Words Lodged in Muscle and Bone: Lee Maracle’s Talking to the Diaspora

Do you speak your language?
I stare—I just said: how are you?
I thought English was my language
apparently it isn’t
I thought Halkomelem was gibberish
the devil’s language
that’s what the nuns said
apparently not

Some white guy sets me straight:
Aboriginal people are losing languages
Funny, I thought I had it just a moment ago
maybe it’s in Gramma’s old shoebox
maybe it’s sandwiched between papers
in plastic bags hidden under mom’s bed
Hey, has anyone seen my language?

This poem hinges pleasingly on the speaker’s deliberate misunderstanding of language as an object that has been lost but perhaps found in “Gramma’s old shoebox” or under the bed. Such language play continues in other poems: “Alpha’s Bets” and “Canada is a Labyrinth,” and in “Remembering Mahmoud 1976,” where we find “desperate word flowers / blooming nonetheless from a land / occupied by settlers / chronically stealing the lives of children.” Palestine also figures significantly throughout the collection, as an analogue to Canadian occupation of First Nations land: “Free Palestindians.” This urgent preoccupation with language in relation to occupation comes out clearly in the title poem, “Talking to the Diaspora,” where words are described as if bullets lodged “in the tissue inside muscle and bone,” as mottled and riddled, as sound (“My ancestors halt breath / mouth glottalized x’s”), as warm and “fired unmentioned,” as having “raw frayed fringes:”

Will my words dangle from empty raped mountains?
laid waste on dead seas
Or will they sing sweet from the skirt of winds
remembered songs of hope not realized?

Just as words are explored as material objects here, I would also comment on the book itself as a physical artefact. Clearly much care went into its design: the white and black front cover, to which I will return to in a moment, is echoed throughout by poems written with white letters on black pages, and black letters on white pages. Personally, I found the white print on black incredibly difficult to read; design here interferes with accessibility, and I doubt that this was the intention. My eleven-year-old son, to offer a different perspective, says he finds it a bit hard to read, but suggests perhaps this makes us think more about the words themselves as entities on the page. Where the design works beautifully is on the front cover: it is white, and the slightly thicker stock paper is perforated in a a herring-bone pattern to allow a glimpse of a black print which lies beneath. Here we have a nice visual (and tactile) echo of the final lines of the last poem:

I weave this imagined dream world onto old
Suquamish blankets,
history-hole-punched and worn—
to re-craft today,
to re-member future in this new language.
And I sing I am home again.


Kim Trainor‘s first collection of poetry, Karyotype, has just appeared with Brick Books.



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