Rita Bouvier’s fourth collection of poetry begins so softly, so earnestly, it made me want to be a cynic, to rebel against a beautiful rebellion. But the speaker persisted, hounding me with so much “goodness” I eventually lay down and let it come. I felt humbled, as a young person who’s difficult to entertain and quick to criticize, by this Elder Métis poet telling bear (and me), “carefully now don’t be afraid it is a beautiful / day.”
The emotional build throughout the collection is skilled, gradually becoming more exacting, more political, more accusatory. One section ends with a self-described “pathetic poem” that details the speaker’s deep regret for committing the seemingly small hurt of ruining a squirrel’s pre-winter hazelnut harvest as a child, the poem a “reconciliation” effort that “will [never] be enough.” The next section begins with an ekphrastic poem on an art installation called “blood on the snow” by Rebecca Belmore, the subject of which is the massacre at Wounded Knee. This close proximity – of the speaker’s empathy for her squirrel, and the U.S. army’s slaughter of innocent Lakota – pulls into sharp contrast how deeply entrenched reconciliation is in the speaker’s morality versus how truly insignificant the efforts at reconciliation by colonizing forces have been.
There’s a familiarity here in the way Bouvier expresses frustration with the powers that be, a common ache of helplessness and anger and confusion in the wake of all things NDN suffering. But one poem, “an awkward moment,” reanimates this grand, sad colonial narrative by offering a sardonic “how to” for settlers wanting to seize occupied land: “pay bargain sale prices to their relatives / damn the mixed bloods”; “declare the people need protection … carefully crafting … orders to determine their Indian-ness”; “believe in your righteousness.”
This same liveliness of voice surfaces in the prose poem, “L’dzimâsh,” in which the speaker grapples with philosophical questions of divinity via mundane images of the Co-op grocery store, a “glass of red Beaujolais,” and ants, who are “smarter” than us humans, the “most stupid life form on the planet and in the universe.” The touch of sarcasm and tumbling-thought cadence of this poem offer a speaker-centric moment to a collection that is, for the most part, measured and omniscient.
The concept of “goodness” is brought back into focus near the close of the book, which has been a journey to figure out where goodness lives, how to define it, how to exude it. It is this search for goodness, this true humility in the speaker’s tone and an eagerness to grow and learn, that allows me to unstick from my craw a few gaps between my perspective and Bouvier’s; I didn’t love a man being described as “slightly overweight” or the imprecise definition of Two-Spirit as “being queer and Indigenous.” But this is also a poet who writes tenderly of the speaker watching someone from her bedroom window pick through her recycling for cans in the middle of the night and move on down the alley: “she wants to follow // to stay in this moment of grace / in the simple elegance of this night.” Rita Bouvier demonstrates a reverence and deep love for her fellow human. And that, I think, is the true strength of a beautiful rebellion.