A finalist for the Governor General’s Award, Armand Garnet Ruffo’s latest poetry collection Treaty # sees the artist and scholar thinking back on the lives of his Ojibwe ancestors, the state of affairs for Indigenous Peoples today, and the treaties that changed everything.
Ruffo’s examination of history and the present walks the fine line of consistently unsettling the reader without ever coming across as hostile. In “The Claim,” the poet lays bare the image of a van that “scours the streets and alleys for the homeless in a land / that is home.” This despondent image of modern life, heavy with intimations of the lasting legacy of colonization, reverberates throughout the collection’s stories of abuse, addiction, and loss.
At first glance, it’d be easy to think that this collection only covers Indigenous subject matter; indeed, there is enough material from Canada’s history as a nation to write several volumes on the ongoing consequences of colonization alone. But, the collection maintains such a level of thematic breadth and depth that its conversations, while often rooted in an Indigenous/Canadian context, could resonate with any reader.
For instance, the poem “A Love Story” offers (as its title suggests) a universal tale of love and loss. It’s depiction of two individuals falling in love quickly almost reads like a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with lines like “He told her he was lost, and she fell in love with him, and he with her,” and “they both carried scars as deep as the world, a place where flowers don’t grow.” But, the poem quickly breaks from this framework to examine how individual traumas can coalesce in the worst ways to sour a relationship.
In a collection that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the world, Ruffo offers moments of tenderness and connection. In “First Words,” he speaks directly to the one holding his poems: “It is in this spirit, in our common humanity, / in our kinship, I share these fragile pages with you, / so that we might all hold hands and walk barefoot / together in the damp grass.” His comfort with the medium shows not only in these meta moments, but also in his command of the form.
Ruffo exhibits a masterful sense of control over the poetic form both through his words and his choices around how to display them. His arrangement of his poem “#2: White Space” is exceptional in that it tells three stories at once about his relationship with his heritage. With dashes splitting every line (as in, “She asks me why I write influenced – aren’t we all?”), the text has a fault line of sorts running through it. Whether you read all the text to the left of the dashes as one poem, and vice versa with all the text to the right of the dash, or read each line in full, you are presented with a different story.
Indeed, with Treaty #, Ruffo presents the reader with a different story of Canada’s founding—as his dedication reads, “for those ancestors who signed treaty in good faith.”
Amelia Eqbal is a recent graduate of Western University. She is a freelance writer based in Mississauga with a passion for theatre and a penchant for pop culture. Previous credits include Poetry London, Polemical Zine, and Semicolon.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.