I don’t have the words to praise long enough and well enough what Linda LeGarde Grover has done in The Sky Watched: Poems of Ojibwe Lives (Red Mountain Press, 2015). How she so beautifully, realistically reflects the spirit of her people; how she bears witness to their experiences, their lives, past and present, their strengths and their vulnerabilities. Nor can one overstate the important and necessary way these poems testify about the Indian Boarding School era of American history, and about a people’s will to recover from that (and other) attempts at erasure.
We know that one road to recovery –of oneself, of one’s people, of the world– is through the healing rhythms, repetitions, and reiterations of story, of memory. And LeGarde Grover is a marvelous and expert and trustworthy poet-teller and (even in painful places) a gentle, composed, and loving one.
With each telling of the story with each singing of the song
we once again rise to break the surface and seek
the finite beyond the grace of this merciful Earth
the finite beyond the mercy of this graceful Earth
(from Redemption, the collection’s opening poem)
I am not new to reading fictional and non-fictional treatments of this unspeakable chapter of American (and Canadian) history which, of course, must be spoken about—loudly, and repeatedly, and especially by Native voices. (A number of favorite authors regularly address the subject of Indian Schools: Louise Erdrich, Kent Nerburn, Robin Wall Kimmerer among them. I encourage you to seek them out.)
But I had not experienced a sustained poetic treatment of the subject before; and LeGarde Grover’s The Sky Watched is a really profound one. Her Poems of Ojibwe Lives emerge in part from her own family’s experiences of boarding school and beyond (her grandmother, her aunties, other relatives, children and families they knew).
And let me tell you. The cumulative effect of multiple speakers, of bringing one voice after another to bear on a shared experience, is very powerful. Like any accumulation of voices (as in Our Town, for instance, or in a Spoon River-type anthology) each added voice, each story, each new telling fills in and layers onto what has been said. The combined effect is a truer truth than one over-arching narration could possibly provide, and a surer and more powerful knowing for the reader.
There are also poems in the collection that address another kind of erasure, which is what happens when the “gen-yew-whine” Indian Princess that is sought, commodified, and co-opted for a certain look, a style, a kind of spirituality is based on a hyper-romanticized version of Indian-ness. “I know what you’re looking for / and that I’m not it,” the speaker insists. Her real reality is not only invisible, but undesired—not what is wanted at all.
But the prevailing iterations of this book are these: strength, the power of family, confidence in the natural world, and gratitude. The closing poem, Migwechiwendam Schaaganaashimowin, gives thanks for grandchildren “their sweet happy hearts” and for grandmothers, long gone but still “among us.” “And then I know I am blessed, a fortunate woman.”
Oh, how I hope you will read this collection! And be sure to read some of it out loud, including this postscript:
and today, Wazhashk, hear us breathe
a continuing song
a continuing song
long before the memory of mortals
I have just begun Richard Wagamese’s powerful novel, Indian Horse and at times I don’t dare / can’t bear to turn the page. I hold my breath, knowing another shoe will drop, and another, and another. I fear (rightly) that the varieties and levels of violence done to these young bodies (and minds and souls) at St. Jerome’s Indian ‘School’ have not yet been exhausted. But neither will I look away. None of us should look away — from inhumanity, from injustice, from atrocities past or present. Isn’t it the looking away (by those who are free to do so) that allows evil to continue?