Iskotew Iskwew Poetry of a Northern Rez Girl by Francine Merasty

Francine Merasty’s Iskotew Iskwew Poetry of a Northern Rez Girl is a journey, not just for Merasty herself but for the audience as well. I don’t say “for the reader” because that rhetorical trick presumes one reader and one response, a solo activity in the privacy of one’s own head into which the author is invited – a sort of splendid isolation.

I used to read like that. My education is tangled up in British imperial tradition with its white supremacy and patriarchy, and it’s a tradition that likes to pretend it is universal, and if it can’t be universal, then at least it’s the best. I learned, with some exceptions, that most important and lasting works are created by men, a state which of course had nothing to do with erratic, unequal access of education and everything to do with male superiority, and that despite the occasional anomaly of a Mary Shelley or a Charlotte Bronte, only men, preferably white British men, maybe the odd (anglophone) Canadian or American, can tackle Big Ideas and write Lasting Things. 

This is, of course, utter bollocks. 

In a very wattled scrotum. 

Recognizing and acknowledging this profound mistake takes nothing away from the achievements of Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Keats – oh, fine, yes, even Dickens – but so much more exists, so many storytelling traditions, so many ways to reach one another.

Francine Merasty, a Nēhithaw (Cree) woman from Wapawikoschikanek (Pelican Narrows) in northern Saskatchewan, writes in a free verse, a form of poetry still derided by some who prefer strict metre and ignore free verse’s potential for intimacy. In Merasty’s poems, her line breaks – often exquisite – irregular metre that reflects speech, and sometimes broken rhyme at once celebrate the potentials of poetry in English, an imposed language, and show the limits of English and the terrible weights of its impositions:

Filling out my law school application 
How long has your family lived in Saskatchewan? 
I pause for a moment 
Then write 
Since time immemorial 


What would have been other options? 
Before Saskatchewan was, we were 
I got in; nobody questioned my answer 
(“Since Time Immemorial”) 

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women 
The stories are chilling 
So many killings 

The brown baby girl Tina 
Should have been a ballerina 
Media played her like she was a diva 
Another drunk who’d sooner drink tequila 
(“Chilling”)

Merasty herself has journeyed though multiple hells. As a white woman, I can only try to imagine the pain of constant racism. I can only try to imagine the cumulative pain of working as a statement-taker and Counsel for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Girls and Women inquiry in 2017. And I must try. I must, not just as a settler-descended Canadian, but as a human being, as Donne tries to in his Meditation 17. His language reflects, and limited by, his context, yet I can feel him long to reach past it: “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Merasty’s poetry creates that empathy, reminds me I am involved in humanity, that now, in my own historical and social context as a settler descendant, I must sit and listen. Not flap my gums. Not protest that I am not racist. Just listen. 

When I listen, I hear of beauty: the land, the sky, the forest, the love of mothers and grandmothers. I also hear the beauty of defiance: 

I am more than what you see 
I live sovereign, inside I’m free 
Yes, I got some academic degrees 
But that’s not what makes me 
It’s this Nēhiyaw blood in me 

I’m Cree 
A nēhiyaw iskwe 
(“I’m a Nēhiyaw Iskwew”)

No one else gets to tell Francine Merasty who and what she is.

See also  Cadence: Voix Féminines, Female Voices edited by Kayla Geitzler and Elizabeth Blanchard

I said earlier the poems are a journey, for both writer and audience, and it is a meditative one, enriched by a re-reading and study of the poems. I’ve not understood half the sorrow and beauty here, I’m sure. I say “sorrow and beauty” because Merasty is, like anyone else, a complex human being living a complex life. The human condition invites apparent paradox. Sorrow and beauty can exist separately in her work and in the same moment — and is that not being involved in humankind? Or, as Herman Melville puts it in Moby-Dick: “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibres connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibres, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” 

Merasty’s poems, igniting empathy, show us the fibres and sympathetic threads – lifelines – of reconciliation. 

Before reconciliation must come recognition and understanding, and Merasty’s work can help bring us there.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Francine Merasty is a Nehithaw Iskwew, Opawikoschikanek ochi, a reserve in Northern Saskatchewan. She is a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation and a fluent Cree speaker. She began writing poetry in the winter of 2017 while working for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls as both a Statement Taker and Legal Counsel. She currently works for the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan. She is a winner of the 2019 Indigenous Voices Awards. She lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Bookland Press (July 15 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 104 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1772311456
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1772311457

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Michelle Butler Hallett, she/her, writes fiction about violence, evil, love, and grace. The Toronto Star describes her work as “perfectly paced and gracefully wrought,” while Quill and Quire calls it “complex, lyrical, and with a profound sense of a world long passed.” Her newest novel, Constant Nobody, takes readers on a dangerous voyage of espionage, tyranny, and love in a genre hybrid of literary, historical, and feminist fiction. Her 2016 novel, This Marlowe, based on the last few months of Christopher Marlowe's life, was longlisted for the ReLit Award and the Dublin International Literary Award and was a co-winner of the 2016 Miramichi Reader Very Best Award for Fiction, and her first novel, Double-blind, a study of Cold War medical ethics and complicities with evil, was shortlisted for the 2007 Sunburst Award. Butler Hallett lives in St. John’s.

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