Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Spawn

by Marie-Andrée Gill; Kristen Renee Miller (trans.)

The Haunted Hand

by Louise Dupré; Donald Winkler (trans.)

Of all the contributions to literary criticism made by the French structuralist and linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, arguably the most enduring is his distinction between langue and parole. In Saussure’s conception, the latter refers to actual verbal speech, whereas the former represents the complete system of signs that allow for a comprehensible speech act to occur. As far as Saussure was concerned, the only avenue for deriving meaning from a text is to focus on the structure of the signs that comprise it; relying on parole – on literal speech – would result in incoherence.

A critic familiar with Saussure’s prescriptions should take heed when Louise Dupré incorporates fellow Quebec poet Roland Giguère’s reference to “l’age de la parole” in the third and final section of her meditation on the human propensity for violence, The Haunted Hand. Similarly, Kentucky-based translator Kristen Renee Miller points out in a textual note that the Indigenous speaker in Spawn, by Quebec poet Marie-Andrée Gill (Pekuakamishkueu), “longs for a parole habitué [a “habitual word” or a form of bearable speech].” Both these texts – the first by a 30-year veteran of Québécois literature, the second by a young Indigenous writer with three previous books to her name – locate their deep structures under a surface that represents precisely the rhythms and cadences of spoken speech.

“I’ll sneak out my window Friday / and we’ll find someone to get us beer,” says the adolescent speaker in Spawn. “[W]e’ll hit an arcade / and I’ll lose my head over you / but we’ll have a story, us two / even if we lack the words / to tell it.” The aging narrator of The Haunted Hand, meanwhile, “still speak[s] / as do we all // a language / barbaric.” The emphasis in both instances is on the limits of language to express the human experience; both poets choose a stripped-down style to convey their material.

Dupré’s collection is broken into three parts, each of which features a verse section followed by a series of prose poems. In the first part, the narrator wakes from a nightmare on the day she is going to take her cat to be euthanized. From there, the poet expands her focus to interrogate the human propensity to inflict harm on others and on oneself – the second section includes a litany of writers, both Québécois and international, who have died by suicide. The Haunted Hand is a catalogue of complicity and guilt about the depredations we wreak upon our fellow humans; the speaker (who is so conflicted she finds herself unable to refer to herself in the first person, choosing instead to address herself with a second-person “you”) finds solace in poetry as a means of keeping her self-flagellation at bay: “you write // so your blood / will not redden / the world.”

Gill, by contrast, is intimately familiar with violence, but from the side of the victim rather than the perpetrator. She writes about the claustrophobia of life on a reserve (“get me out of these fifteen square kilometres”) and the conditions that have been foisted upon her by a historically rapacious colonial system of governance: “I am a village that didn’t have a choice.”

Structurally, Spawn follows the life cycle of the ouananiche, a type of salmon, while the individual poems inhabit a glancing, elliptical style that employs brief lines with idiosyncratic punctuation and plentiful white space. Nature is a pervading force in these poems, in which “dandelions push / through cracks in the cement” and “smoke-scented dreams sketch / a flock of snow geese / on the ceiling of possibility.” The invocation of nature is frequently sexual and explicit (“Balsam fir dance in slow motion and the earth / shudders as I come”) and counterpointed with the constriction of the manufactured environment: “we bathe in the malaise / of hot asphalt.”

If the pervading tone in Dupré’s collection is one of melancholy verging on existential despair, Gill’s verses are more ebullient, with pop-culture references playing off against more conventional elements of nature poetry and what has come to be known disparagingly as confessional poetry. Whereas Dupré is more traditional in her approach, Gill roams freely, disrupting the rhythms and cadences of her short verses and alternating line lengths at will.

Each of these texts finds its speaker searching for a balm to provide succour for an inner pain – in both cases, that balm takes the form of a parole habitué. It is in locating this “habitual word” – the artistic prism through which to view the pain of existence – that both poets resolve their collections in glimmers of hope. As Gill writes, “we see our dream: a woman risen up / from all these winter worlds / heaped with ice, ready to start again.”