Marie-Andrée Gill’s Spawn maps a human journey onto the life cycle of the ouananiche, fish who could also be called freshwater salmon, though doing so would sacrifice precision. Originally published as Frayer by La Peuplade (2017) and translated from the français québécois by Kristen Renee Miller, Spawn is both subject and verb—a stream of sectioned, untitled lyrics that weave stages of growth with the tension of inherited imperial language.
Spawn investigates the meaning of viability in a colonial world of blind-eye capitalism, diving into experience with youthful verve. We learn that in Ilnu, ouananiche translates to “she who is found everywhere / or little lost one.” The reader is introduced to “We the unlikely / the aftermath…We the territory / in a word.” Spawn is active, at odds with settler narratives and artificial construction, stories not animated but “engraved: / beaver / snowshoes / canoe, bear / drab cement / drab procession.”
The first named section of the book is “The Rampart,” a heading of imposed fortifications and cultural seizure. Against the region’s historical backdrop, adolescent awakenings fuse with worldly frustration: “I want this whole thing over with / like that first french on the rampart.” Infrastructure is as fraught as language, both of which survivors must live by: “on the main street / we draw game migrations / and curves of the stock exchange in chalk.”
This “we” layers earthly knowledge on consumer mirage, folding into an image of wistful romance: petals plucked “to be sure that someday/we’ll be loved.” Teen reverie bleeds into a passing indictment of exclusive settler hegemony. Languages and imagery elide with a seamlessness both magical and devastating: “the northern lights dancing on nintendo … your joie de vivre / orangeade in a squirt gun.”
“How do you swallow the lake’s beauty with all these ghosts chewing through its plastic-filled lung.” This central question is stated, not posed. Within this angsty atmosphere, a deeper resilience is accessed. Spawn can “bathe in the malaise” and is “digging a finger through the rampart’s fresh cement / writing a name / never the same one.” In the confusion of puberty, certain truths are known. Indigenous peoples have been living in a post-apocalyptic world for centuries. The speaker blends narratives with unsettling ease: “I’m in the underwater level of a video game just as the air runs out, just as that little tune begins to play…we have hundreds of years / of cataclysm at hand.”
The impulse to inscribe and sort through via writing asserts itself throughout the collection. The speaker is “playing with a thumbtack in math class. Sucking blood from a name / etched in my arm.” There is a power and practice in spelling things out. We see “love u 4-ever” written in a diary and “on the benches the cement the trees.”
While the collective “we” is “waiting for a habitable word,” the “Ouananiche revive the watercolours / of our blooming organs / time to swallow the evidence / of our mutant hides.” A contemporary identity gives rise to its own particular sources of light, “a ski-doo on asphalt at night / in my belly / with all its shooting sparks.” In “the blue-grey gaze / of the nearly bursting lake,” the speaker gradually gains a sense of surety in herself and her surroundings.
Given this volume’s centering of Indigenous (re)clamation and Ilnu etymology, and the lack of italics on ouananiche throughout the book, it is somewhat surprising to see ouananiche italicized on the back cover. Miller’s translation incorporates French vocabulary into the English, while her Translator’s Note discusses the “delicate and intense” work of rendering one settler language into another, and the fascinating task of communicating Gill’s complex voice.
K.B. Thors is the author of Vulgar Mechanics (Coach House Books), and the Icelandic-English translator of Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir’s Stormwarning (Phoneme), nominated for the 2019 PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation and winner of the American Scandinavian Foundation’s Leif and Inger Sjöberg Prize. She is also the Spanish-English translator of Soledad Marambio’s Chintungo: The Story of Someone Else (Ugly Duckling Presse). Their reviews have appeared in the Harvard Review, Lambda Literary, Carousel, and EuropeNow, among other journals.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.