Moving Upstream by Mary Barnes

Moving Upstream is strong, confident, loving and tender. In this second collection, Mary Barnes takes us with her on an exploration and affirmation of her Ojibwe roots. Stories from her mother and father live here, as do conversations with Stone, Tree, Moon and other relations. The plain language of the poems, their careful diction and the spaciousness of words on the pages take on a quiet power—the poet writes into and through what Natalie Diaz calls post-colonial love[1].

Endangered Species, for example, tells us that racism drove Mary Barnes’ grandmother from her home on reservation lands. While that history leaves the poet “wondering what place I have”, it does not stop her from asserting unequivocally “I am here on this land…waiting to leap/ to a rightful home”:

“I was not yet born
when government men in black suits
and polished shoes
told my grandmother
she could not live on the reserve.
She married out, you see. A white man.
And her descendants
                 became refugees.
I am here on this land
among pines and maples
distanced and separated
by a river
wondering what place I have
waiting to leap
to a rightful home
                    and not feel like an endangered species.”

Resistance,a poem inspired by observation of ash trees under siege from emerald ash borer speaks of “trails of destruction”, of a need for courage and persistence:

“Oh, Yggdrasill,
                       Stand tall. Stand tall. Stand tall.”

Racism is a destructive force. Not everyone survives the difficult upstream journey:

“Last time I talked to your Uncle Fred
he was staring out the barred window in the visitor’s lounge….”  Shape Shifter

The title poem, Moving Upstream suggests that the resilience necessary for survival requires endurance, independence and dexterity, even while, as another poem says, “ the heart still bleeds” (China Plate):

“Stay fresh and courageous.

You gotta go it alone and
                                     keep moving”.

In her foreword, the poet says, “ I want you to imagine the poems taking you from a comfortable place to somewhere new: that you are moving upstream, past sunken logs, stones, and bears searching for sustenance”.

Sustenance comes through in stories of family woven into the collection:

“the summers we sat
on the front step—
how many times was that painted—
and talked under the hot sun
listening for Wind to come
and speak to us….”  That Good Place

Like her first book, What Fox Knew, this collection also draws strength and wisdom from the natural world:

… “leaving the telephone
                                    ringing in the house,
I head to the garden
knowing the walk is worth the conversation
                                       I will have with the roses.” Exchange

In Shape, the poet references the sustenance she draws from Ojibwe creation stories:

“…I come from a chunk of rock,
a trace of gold,
snippets of bark and wood.
Silver runs through my hair….
“…to find a vision
to discover the seed
so that I may fashion
what I want to know
so that I may be like Fox who
                                       leaps in the snow.”

Living with two different ways of seeing the world is not always easy. The poet’s younger self was challenged and encouraged by her mother:

“Wauwaushkeshi, she says
and I wonder why my mother does not
simply say, deer.


No, she says as if reading my mind.
That is not the way of the elder brother.
He knows when to stop and face the hunter with a fearless eye.
He knows when to offer his body, wait for that shot….

It is then I understand the thought behind my mother’s words.
I nod my head and say, Wauwaushkeshi.”  The Way

The upstream journey does not end: challenges persist in adulthood, as the poet ponders how to bridge two worlds:

“The women at the party asks:
who is your favourite poet?
I slip into silence
embarrassed I have no reply….

Later in my room
I have my answer.

She is my favourite
the one who tells me
Moon is my grandmother.
She is the one….”  She

Moving Upstream is an eloquent and generous act of resurgence, resistance and reclamation

For those of us who do not share Mary Barnes’ Ojibwe ancestry, the invitation of the Foreword, to move out of places of comfort may be especially timely. Indigenous peoples have lived on this land we now call Canada for millennia, through ice ages, floods, fires, epidemics, warfare and the many harms of colonization.  From Blessing:

“Listen to their words. Learn from their stories.
Then pass them along.
                                             It’s what we do”.

[1] Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem, Graywolf Press, 2020.

About the Author

MARY BARNES is of Ojibwa descent. She is a graduate of the University of Waterloo and a winner of the Tom York Award for short fiction. Born in Parry Sound, she now lives in Wasaga Beach with her husband Bob and writes, gardens, and talks to the birds.

  • Published: At Bay Press, May 18th, 2023
  •  Paperback
  • 9781988168982

Susan Wismer (she/her) is grateful to live on Treaty 18 territory at the southern shore of Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada with two human partners and a very large dog. She is a poet whose recent work has been published in These Small Hours (ed. Lorna Crozier) a Wintergreen Press chapbook, Pinhole Poetry, Orbis International Literary Journal, Poetry Plans (Bell Press), Qwerty, Prairie Fir, ,and in Poets in Response to Peril (eds. Penn Kemp, Richard Sitoski).