Prairie Fire Review - Blue Marrow
Reviewed by: Gillian Harding-Russell
Whereas Jeanne de Moissac in Slow Curve associates the female psyche with the prairie landscape, her speaker giving birth to a poetic stone of essential wholeness, Louise Halfe's Native speaker in Blue Marrow registers the maternal strength of four grandmothers who survived and made the most of the white fur-traders' intrusion on their way of life with sometimes ominous gifts, and Sue Goyette's also female speaker in Undone wistfully watches the world around her as she is caught in the middle as mother and in a number of other roles yet to come into focus. While all three peots are distinct in their female perspectives, I am reluctant to use the term "feminist," since its definition has changed over the last few decades. Certainly, de Moissac's vision is erotic in its spirituality, and Halfe's poetry carries a strident undernote of protest about the injustices of the past while accepting if not embracing "the blond children of the fur traders" who "seept hrough our women," and Goyette's view as a mother and an artist reflects her speaker's nurturing, but also retiring artisitic temperament that instinctively steps back the better to see and comprehend patterns of truth and feelings.
Simliarly, in Blue Marrow Halfe explores the grievances of her Cree ancestors and comes to terms with her own role in that matriarchal line, as narrator, always maintaining artistic integrity and capturing essential truths through the subtlety of metonymy and elliptical impression. In describing the effects of the white fur traders on her grandmothers, her portrayal reaches the totemic: "They tore flesh, breasts became pouches, hung / from their belts (20)." Thus the Cree female ancestor is degraded, and her breast worn like a trophy from the belt, but with the suggestion as "pouches" of fulfilling basic animal need, like food. Referring to the shameful historical fact that the white man gave the Natives blankets infected with small pox in an early form of what amounts to germ warfare, the speaker remarks:
Blankets kill us. I am a large scab.
Mass graves. Fingers dig still
through the many bones.
Burned our crops. We live on mice.
We hold a Begging Dance.
Still our bellies echo.
Shot our babies, crushed their skulls against the rocks.
The great mother sendds more gods
to sprinkle water
on our heads. (20)
That the white man reduced the Natives to beggars, and, after infecting them with small pox, offered them Christian baptism, pouring water on their graves makes for a double irony: the victims do not point a finger while the "greath mother" is seen as sending "more gods." An allusion to the Confederation poet Duncan Campbell Scott who worked for Indian Affairs during that epoch, and depicted the Natives in romanticized terms while, as part of the establishment, perpetrating their subjugation, reinforces the underlying bitterness of irony (though, of course, Scott must have been a victim of his time--but that touches on another subject).
The repressive experience of the residential scools emerges in the following lines in which the Native speaker prays for forgiveness for "killing white skins" and for masturbating (57). Of course, the unspoken inference remains that the white fur traders have likewise killed "brown skins," and molested young Native woman. Avoiding the black and white of injustice and melodrama, Halfe describes her four grandmothers as having welcomed white men into their arms:
Charlie made a tribe with Sarah
Willyam made a band with Adeline
Joshwah made ranch with Bella
mitataht. Ten live with Emma. (36)
With epistemological accuracy, the poet describes these randy white fur traders and explorers as men with "rocks / in their wools" "soil in their hands" and "creeks in their mouths," and thus diatribe is replaced with something more complex that subsumes understanding, if not compassion for these men who are her forefathers. And thus the grandmothers or ohkoma suck the "blue marrow," which is believed highly nutritious and therapeutic against viruses while, ironically, coming from bones of the dead. (93)