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Burning/from the inside out:
Joseph A. Dandurand's SH:LAM (The Doctor)

Joseph A. Dandurand: SH:LAM (The Doctor)
Joseph A. Dandurand, SH:LAM (The Doctor)
Toronto: Mawenzi House, 2020.

In the “Author’s Note” that prefaces Sh:Lam (The Doctor), Joseph A. Dandurand states that his poems “tell the truth of what has happened to [his] people.” He explains, “The Kwantlen people used to number in the thousands, but 80% of our people were wiped out by smallpox and now there are only 200 of us.” He also describes how the voice of the Healer drove him to write the poems: they are the “tale of a Kwantlen man who has been given the gift of healing but also is a heroin addict living on the east side.”

Each poem has a similar structure: a strong narrative plot, in free verse, with lines that become shorter and shorter until the final line. I will take one poem as an example of this technique, the opening poem, “Doctor.” It begins with the speaker remembering

centuries ago when
the river flowed just like it does today
there were a people who were burning
from the inside out
and they called it smallpox.

The circular structure in this poem works beautifully, with a speaker who passes through bodies and centuries, experiencing smallpox at the poem’s beginning and witnessing present day trials at its end:

and now I am here
in this city
in a place they call the Eastside
as the heroin
burns
our people
from
the inside
out.

The poems which follow offer similar metamorphoses and insights, as the sh:lam can shapeshift, changing into other beings in other times. In “Born to walk and become,” for example, he is “a salmon egg / settling on the rocks / of the stream up river.” In other poems he is a coyote, a raven, a human who sits “in a corner / of an Indian bar” listening to a “Sasquatch who needs a shave,” (“The liquid of fate”) a butterfly, a drunk on Skid Row.

And as a Healer, in poem after poem, the sh:lam tries to draw out the poison from his people. This poison, this “world of blood,” (“Tilt the answers”) encompasses the terrible, unforgivable colonial violence that begins with the smallpox epidemic and continues to this day with the traumas of the residential school system and the injustice of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Each poem takes a mouthful of this poison and spits it on the ground. For example, one of the most compelling poems in the collection, “Last days of luck,” refers to the missing women of the Downtown Eastside with visceral, historical accuracy, culminating in the striking image of the sh:lam slitting open the killer “from throat to belly” with a fishing knife.

The use of oral story telling techniques and dramatic elements is not a surprise, as Dandurand, a playwright and director of the Kwantlen Cultural Centre, was also Indigenous Storyteller in Residence at the Vancouver Public Library in 2019. The poems have a dramatic, performative element to them. I have been fortunate to see him read twice, once at the Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver, and once in a virtual reading at the Poets Corner Reading Series. Both times his performance was absorbing. While the plot-heavy structure of the poems can become somewhat repetitive, the performance of them is what brings them to life.

 

Kim Trainor’s second book, Ledi, was a finalist for the 2019 Raymond Souster Award. Her next book, Bluegrass, will appear with Icehouse Press (Gooselane) in 2022. She lives in Vancouver, unceded homelands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations

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