Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Red Files - Lisa Bird-Wilson (Nightwood Editions)

Today's book of poetry:
The Red Files.  Lisa Bird-Wilson.  Nightwood Editions.  Gibsons, British Columbia.  2016.


The Red Files takes its title from the federal government files on residential schools.  Lisa Bird-Wilson has a new history for the Canadian people to consider and it is a scathing indictment.  If sins and wrongs were arrows there aren't enough Saint Sebastians in all of Canada to absorb them.

It is now beyond any reasonable question that the Canadian residential school system was an evil forced upon First Nations.  Lisa Bird-Wilson's The Red Files takes us to school.


Métis road allowance squatters
with their raw camps set up on the edge
of the exact reserve boundary, she sees them all
the time, those kids, school-less, she sees
those half-breed kids who look no different
from herself and her friends, sometimes

in spring, every single thing
they own fits in the wagon pulled
by the one sapless horse, away
for summer work, or back
from winter trapping

her mother says something nice
about the half-breed boy, the one
who comes to the house to visit
and have tea with sugar and sometimes a crust of bannock
she likes him and her mother says he is 
a good boy

but then one day in the not-work or trapping season,
he disappears
him and his whole family are moved
away and other families evaporate too
in the middle of the night
shacks burnt into the dirt and raked clean

her mother helps her
understand people
can just disappear
like that
like the seasons or the wind
she says, we are all
impermanent and when the girl looks puzzled
mother says like melted candle was or snow and then
it's finished: what are you doing inside
go out and play

on the empty road, fingers of sunlight
comfort her back and her shoulder flesh;
she runs to feel her own quick breath


Lisa Bird-Wilson has miraculously avoided simple anger and instead burrowed into a deeper chasm where indifference, racism and entitlement has carved deep wounds into the indigenous psyche. These poems will make you weep regardless of the colour of your skin.  

If you are First Nation the weeping could simply be memory, the scourge of residential schools cut a large uncompromising swath through generations.  If you are not indigenous then there are going to be some tears of guilt.  Either way these painful stories of imprisoned youth will tear you a new one.

Farm Instructor

afternoon chores and the sun
is three hours past its highest point
hot on their dark heads they seek the shade
behind the big barn, the boys
four of them including Ronny
decide to take their chance to run
and on a silent cue
they take off

across the open grass and down the slope
breaking through tree branches
shadow dappled panic
hearts beat faster than chased rabbits
skinny legs push for home
boughs cracking toward light and a chance
wordless spirited breaths follow
one another

and the farm instructor inside his home
boots off, already drunk
in his chair by the south window, dreaming
sun-warmth on his forearm and right thigh

and when he hears about the boys he releases
a heavy sigh
stiff with the beating he'll give
the one he catches first
he laces his boots and send the hand for the truck
hopes to be back before dark

it'll be Ronny who feels the rough hands
of the farm instructor
pull him easily to the ground
heavy knee on his narrow chest
the breath crushed from his lungs
as he steels himself to be beaten
like a man


Lisa Bird-Wilson has found the narrative tools to expose the horror and the terror inflicted upon these children and how it inevitably exploded into a casual methodology for cultural genocide.  There aren't enough apologies in the world to assuage the grief inflicted on the indigenous population of Canada and these poems spell it all out.

Bird-Wilson knows she doesn't have to hammer hard, these poems can feel almost gentle when read aloud, but they carry the weight of a wronged world.

The Finest in the Dominion

Saturday is his day to take
a boy. Mostly they are all the same
to him, but this Saturday it's Kenneth,
the most recent
quiet lad to be seduced
by a promise
of driving the school bus.

Here I call him Kenneth, but to name him
is the challenge, when his has only been
a number
but I will call him Kenneth
and while we are naming, I dare you to cite
a single ten-year-old
boy any one out of hundreds
who would be able
to resist, able to measure
the price of that first joyride.

What he did was this --
offered the boy, Kenneth, the chance
to drive the big school bus.
But here's the rub:
Kenneth is his principal's reach
he's too small to touch
the pedals and the
steering wheel at once
so he sits on the headmaster's
lap. Don't think Kenneth hasn't heard
the other boys calling
him the principal's fag baby
but he, too young to really
understand those words,
went along anyway with the man
whose single-mindedness and hard
work built the school residence
to one of the finest in the dominion.


Our morning read was enthusiasm tempered by the guilt of the oppressor.  You can't read these poems and feel the same way again.  Today's book of poetry would argue that only the very best poetry has the capacity for transformation, you read it and you are a different person.  Bird-Wilson has the entire template laid out.  One child tells a story and then the next, one foot in front of the other, Bird-Wilson walks you through it and holds your hand.

Lisa Bird-Wilson has given voice and name to a lost generation of ghosts, both living and dead.  

Today's book of poetry believes that The Red Files should be mandatory reading in every high school in Canada.


first I stand beside your closed pine box its sharp edges
covered by a white woollen blanket
and through the shroud my fingers work
a rivet along the lid near where I imagine your hand to be --
your graceful tapered fingers

I'm aware of the funeral man waiting
ready to wheel you into the next room
it all seems to happen in stages, this death business
room to room to room -- I remember them all

we come with you so you won't have to be alone

he offers that I might want to push the button,
tells me some Hindus and Sikhs desire a funeral pyre,
take cremation as a consolation and want to participate
I tell him we're not those kind of Indians,
then allow myself to laugh but he doesn't
so I stay on my side of the glass
while your body burns I hold tight to my boys'
hands and stare straight ahead as you rise to air
and become part of the atmosphere
part of the white and yellow-centered daisies you adored
the convincing scent of the lilacs, so brief in spring
the apple tree with its small sour apples
the blossoms of the crabapple in your backyard
in the front, the giant pine that you remembered
as a seedling -- at the end these were your whole world
and I think you finally forgot about the rest of it--
the ways you'd been hurt, by men and children alike,
debts others owed you -- as you turned inward
with the preoccupation of dying

we leave the crematorium, your smoke
filtered through the chimneys, lit
in cold February air and perfect sky-blue sky

I imagine you now, unfettered
limbs whole again, spine straight and true,
rising to walk lightly off the boat, your hand
in the captain's, stepping down
to a place where you can dance once more
in your pretty shoes with your delicate
feet and slender legs, yes
dance on the graves of the dead bastards
the ones who have it coming because
if you don't, who will?


Today's book of poetry thinks that Lisa Bird-Wilson's first book of poetry is a stunner.  The Red Files is an important book of poetry for Canadians, I hope they all get to read it.

Image result for lisa bird-wilson photo
Lisa Bird-Wilson

Lisa Bird-Wilson is a Cree-Metis writer from Saskatchewan whose writing has appeared in a number of literary magazines and anthologies, including Grain, Prairie Fire, The Dalhousie Review, Geist, kimiwan, cîhcêwêsin and Best Canadian Essays. She is the author of the novel Just Pretending (Coteau Books, 2013), and her debut poetry collection, The Red Files, was published by Nightwood Editions in 2016. Bird-Wilson lives in Saskatoon, SK.

“Lisa Bird-Wilson eloquently weaves archival work and collected life stories into her debut poetry collection...vivid and visceral...This sharp collection could be used to teach the more painful elements of Canadian history - ones that our curriculum conveniently glosses over. The themes of reconcilliation, and how we continue to reconcile today, will remain with readers long after reading...Bird-Wilson’s first collection of poetry is sure to leave readers wanting more.”
     ~ Nashwa Khan, This Magazine (May/June 2016)

Lisa Bird-Wilson
Lit Happens w/ guest Lisa Bird-Wilson
Hosted by Saskatoon Storyteller Danica Lorer, Lit Happens is a weekly segment on Shaw TV Saskatoon focusing on the literary arts scene in Saskatchewan
Video; Shaw TV Saskatoon



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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