Vallum Review - Blue Marrow

Reviewed by: Kimberly Burwick

It is rare and exciting, nowadays, to see a book of poems that depends upon the fusion of Cree and English. Blue Marrow willingly confronts the threat of erasure by creating a modern synthesis of language, history and myth. Yet the power and mystery of Blue Marrow lies in Halfe's ability to assemble a crowd of speakers whose elasticity is juxtaposed against the strictness of song. So finely, interwoven, yet shaped with tension, this book--Halfe's second--risks the resurrection of legend, voice and irony, yet these poems do not report, analyze or condemn.

Part confession, part recitation and, arguably, part masque, the poems in Blue Marrow address Métis culture. The word Métis comes from the Latin "miscere," to mix, and was originally used to describe the children born of native women (Cree, Ojibwa and Salteaux) and French and Scottish fur traders. The Métis native soil encompassed parts of present-day Ontario, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Métis children absorbed the religion of both the mother and father, which qualifies Halfe's fusion of liturgy and Cree chants. The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church played a fundamental role in the shaping of Métis culture, and subsequently in the assimilation and genocide practices put into place by both the Canadian and United States governments. Therefore, the shape of this work depends upon the identification of Jesuit acts of exploitation and violence as much as it depends upon plainsong and polyphony. By implicating the latter, Halfe is able to orchestrate the many voices without overburdening the book with chronicles of Christianity.

Halfe presents us with the current keeper of stories--known as âcimowinis--who conducts these mutually eclipsing dramatic narratives and chants. In the first few pages we are confronted with an image of violence and womanhood under the threat of erasure, which serves as the recurring narrative through Blue Marrow. The speaker announces, "My mother strung my umbilical cord in my moccasins." It should be noted that the making of moccasins was a vital domestic task performed by women at the fur trade posts, on that enabled their European men to work. Generally speakiing, the used umbilical cord is seen through contemporary eyes as waste, something gruesome to be discarded with the afterbirth. Here, Halfe instills in her reader the right to see this violent wreckage as a powerful thread to be worn outside the body.

In fact, it is the woman's voice that Halfe pays particular attention to in Blue Marrow. Halfe's four grandmothers (ohkoma)--Adeline, Emma, Bella and Sarah--complete their hymns sometimes separately and sometimes in chorus with the Eternal Grandmothers: "Squirrels, tall pines, cones, moss. / The Jesuits ask do you believe in soul. / When wolves howl, I descend into his mouth. / When coyotes pluck prairie chickens, / I fill his belly. Terra Nullius. Amen." "Terra Nullius"--or, land without owners--is the only non-italicized word used in this sequence. Terra Nullius specifically refers to the Australian occupation of Aboriginal land by British colonizers. These "indigenous peoples" were deemed too primitive to be actual landowners. It is no surprise that we find "Terra Nullius" in Blue Marrow. Ironically, she employs a Latin term that begs us to think first about the threat of a dead language encroaching on "primitive" lands, and finally about the ownership of a woman's body.

In Blue Marrow are clear reverberations of contemporary poets. One thinks of Carolyn Forché's poem "Burning the Tomato Worms," in which Forché's long-dead grandmother is thrust back into the narrative. Still, what sets Halfe's work apart from her contemporaries is the repeated use of Cree, which is sutured into the syntactic flow. Yet it is not only Cree that makes this work successful--it is the erasure of specific English words and the insertion of a language unwilling to be claimed lost, dead or un-owned by the Métis.

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