Undoing Hours by Selina Boan

What power does language hold? What power do we hold over language? Selina Boan’s Undoing Hours foregrounds play with linguistics and poetics to explore liminalities of identity and family in the context of a half-Cree, half-white settler speaker. Her speaker’s deep connections with the world around her resonate with the reader by means of powerful turns of phrase and sensory landscapes. 

As many biracial readers will recognize, growing up in the culture of only half of your family can leave the exploration of the rest of your history a tempting and troublesome hurdle. Language is one of the foremost difficulties in this journey, which Boan makes clear through her learning of nêhiyawêwin and the family relations that accompany this choice. Boan asks the unanswerable questions of the privileges and opportunities of learning new languages, further complicated by the questions of what parts of your history you are entitled to. The first word in nêhiyawêwin we learn in the book is mahtakoskacikew, “s/he settles or lays / on top of everything” (11), and the closing poem features the speaker recentering her bodily and emotional agency despite the violence at the heart of her family history. The speaker’s journey takes us from a place of uncertainty over engaging with the complexities of her mixed ancestry to the conclusion that we can set our own boundaries and challenges when deciding the spaces that we engage with.

“Undoing Hours is wonderfully paced; Boan experiments with a variety of forms and themes to keep the flow exciting while still holding a strong grasp on the narrative that the speaker tells.”

Boan’s thirty poems ask questions related to the complexities and legacies of multilingualism in the context of Indigenous histories, specifically that of the nêhiyawêwin language. Cree vocabulary and cultural references structure the poems and the speaker’s journey through alienation from her split history. Nêhiyawêwin is interspersed among English, neither translated in footnotes nor italicized, instead incorporated as two languages that the speaker can engage with separately and at once.  

Undoing Hours is wonderfully paced; Boan experiments with a variety of forms and themes to keep the flow exciting while still holding a strong grasp on the narrative that the speaker tells. Longer poems stand out from the shorter by encompassing all of the major themes of the book in sequences. “in six, the seasons” pinpoints the precise struggle of learning a language to which our relationship is taut through the framework of temporality and indigenizing Western time:

learning the seasons into six

a girl listens to her father’s first language alone (19)

From early unease with her decision to learn nêhiyawêwin to the concluding poems where her learning permits her to know herself and her family anew (“i learn in nêhiyawêwin / how to move verbs” (83)), Boan’s Undoing Hours is a breathtaking exploration of the various ways in which our histories can hurt and heal us.

Selina Boan is a white settler-nehiyaw writer living on the traditional, unceded territories of thexʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-waututh), and sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) peoples. Her debut poetry collection, Undoing Hours, is forthcoming with Nightwood Editions in Spring 2021. Her work has been published widely, including The Best Canadian Poetry 2018 and 2020. She has received several honours, including the 2017 National Magazine Award for Poetry, and was a finalist for the 2020 CBC poetry award. She is currently a poetry editor for Rahila’s Ghost Press and is a member of The Growing Room Collective.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Nightwood Editions (April 24 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 96 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0889713960
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0889713963

 -- Website

Zoe Shaw is a writer, editor, and administrator based in Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal. She is managing editor at carte blanche literary magazine. Her major interests are in gender and sexuality, ecocriticism, and the elegy in British Romantic poetry, which she explored in her master’s thesis at McGill University. @zoestropes on Instagram. Her website is http://zoeshaw.com/