Dreams and Journeys by Frederick McDonald

I listen for the porous membranes of drumbeats, heartbeats of buried history, dancing moccasins, the taut animal skin, ravens’ taunts, and the skein of the land. In “Requiem for Darkness,” the first poem in Frederick McDonald’s Dreams and Journeys, those haunting sounds appear in a different instrument: “his violin could be heard wwwayyy-awfff.” Although the dead violinist remains anonymous, his music resonates at a distance, stretches the alphabet and strings, “out where his music selection emanated from, as random / as those places he played.” His journey from afar also approaches closer to home: “at times seemingly / nearby at an oddly placed cement well.” Without end stops, the lines run on, the sounds carry, and history continues without end.

All those random places of playing contrast with the oddly placed cement well, the site of the end of his life, after his wife and child had died in a house fire. McDonald’s use of repetition stamps the violinist’s fate indelibly: “tomorrow    and tomorrow      and tomorrow” signifies a future denied, a life curtailed. The “souls of the lost, forgotten by so many, many, many” – the violin strings stretching to include other unsung lives “for too long / for too long.” This “requiem for darkness” takes place in an inverted cathedral, a well that echoes and reflects “those entangled roots,” the skein of melancholy. McDonald’s entangled routes map dreams and journeys, balancing tragic Indigenous history and a postmodern world of amnesia and apathy. Dark dreams recur in his songs and portraits.

“Coffee . . . .” pits a domestic scene against office work, the ellipses dotting the gaps between these disparate spheres and suggesting the ongoing process of daily routine. Those four dots are also coffee grounds, residue and source of brew: “bacon and eggs and the coffee pot dances.” His grandfather’s coffee dances through the stanzas: “the sound of coffee brewing” contrasts with “the sound of the north wind,” which leads outdoors toward the story of ancestral hunting and trapping. The juxtaposition of coffee grounds and the ground of animal trapping with his grandfather collocates domestic and natural realms: “the discussion that morning is of checking traps at Coffee Lake.” Coffee wafts across the past and into the poet’s present life where he is an executive seated in his leather high-backed chair. Hypnotized by the past, the poet concludes: “i grab my coffee, head into the boardroom.”

McDonald’s strong narrative line continues in “Grandpa’s Canoe,” each stanza ending with the sound of the canoe coursing through rivers, bodies, and histories: “that little 14’ canoe that / my grandpa owned floats effortlessly in / the rivers of my heart.” Variations of the “ssshhwooosh” sound surface at the end of each stanza to imitate the motion of the canoe and the heartbeat of history. This form of ultrasound detects layers of paint, repairs, and animal blood. Minimal punctuation enhances the free flow of McDonald’s organic lines: “i hear water lapping against the canvas in a Morse code of sorts / rhythms that calm my soul and ease / my mind.” McDonald’s Morse code taps the canvas of canoes, drums, and paintings, for the poet is also a painter of scenes from nature and family history. The drift of the draughtsman: “stories are etched and scratched into its wood and / canvas body and similar scars that come from parts of / my grandfather’s own story.” The poet’s bittersweet inheritance seeks reconciliation with a lost past, the ravages of colonization.

You enter various canvases: root cellar, rainbow warrior, and world at large where so many influences add narrative to voice. A magnifying glass ignites a conflagration. Behind windows the poet frames scenes, seeks protection, breaks boundaries, and stirs sedimentation. Through osmosis experience seeps into his brush strokes of pastoral scenes or perturbed psyches. In the skein he makes ends meet “where the brush touches the canvas / scratching canvas – that sound i love, scratching.”

The cover of Dreams and Journeys is McDonald’s own painting, The Future Past. At the centre of the canvas a lone Aboriginal figure holds a chain in one hand and a tiny globe in the other. His imprisonment is also marked by the lines on his face and his robe of red stars and stripes. The bottom of the landscape is blood red, above it a verdant plane and flowing river. Beyond the river a series of red teepees, superintended by Jesus on the Cross in the midst of an ice floe with a ship far off on the horizon. Each of these brush strokes is featured in the poems in the volume that scratches at the surface to reveal deeper pains and the scars of history. We enter various canvases and listen to his talk of drums stretched across generations and geographies. Photographs of dreams and nightmares, family trauma, haunt the proud pages of this volume.

Frederick McDonald is an international, award-winning artist―a painter, poet and photographer―and a member of the Fort McKay First Nation. Fred was born in Fort McMurray and raised in the bush along the Athabasca River, where he was brought up in his parents’ traditional hunting and trapping lifestyle. Although he has travelled far and wide, Fred’s heart is still with his community and he continues to be an active member of the Fort McKay band. Fred keeps himself grounded through his family; his children and his grandchildren are his inspiration for everything he does, and they are his greatest creation.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Harbour Publishing (Aug. 27 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 136 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1990776043
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1990776045

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Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.