red river”―a real river which cuts through Manitoba and in which the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found wrapped in a plastic sheet in August 2014―is both poignant and probably intentional. What can be done (to a woman or a river or a people) lingers, sharp and dark and terrible under the thin surface of these poems; the reader is aware always that what can happen often does.
However, pain and fear are not central to the work; rather, they are the shadows cast by the larger themes of love and redemption, which form the thematic core of river woman. Although the subjects are often damaged, replete with “cracks… where the dark gets in,” as a pair they “hold / ourselves / together.” The poem “how to argue,” in which the speaker admonishes the reader to
remember your love’s best self
remember your best self
the two of them talk
is both generous and moving without being schlocky, a sort of practical romantic hybrid unlike many other poems about love the reader is likely to have encountered.
Flow―both literal and metaphorical―is deeply embedded in this work, which moves inexorably forward with or without the reader; you can start at any point in river woman and be carried away, but to fully appreciate its entire scope―each twist, bend and fork―it needs to be ridden out from the beginning. Vermette creates the sensation of being on (or in) a river by studding the work with interconnected―but separate―poems, jointed pieces which pour into one another like tributaries. “riverdown” flows into “riverevening,” which flows into “riverlove.” “river” empties into “lake” and is swept into “blackriver.”
river woman is unabashedly anti-colonial; in the final section of the work, titled “an other story” (note the intention of “an other” as opposed to “another”), Ottawa takes “all those half breed lands” and the speaker’s uncle’s “ancestral… home” is “pulled / up from under him like a rug… tucked under Canada’s collective arm.” That the titles of the poems are not capitalized―an English-language conceit rooted in European traditions denoting what is and is not important―is notable. Whether this was an intentional formatting choice on the part of Vermette or her publisher is unclear but it is worth considering that the only title capitalized which does not contain the name of a place or real person is “Anishnaabemowin,” the Ojibwe language itself.
Readers―both fans of poetry and those who have come to this collection through the writer’s fearlessly sharp novel, The Break (2016)―seeking more of Vermette’s sensitive yet devastatingly forthright voice will definitely find what they are looking for in river woman.
Lori Fox is a writer and journalist based in Yukon. You can find her on Twitter at @Fox_E_Lori.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.