Kenyon Review - Burning in this Midnight Dream
The Ojibwe word weweni implies the need to take care, to do things properly, to be appropriate. When I read Cree poet Louise Halfe’s book of careful poems, I whispered this word to myself. These are poems that reveal the destructive legacy of an excruciatingly painful past, and I reminded myself to take care in receiving Halfe’s words, because these poems bear witness to attempted genocide. They are also intimate, distinct, and a voice for survivance.
In Burning in This Midnight Dream, Halfe recounts enduring, as a First Nations woman, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Process, during which First Nations people who had lived at residential schools testified to government panels about what had happened to them as children:
I am often filled with ghosts
that glide through my body.
They have no business intruding
into thought or work at hand.
They hang by their feet in my lair
folding and unfolding their wings
as I hover
like a bee on a cherry blossom.
Rather than focusing on the perpetrator’s actions, Halfe’s graceful poems instead illustrate the erosion and corruption of families damaged by the forced removal of children to residential schools. Deploying the Cree wihtikow—a cannibal being—as a key metaphor, Halfe conjures images of children preyed upon by monsters who eat entire families:
The children were meat
for the scavengers. Indian Affairs, the brick walls,
the Saints of many churches.
Filled with their disease, we ate the maggots
off their dead.
This cannibalism devoured our mother’s hearth.
Sometimes when we say poems are visceral we mean it as metaphor—the poems go deep and we might react to them strongly. But Halfe’s poems both come from the gut and they punch us there, too:
I never saw the searing pain
on my mother’s face, nor experienced
my father’s eyes squeezed to dam his flood . . .
My parents never spoke
of the gash that tore through the families
and gutted the whole reserve.
Intricately, as Halfe depicts the bravery it took for victims to bear witness to what had been held in shame for generations the poems reflect the process Halfe herself went through:
This afternoon I have my hearing
for Truth and Reconciliation.
I must confess my years of sleeping
In those sterile, cold rooms, where the hiss
Of water heaters were devils
In the dark.
Thousands, like Halfe, went through these terrible hearings and, having read these poems, we stand beside them awhile. It is all we can do, except to say to ourselves weweni and never again. –HEE