nakamowin'sa
   
 

The Bull Calf, January 2017

Rita Bouvier will immediately strike the reader as an excellent poet in Nakamowin’sa for the Seasons, her third collection of poetry. Although she discusses the feeling of being “tongue tied / by the English language” (67), she has nevertheless mastered much of its inner music. Bouvier’s verse is full and rich, but never extravagant: her voice may be voluptuous but her words and ideas are grounded and straight from the earth. She attempts a lot with this varied collection, from personal subjects like sanctifying treasured family memories, to more national topics like creating nostalgic elegies about Canadian history.

Bouvier is an accomplished social justice advocate for Indigenous peoples, and her Métis identity informs many of these poems. The title translates to “wordsongs for the seasons” and foreshadows how the reader will often find gems of Cree encrusted in these English poems. Bouvier supplies a suitable glossary that makes this text accessible and even classroom-friendly, especially considering the lack of explicit material, even in the erotic poem “thank god for waiters”. However, this does not detract from the poem, which features the velvety lines:

She licks her lips before she takes a long sip,

not wanting, ever
to finish that earthy, supple glass of wine. (32)

This poem is gratifyingly simple, subtle, and sensuous—a winning combination for effective verse. These three characteristics are common in this collection and lend her poetry simultaneous beauty and directness. Bouvier acheives this delicate balance sometimes through her use of the Cree language: “all she can do is hold on tight, / in case osimisa wander out / into the night” (49), condensing the clunky English phrase ‘her younger siblings’ into one elegant word, osimisa. There is a clear advantage in using two languages to enrich the musicality of these poems, as doing so gives her more options to optimally distribute beats and stresses to achieve an uncommonly rhythmic quality. The poem “the map of my heart” exemplifies this dynamic as a poem about the European tradition of defining knowledge of a land through drawn maps and written names, both referred to as types of ‘claims’—which of course evokes European-style land-claims. The Indigenous speaker points out the shortcomings of this paper knowledge as “without body without spirit” (68), emphasizing its inherent incompleteness with a gap in the text. A more holistic map, the speaker says, “lies in the languages” and “the memories of the people, / the soft rhythms of their knowing” (68) of the peoples who have occupied those lands for thousands of years. The poem alights into a song of side-by-side Cree phrases and English translations, as the speaker shares the tangible joy of their native tongue with readers who are not already familiar with it. It is a poem that proves what it claims.

In terms of the contemporary appeal of these poems, Bouvier touches on many current topics of interest to a general readership: cultural appropriation, residential schools, and colonialism. Bouvier’s approach to these issues is very focused on the emotional impact of the past on the surviving families. For instance, the poem “reconciliation—a found poem” is a carefully selected excerpt from a formal apology for residential schools from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate that articulates the hypocrisy of apologizing with an eye to the damage these schools did to the reputation of the Church rather than to the generations of emotional harm done to children separated from their families. Its sister poem, “truth,” seeks not apology but recognition and the space “to begin to describe / the indignity—the injury of separation— / of being pulled from a mother’s arms” (72). Bouvier’s powerful, often understated style in discussing the emotional toll of history is one of the chief strengths of this collection.

Some readers may shy away from poems so heavy with pain, but it is important to note that Bouvier’s outrage underscores what a pure source of happiness family can be. Poems such as “truth” build on the tenderness of numerous poems celebrating family memories, and the sweetest of these are the poems about raising a son: upon seeing their new child, the parents think of him, “small, / you were so small. disarmed, we fell in love.” (16). Poems such as “ten turned sixteen” and “catch me if you can” are simple, straightforward destriptions of domestic life, and are among the most memorable in this volume because of the pure joy they communicate. Bouvier conveys emotions and memories with both precision and power; therefore, Nakamowin’sa is a rich experience that both casual and academic readers can appreciate.

— David R. Pitt, The Bull Calf

malahat review, spring 2016

In Rita Bouvier’s nakamowin’sa for the seasons the poems drift through different seasons of the year and through different geographies, all with a contemporary eye and an underpinning of wonder. An unnamed narrator — simply “she” — acts as an observer and wanderer in the poems, focusing the reader’s gaze. She often finds herself witnessing people who are at first outsiders but who then become intimates. In the poem “at Granville and West Georgia” a man wearing “a coat of many colours and flowing ribbons … is feeding birds and gazing at the building and clouds.” The man is dancing amongst people holding onto their morning coffees who “pretend not to notice him or each other.” The narrator wonders “why we are so afraid to make eye contact // she thinks: maybe we are afraid / to fall into that deep dark well— recognition. / our differences kaleidoscopic—of one light.” In “stopping for eternity” our narrator “meanders the paved foot path / along English Bay in Stanley Park / sunset dreaming” when she comes across a man standing at the shoreline “rocking back and forth; roses in his arms.” The man sets the roses adrift in the water, his mourning mysterious but acute. As he “finally lets go / she wondered if it was true / that we see things as we are / and not really as they are. // and, then unannounced—/ a sudden release of pain — so close, it just missed her heart.” The narrator’s wonder opens her to beauty but also to pain. In the Calgary airport en route to Saskatoon, the stereotypes of Aboriginal-themed items for sale bring her to tears; the “new-aged sounds of nature,” the “pretty mukluked brown faced doll dream catching,” and “the Indian head-dressed next to the Inukshuk / are made in China, / for God’s sake.” Our narrator calms herself: “take flight and just remember: / what is not for sale.”

The poems in nakamowin’sa offer a contemporary, peripatetic, and urban Aboriginal perspective, yet reflect on the author and narrator’s Métis identity and history. Hagiography and Catholic ritual are inflected with Cree and Cree-Michif language and traditions. In “on the seventh day” the Sunday rituals of a post-church picnic and the layering of willow boughs as both “spice for the gods” and to cook potatoes, bannock, and freshly-caught pike over an open fire, mingle together with a meal so perfect that the poem ends with the line “to heaven we will surely go.” The history of Christian and Indigenous spiritualties is also reflected in four poems dedicated to the history of Residential Schools — part of Canadian history now recognized by the United Nations as an act of cultural genocide.

In the poem “remembering Charlie” found words from the CBC documentary Dying for an Education blend with the author’s to offer remembrance to Charlie Wenjack of the Marten Falls First Nation. His body was found beside railway tracks on October 23, 1966. He was attempting to walk 600 miles back to his home after running away from the Cecelia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. In “reconciliation — a found poem,” Bouvier reflects on her experience of returning home to her community of Île-à-la-Crosse to attend a homecoming where the Oblates of Mary Immaculate issued a statement of apology to all who were present, and gave each individual a rose as an offering: “the past years have been painful / for priests and religious alike, individuals and families / coming to terms with injustice—abuse, accusation and allegation. there is a burning desire to be set free from what enslaves us. there is an urgent need for healing and forgiveness.” These lines echo the final poem in the collection, “truth,” which circles back to the opening lines of the opening poem in the collection “how do we hold silence / in lines of poetry.” The last poem calls out in response to the first: “we were taken from our mother; / they called her le savage, / cut our hair … how do we begin to describe no gentle embrace from a mother / where do we find the words?” The circularity of the collection shows a kind of grief in its repetition, but also transformation.

— Heather Jessup, The Malahat Review

arc poetry magazine, thursday october 22, 2015

Rita Bouvier’s third collection of poetry, nakamowin’sa for the seasons, is a book of free verse that quietly persuades the reader to consider “a different way of being” when entering the work. Beginning with the title, nakamowin’sa, a Cree term that translates to ‘little songs’ in English, would suggest the songs are light renderings of experiences by a poet. But Bouvier understands the struggles and racial oppression of her ancestors who rowed the York boats, guided the missionaries/explorers in their attempts to adapt to a Eurocentric world. As an Indigenous educator, the poet in the poems encounters banal racism, disillusionment, institutional oppression, empty nest syndrome, love, lust and loss. In this sense, she identifies with the Métis of Ile a la Cross, who survived, despite adversity, by giving vocal expression to an untenable situation.

In poems like “songs to sing,” she says the reasons the Métis were able to survive and thrive was because of the belief in “wahkohtowin” or a deep understanding of being in relationship to ll life. In “wordsong for Ernesto,” a poem about the Mayans, her allusion to the Métis of Ile a la Cross is clear: “… make their living / as they have always done from the land / from the sea / where they can / whenever they can.” This arduous subsistence living described in the Mayans and shared by the Métis required a faith in the land providing. It also required a profound belief that (miyo wahkohtowin – the goodness of our relationships with all living things) would affect the practice of acting in a “balanced and respectful way” even in the face of adversity, and that this way of being in the world would ultimately promote sustainability and survival.

Songs were one way of dealing with hardship or adversity in a “good” way, and the songs the Métis sang to sustain them inspires Bouvier to persevere in her work as an educator today. These poems are rich in tropes about sound/silence, songs and singing. However, Bouvier’s poems are not about merely listening with the ear. They are about a different way of being, of listening with the heart to words that carve out an identity in which the poet declares:

I am neither European or Indian – nor
Christopher Columbus’ lost song for that matter.
I am ayisiyino — a human being;
ewahkotoyak — we are all related.
this place knows me — remembers me,
the soft sounds of my grandmothers’ tongues.
sing her song, oh, oh Canada!
our home and native land!

— Marilyn Dumont

saskatoon star phoenix, saturday june 6, 2015

Saskatoon poet Rita Bouvier's third collection of poems, nakamowin' sa for the seasons (literally, little songs for the four seasons), takes on a particular poignancy in the light of the recent tabling of Justice Murray Sinclair's report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, though it easily stands on its own as a fine collection of poetry.

Here are songs of life in and around the Ile-a-la-Crosse area, from which Bouvier comes, mixing history, community life, hardship, weather, with fond memories of family, as well as her life in the city, both in Saskatoon and in Vancouver, where she reflects upon the harsh realities of life on the street for the poor. She also writes poems of deep love for her son, both as youngster and as a young man - Ten Turned Sixteen and Catch Me if You Can - and poems of gratitude for her opportunity to write, here and at Banff.

But it is her keen historical and political edge as a strong Métis woman that informs the strongest poems in this collection. In the wonderful and only half-joking irony of There Are Cemeteries, where "every repentant sinner/wants to be buried with a gallon jug of wine,/and rosary, just to be sure," and her jab at John Ralston Saul and his book A Fair Country, in which she addresses him, "Oh you post-structural, post-colonial sensitive one," and reclaims her humanness from sociological labels while telling him just who is and who is not Métis, Bouvier makes clear her stance. And again in the stark Remembering Charlie, a poem about a victim of residential school, who died "lonesome ... malnourished ... physically beaten," and ends: "he always wanted to be home./he had a burgundy sweater/he loved./he had two dogs./he was twelve," these last few lines taken from her his aunt's recollections of the boy.

This testimonial, together with Reconciliation, a found poem that piles up placating statements from an almost apologizing church — the effect of which is to become stingingly ironic — give us poems that come at a propitious time in history. Their toughness, together with poems of Bouvier the loving mother and daughter, a generous community member and friend, a political activist who knows her history and reads and pays attention, round out the full human being in these very much more than little songs.

— Bill Robertson

 

       

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