The Fiddlehead Review - The Crooked Good
Reviewed by: Jennifer Andrews
The Legacy of the Rolling Head
"For the Love of Words: Aboriginal Writers in Canada," a conference held in fall 2004 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, included Louise Halfe, also known as Skydancer. She delivered a keynote address, retelling the story of the Rolling Head and commenting on this sacred tale. It is a Cree creation epic about a wife and mother who falls in love with a snake. For this she is beheaded - along with her slippery mate - by her husband. While her torso ascends to the heavens, becoming the evening star, eternally pursuing the husband who becomes the morning star, her head continues to roll around the earth in search of her sons. The two boys, armed with their father's gifts: a file, flint, bone, and a beaver's tooth, waylay her efforts at reconciliation by inflicting various physical brutalities on the head. Griefstricken, the rolling head eventually falls from the wings of a water bird into a lake and drowns. In death she is transformed into a sturgeon, a 'bottomfeeder.' Thus the Rolling Head remains monstrous after her apparent death, lurking beneath the surface of lakes and rivers, ready to eat whatever she finds. As Halfe explains: "Cihcipistikwan (The Rolling Head) conjures excitement, fear, mystery, and even anger.... This fascination and ambivalence with women's power and their ultimate demonization has been with humankind since the beginning of time. Hence my own bewitchment with this story" (68-69).
In The Crooked Good, her recently published third book of poetry, Halfe uses the story of the Rolling Head in conjunction with the narratives of other Aboriginal ancestors to examine the subjects of Cree language, spirituality, philosophy, and psychology, and the impact of Western colonization from a distinctly female perspective.
Born and raised on the Saddle Lake Reserve in Two Hills, Alberta, Halfe is the author of two highly acclaimed previous collections of poems: Bear Bones & Feathers (1994) and Blue Marrow. Bear Bones marks the beginning of Halfe's exploration of her Cree ancestry, a grinding of bones that traces, in particular, the struggles of girls and women through the experiences of residential school (which Halfe attended as a child), adolescence and sexual self-discovery, domestic abuse, and racism. Blue Marrow, first published by McClelland & Stewart in 1998, and released in a new edition in 2004 by small-press publisher Coteau, weaves together the complex history of Halfe's grandmothers, whose stories are gifts of nourishment extracted from their bone marrow now buried across the Prairies. In both collections, Halfe employs Cree words and phrases to describe the lives of her Cree speakers. A glossary with each text offers concise translations of specific terms, giving readers unfamiliar with Cree some access to the precision and beauty of the Cree language.
Blue Marrow has been praised for Halfe's nuanced, haunting, sometimes even comic vision of her female Cree ancestors and her commitment to relaying their stories - whatever they may contain. For instance, at the end of Blue Marrow, the poetic 'I' retells another Cree creation narrative in which a female Culture Hero is charged with making the world as she sees fit. She, not surprisingly, produces a woman first, filling her with life through the power of the Cree language, before concluding the stanza with the flatness of the English-language line: "Man is born" (98). Such irreverent revisioning of the Christian patriarchal colonial past is integral to The Crooked Good. The collection is narrated by ê-kwêskît (Turn-Around Woman), who is constantly mediating her relationship with her Cree ancestors, including the Rolling Head, who represents death in life, and Rib Woman, who - in contrast with the Christian Eve - is a benevolent female creator. The reader is critical to the development of the text; as Turn-Around Woman explains, "You can tell me / after you hear this story / if my name suits me. / I've yet to figure it out" (3). While ê-kwêskît is no paragon of virtue - "I am not a saint. I am a crooked good" - her invocation of the colelction's title becomes a celebration of her often unpredicatble and always entertaining narratives, in whcih readers are made to feel part of the action (4). as well, the cover and interior images of "Snake Woman," created by Saskatchewan artist Paul LaPointe bring the visual intricacies of Halfe's poetry - especially the powerful impact of the Rolling Head on Turn-Around Woman - to life. LaPointe's black and white prints depict the female narrator of The Crooked Good as a woman inside a snake's body and can certainly be read as a pointedly parodic alteration of Eve's temptation by the snake and her eventual fall from the Garden of Eden. Over the course of the book, Snake Woman completes a 360-degree turn, bringing the multiple narratives to a close without precluding future iterations of this same set of stories. LaPointe's prints - a woman placed head0first at the snake's mouth, travelling a circular motion - invoke the female's unique power to give birth and, in this case, Halfe's ability to create poetry from the Rolling Head's contradictory legacy of carnal betrayal and maternal suffering.
By using the Rolling Head as a muse for memory, in conjunction with Rib Woman and Turn-Around Woman, The Crooked Good becomes a catalogue of women's - and men's - experiences. They range from momentary glimpses of residential schooling abuses recalled by "Filthy Man," who encountered a "Sister [who] threw ice water, a / scrub brush, lye soap. . . .Forced cod-liver oil. / I vomited and vomited. Licked the floor" and was "buggered" by "Father-What-A-Waste" (86), to the legacy of the Cree women who produced children with French and English fur traders only to be abandoned by them for white brides. This heritage haunts the poetic 'I' in her contemporary relationship with her Scottish Beloved. It has a happier ending, of mediation and cross-cultural negotiation, as the narrator describes how "Beloved and I fed our babies stone-ground bread, / bannock and lard" (62). Thus, as a couple, they celebrate her Native heritage by literally feeding it to their children.
Not every story has such a joyous resolution. The tragic and gruesome narrative of the Rolling Head forms the centerpiece of the collection, inflecting the text that surrounds it with the power of this story, and the invocation to "Listen" as the title of the poem insists (22). The narrative is shaped by interjections and pauses in which the poem's narrator layers story upon story, exploring the historical betrayal of the Cree people through forced assimilation and the loss of tribal lands. This combination of stories brings together two different versions of colonization and the female suffering that is a result of both, leaving the narrator to ask, "If I filled my being with her breath / would I be butchered too? Would I give chase to what my loins delivered? Would I be spurned?" (26). As Halfe's poems demonstrate, there are no easy answers, only the narrator's realization in "Revelations" that "giving in to Rolling Head" is a necessary step in this ongoing process of understanding the complex relationships between colonizer and colonized, human and divine (45), and their potential points of intersection and differentiation.
If "Everyday is a Story," as Halfe contends in the title of a poem early in the collection, then The Crooked Good traces both a familial and mythological history combining the realities of Cree marginalization and abuse and the strength of the Rolling Head to "create, imagine, and dream" (Keynote 72) beyond the constraints of daily life. The elegance and eloquence of Halfe's poetry, her ability to weave together everyday and mythic, past and present, animal and human worlds, while conveying the drama of the Rolling Head story, and her impact on subsequent generations of Cree women, make this collection immensely rewarding. In the final poem, aptly called "Grave My Name," Halfe creates a conversation between Turn-Around Woman and the Rolling Head in which the latter gets the last word, speaking from her esting place at the bottom of the lake: "I swim the caves in lakes / where my head sinks / And I drink to roll again" (124). This gesture towards the endless possibilites of Cree women's storytelling - and the generative impulse of the Rolling Head who promises "to roll again" - reminds readers to listen and look carefully at those female 'bottomfeeders' whose legacies are at the core of Cree identity and survival.