nipê wânîn Reviews

Saskatoon StarPhoenix, July 22, 2017

Mika Lafond’s first collection of poems, nipe wanin, is the first thesis from the Masters of Fine Arts in writing at the University of Saskatchewan to be turned into a published book. (Disclosure: I read an early version of this manuscript for the program). Lafond, a member of the Muskeg Cree Nation who teaches at the U of S, divides her collection into three parts: Spirit, Me, and Land.

The book’s title, nipe wanin, translates roughly from Cree to English as Coming Home, and that’s what these poems show. Lafond, like many a prodigal before her, ignored or openly refuted her parents’ and elders’ advice, made poor choices, and got herself into some troubles. For instance, my mother’s voice begins, “I stole a van the other night/ whiskey tasted warm — my feet were cold,” while don’t call me beautiful talks of the debts she owes sweet-talking men: “tangled lies I’ve heard/ I despise the sound of a man — empty words.” Other poems such as the last time, anxiety disorder, and butter mixed with honey reveal the distance she strayed from what she knew to be real and true.

But while my mother’s voice may start with a stolen van, it ends with the poet hearing her mother’s voice through the walls where she and her pals hide out. Now that she’s a mother herself she instructs her own daughter, “respect yourself as a woman/ mother of tomorrow,” and in great grandfather closes, “tell me where I come from,” thus revealing the true heart of this collection. The larger middle part of the book is about self, its trials and its triumphs, but that self is informed by the spirit and tied to the land, that home she’s come back to.

In collection opener, I am, she says “I am a spiritual being — I do not die,” and in the significantly titled my way back she closes, “in a circle of women I find myself.” In homebound she ends, “I come home again to remind myself/ my land is with me,” while what I learned and father mountain, both from the land section, close with invocations to home. And in her journey from home and back again she casts a cold eye on the country in which she lives, and laments, “oh Canada/ when will you get it right?” That political flintiness informs a letter to chief Dan George, as well. In when you see me she asks if what you see is a little girl, a reckless teenager, a beaten wife, a tired teacher. Who am I, she’s asking, and closes, “when you see me/ see me.”

What adds significantly to Lafond’s collection is the Cree translation of all her poems on each facing page. Even if you can’t read Cree, to see the words lined up across from the English, and to see Lafond use Cree, untranslated, in some of her English versions, is to feel the home about which she so strongly speaks. The land and the spirit are in the language. The pairing of languages is a gift to the reader.

— Bill Robertson, Saskatoon StarPhoenix


In her first poetry collection, nipê wânîn: my way back, Saskatoon writer and U of S educator Mika Lafond pays homage to her Cree heritage, the landscape that nurtured her as a child, and various family members-with particular gratitude expressed for grandmothers and great grandmothers-in heartfelt and easy-to-read poems presented in both English and Cree. As the book’s title suggests, the poems tell a story of a woman’s “way back” to the lessons her ancestors taught to her in their quiet ways. Lafond writes: “Words are spoken in hushed voices/their sacredness not to be shouted.”

Lafond’s a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and, with a strong interest in education and the arts, Lafond and her cousin (Joi Arcand) initiated Kimiwan Zine as a venue for Indigenous visual artists and writers. A few of the poems in this book hint at some of the heart-breaking situations she’s faced as a teacher and the difficult business of “[getting] through the walls” adolescent male students sometimes put up. One student is “always tired on cheque day” and though “winter is definitely here now-he still doesn’t have a jacket”.

The writer finds myriad connections between the natural and human worlds, ie: in the poem “elements,” she writes that “teardrop/is the same shape as rain,” and I was delighted to learn that in Cree, “fire” translates as “woman’s heart”. In “way back,” I appreciated how stars are considered to be “the ones who have gone before,” and this image (from that same poem) is terrific: “late at night they join hands-brilliant serpentine belt/in the northern sky/purple splashes on green-shawl upon skirt/great grandmothers”. This is a unique way of seeing.

I enjoyed the poems in the second section, “niya/Me,” where Lafond included more of the everyday details that make poetry come alive, ie: it’s satisfying to know that the song spilling from the red truck’s radio on a hot August day is “Big Yellow Taxi” – details like these make the work original and relatable – and I can hear the “constant patter against the plastic pail” while the poet and her family picked chokecherries with “pails belted to [their] waists”.

We see the author’s finesse with line breaks in “a letter to chief dan george”: “it was a good day/to die.” She turns back the hands of time and mixes things up, structure-wise, with the prose poem, “homebound,” where the “loud claps of thunder applauded the passing storm”. Personification-one of a writer’s best tools-is at play again in “bird watching”: “great bald eagle a tiny dot/weaving in the highest skies/blesses the day”.

The poems in these 183-pages tell an interesting life story in snapshots, using colours, dialogue, images, and miniature poems-within-the-poems, like this: “nohkom smells of sage/and sweetgrass—/it may mean nothing now/but my heart will remember/the scent of smudge/in her braids”. Poetry helps us remember those things that “may mean nothing now,” but certainly will one day.
Congratulations, Mika Lafond, and thank you for adding your voice to the collective music of Canadian poetry.

— Shelley A. Leedahl, SaskBooks