Billy-Ray Belcourt has become one of Canada’s poetry sweethearts since the release of his 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize winner, This Wound Is a World. His sophomore collection – a masterful blend of the personal and the political, the ephemeral and the corporal, the theoretical and the emotional – does not disappoint. NDN Coping Mechanisms is a gift with sharp edges that struggles to reconcile the difficult dichotomies that plague society in general and Indigenous communities in particular.
The poems form a complex web of meaning spun out of grief and desire. This collection is concerned with reconstituting and reconciling time, coming to terms with and speaking back to history as it moves through the present. The poems are lucidly, terribly aware of the way time operates on bodies and on the constitution of the self – and the signifiers we apply as a result.
Belcourt wrestles angrily with temporality. If history is always with us in the here and now, the poems ask, and if that history is one of wounding and catastrophe, how is it possible to imagine a future for Indigenous peoples? Belcourt doesn’t attempt to approximate an answer to this question; toward the end of the book, he snidely speaks of his propensity for utopian thinking, saying, “maybe it is a coping mechanism. So what?” These poems are not interested in answering questions so much as demonstrating the insoluble nature of grand problems and trying to forge a space in which one is able to sit with that lack of certainty.
Freedom is conceptualized here as a disappearance, an existence outside time and history – and outside identity. An existence that involves being in nothingness. The poems struggle with how dangerously appetizing such freedom is, especially when the state of being in the world for many Indigenous people is being in grief, living with pain that consumes a body. “My grief crowbarred the door open. / It is like a coffin: / inviting a gaze in response / to which it can’t spit back a body,” Belcourt writes in “The Wall Clock Caught Fire from Neglect.” It’s a fair reaction: “Nothingness is a world unto itself. / A lot of NDNs live there. / I don’t fault them. / What use is a map when the world is labyrinthine?”
Ultimately, though, an escape from temporality isn’t a coping mechanism the poet endorses. These poems are crafted as rooms in the rickety house of history within which a person can wrestle the devils of suffering and grief, and through such a struggle create a self. The weight of history’s violence shatters Indigenous selfhood; it’s a tiring job to pick through the wreckage of what has been done to you.
And yet, such effort can represent an act of revenge against ongoing systematic injustice. As Belcourt piercingly reminds us, “Revenge is more decolonial than justice.”