Prairie Fire Review- Crooked Good

Prairie Fire Review of Books
Reviewed by: Melanie Matheson

In The Crooked Good, Halfe explores her familiar themes of Aboriginal life, traditions and struggles, taking us on a more symbolic and complex journey than did her first two books of poetry. Her work is still anecdotal, still involved with writing connections to her ancestral oral tradition, she speaks through the voice of Turn-around Woman--walking us through a personal, historical and legendary Cree journey.

I was delighted to find that this book encompasses Cree traditions in more than written content. The book attends to this by presenting itself symbolically as a totality. The cover elegantly celebrates two of the Cree sacred colours, using restrained type in red with the single image of the curled 'Snake Woman' shown simply as a spot varnish on the flat black background.

The poems are set in eight sections, each indicated by the appearance of a line drawing of the Snake Woman, whose head is positioned in each section further clockwise around the page, travelling with us in the traditional direction around the medicine wheel, starting with the east, and is carried through in the opening poem, 'The End and the Beginning,' a journey about travelling east, finding circles, coming around.

I think what distinguishes this book most from Halfe's earlier works is her growing skill in regard to tone and persona. Her first works tell powerful stories with the eagerness of younger, more naive voice than that of her current work. Bear Bones and Feathers was anecdotal with a seemingly straightforward conversational tone and structure housing the sometimes quirky, sometimes horrific stories. The poem 'Body Politics' starts, Mama said, Real women don't steal from the sky and wear clouds on their eyelids. (8)In comparison, in The Crooked Good, we hear confident, distinct and well-articulated voices, speaking to us from the comfort and power of their own language that we are able to hear in English. Turn-around Woman speaks to us, not as though she is accommodating our language, but as respected mother, as if we are talking and working alongside her.

In 'Every Day is a Story,' she writes again with humour about her mother: Garters hold up thick stockings, or cut-off ribbed socks at her ankles, and moccasin rubbers. Her money stashed in small purses, she says she is always broke. Then flashes her bank book. (5)The tone changes with the stories. With as much command, Turn-around Woman becomes elder and teacher, speaking more formally, traditionally. In 'Listen: To the Story,' it is as if we are sitting at the teepee fire, hearing her tell the traditional winter stories, A man and a woman left the main camp with their two boys. They travelled, travelled, travelled, thick into the forest, thighs sucked in muskeg. The family fed the mosquitos. (22) Halfe employs another powerful means of relaying the oral tradition onto the page by stacking her poems with layers of visual imagery. In the same poem she writes, They gathered blue and cranberries, pin and bunch berries, mushrooms, rosehips, mint and muskeg. Juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, and whisky-jacks few, scolding Squirrels hoarded pine cones and hazelnuts. (22)

The text is set in a readable, classic type face, even with the large amount of Cree language italics. The inclusion of a number of significant Cree words and expressions, while an inherent part of this weaving of the textural journey, may become irritating and cumbersome to those who do not speak the language. The glossary at the back is, in itself, more difficult to follow, being significantly smaller in typesize. If you are trying to immerse yourself in the storytelling, but must flip back and forth between the glossary and the main text, The Crooked Good may be a trying read for you. In comparison with other Canadian Aboriginal authors, Halfe's work appears richer in legend and denser in imagery than, for example, Gregory Scofield's Singing Home the Bones (Polestar, 2005) (although Scofield's glossary appears on the right side of each page, which is less interruptive), but less experimental in form than Marvin Francis's long poem, City Treaty (Turnstone Press, 2002)Article by Melanie Matheson.

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