Delving into his Métis heritage, Conor Kerr explores the collision of the natural and human-made worlds in his second book of poetry, Old Gods. The overall tone of the collection is anger, softened slightly by a wistful longing for a mostly vanished way of life. A sense of loss pervades the collection, but underpinning that is a sense of the permanence of the earth – in some form.
Old Gods is organized into three sections: “Just Passing Through,” “Métis Magic,” and “Old Gods.” References to gods are embedded throughout the volume, beginning with “Old Hunting Dogs,” which opens the collection. Kerr writes about how his family knows the landscape and how they see it: “They believe in the country as more than a desolate wasteland but as an unfolding promise. It holds past and future dreams and plays them out in the present. I don’t want to speak to old gods but they’re here. Always have been. Always will be.”
This first piece, like the last one, is a prose poem or poetic prose, and Kerr uses the form effectively, just as he handles recognizable formal structures of poetry in other works. Whatever the form, Kerr’s work is firmly grounded in the concrete while also celebrating the abstract, especially feelings such as love, whether it’s of other people, of dogs, or of the land – all of which can make life worthwhile.
The final poem titled “What Do You Believe In?” highlights Kerr’s hope for the future: “Do you believe in those who aren’t born yet? Those who will come after us? Those who will take back the land from the idea of Canada and give it away to the grasses? … Believe in the words and the way that pride is written all over the faces of those who learn what it means to own ourselves.” Between the first and last poems are many that delineate the pain and destruction wrought by the lack of respect for the earth and its inhabitants.
The highlight is “Just Passing Through,” a long poem in parts that features various travels in the West. Kerr details personal struggles with jobs, university, playing hockey, relationships, and identity in ways that are often very particularly male, which are illuminating. The language veers between sensitive and tough, although given the ubiquity of the word “fuck” in current culture, there’s nothing shocking. The identity question is what shocks. Kerr writes: “The road glistens with sweat from every job I failed to perform at until put on a pedestal to ANNOUNCE my heritage and family stories for the validation of white institutions. Am I NDN enough for you? For you to listen to me?”
Another highlight is “And on the Fourth Day, God Created … ” which is a beautiful concoction of five stanzas of tercets using metaphor, anaphora, and alliteration. The first and fifth stanzas begin with “A creation story is” and the middle stanzas begin with “My creation story is.” As human understanding of anything often depends on narratives, Kerr captures the importance of creation stories. The fourth stanza is super: “My creation story is a Labrador retriever barreling under caragana / rows after coveys of grouse and pheasants. That same dog snuggled / up on my feet as I sang sorrow songs.” (The specificity of the word “caragana” immediately transports me to my grandparents’ home in northern Alberta, creating a concrete connection to place.)
That the old gods are found in the landscape is intimated by Kerr’s occasional spelling of prairie as “prayerie.” The current reverence for money is destructive and unsatisfying as “Forgotten Gravesites” makes clear: “I didn’t want to believe in a river. But what else does one have for gods? I can’t believe in money. I tried that and it didn’t work. Time is a social construct and it fucks me daily.” A bond between people and the land is essential, for both people and the land.
Conor Kerr manages to be both intensely personal and universal, so the poems resonate on multiple levels. Caring about landscapes and the cultures that develop on them is fundamental to a better future for everyone.