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Native Canadiana: Songs from the Urban Rez

by Gregory Scofield

Native Canadiana is the second offering from B.C.’s Dorothy Livesay Award-winning poet Gregory Scofield. As a sophomore effort it’s a provocative but somewhat disappointing book, one that leaves me uneasy because I find it almost impossible to distinguish between its real successes and considerable shortcomings.

Despite the bizarre “Cultural Studies 101” textbookishness of the title and some of the bafflingly conservative notes to First Nations words and phrases ( the gloss on yahkwêw or two-spirited reads “loosely translated as a person who has both male and female spirits” without any mention of its socio-political significance as a possible synonym for queer), Scofield’s collection presents many gritty yet sensitive meditations on urban life – he’s definitely at his best when he gets down and dirty with issues of sex and sexuality, violence, drugs, and racial politics. The second half of Native Canadiana strikes chords of cultural alienation that come alive with the mean street pulse of downtown Vancouver’s east end. Beautifully elegiac pieces like “Queenie” play against the wry insatiability of a poem like “Buck and Run” to reproduce a truly multifaceted homoerotic experience. In “The One I Thought About Keeping” for example, Scofield queries issues of sex and text, race and literary culture by confounding his understanding of himself as a First Nations poet with the immediate and often irreconcilable pull of desire: “It was the words, his words / I thumbed the dictionary for / not the broken dialect / floating in my memory / that became good poems.”

Similarly, with the prose poetry of “Another Street Kid Just Died” or with the more traditional tercets of “Purple Moon Café,” Scofield hits all the right – liberal and street-wise – edgy, urban high notes with lines like “He never said much when I was out doing streetwork. Only yes to condoms & lube” and “The café, minding my business / Purple moon under her eye.” The importance of these pieces is a product both of their accessibility and of the world they offer access to.

Scofield’s take on city life is good because of his valuable cultural perspective, but I’m left questioning whether or not it works as poetry. In fact, this is at the heart of my discomfort with the first half of Native Canadiana. One expects a book of poems, as the subtitle suggests, so obviously concerned with presenting an oral documentation of First Nations experience, to be rhythmically vibrant. Scofield’s autobiographic poetics, however, are often uneven and prosaic: it’s as if he’s become so obsessed with accurately portraying cultural detail that he’s sacrificed some of the music to the gods of verisimilitude.