Shannon Webb-Campbell’s poem “Their World View is a New Home in an Ancient Land” includes a wry opening stanza: “if you think you can hold dominion over flora and fauna, / that a body and life can be property, / you’d better try buying a constellation.” More importantly, it is the source of the book’s title, and appears right in the middle of I Am A Body of Land, which gives readers a clear heads-up; this is the fulcrum point.
Prior to “Their World View…” Webb-Campbell grapples with the collapse of both her social life and her sense of self after Book*hug’s publication and subsequent withdrawal of Who Took My Sister?, a book of poems on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Some of the poems in Who Took My Sister? included descriptions of violence against specific women. This retraumatized at least one family member and risked harm to more. Further, Who Took My Sister? was produced without consultation with victims’ families or Indigenous communities (Afterword). These two issues came to the fore in a complex of controversies surrounding Who Took My Sister?.
The poems in the first half of I Am a Body of Land lean on prosaic syntax sprinkled with theoretical vocabulary and made vestigial by line breaks. The result is a deliberate awkwardness that acts out the alienation and self-abnegation Webb-Campbell felt in the weeks and months following the publication/withdrawal. On one page she states “echoes of colonization run deep” (”On Airplane Mode”); on the opposite she despairs “Every hour I hear your voice like bells repeating – you are alone in this, no one will stand with you” and “You say I’m not / Indian enough, like I don’t already know” (“The Call-Out Was a Cry Out”).
The “you” of these poems is mutable, protean, but with one constant: it is always us, the readers. We become a grieving relative lashing out, a former friend or lover who abandons the poet, even Joey Smallwood. By thus turning readers into sounding boards, Webb-Campbell shows how easy it is to become complicit in the situation that led to error in the first place. She uses the Afterword to take responsibility for any harm her earlier book caused (72), but I Am A Body of Land shows how mistakes like Book*hug’s publication of Who Took My Sister are also the product of many social and cultural spars being kicked away over generations.
The second half of I Am A Body of Land lets in a bit of light. Most of the poems abandon the broken prose syntax, becoming instead choric. Webb-Campbell leans into anaphora, a playful form: “The-o-ry Crit-i-cal” ends with the lines “This is post philosophy / This is post feminism / This is post colony collapse disorder / Not post bees.” She has forgone the solitude and rigidity of the first half; the book’s final line declares “We are bodies of water.”
In the introduction, Lee Maracle writes “I am not the winner of any poetry prize. I write poetry about things that do not make for good poetry” (Introduction). I Am A Body Of Land did not win any awards either, for, I suspect, much the same reason. It tangles synthesis and analysis, leading readers to question that binary. The result isn’t comfortable or pretty, but wow is it worthy.
Kathy Mac loves dogs, helps run the Odd Sundays Reading Series in Fredericton NB, published her third poetry book in 2017, is starting to envy retired friends though she still enjoys teaching creative writing at St. Thomas University, has won a couple of writing awards and been nominated for more, has brown eyes, used to have brown hair, has a website at kathymacpoet.com, and thanks Jordan Abel and Emily Stewart for their help and patience in the production of the review published here.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.