Recently, i was asked to present poetry at a workshop for the shortlisted artists in line for a major city commission – art for the Tawatinâ* Bridge, which will bring a new LRT line across our river and down through the Millwoods community. If you know Edmonton, you know how big this connection is; if you don’t know us, just know Millwoods is a large, mysterious and sometimes considered exotic, quadrant of a sprawling city, served by one – count them, one – LRT line, with a recent spur line built at great cost with massive problems… it’s becoming legendary…
Anyway, our City has a Percent For Art policy, through which new developments must budget for dedicated public art. Tawatinâ will have scope for significant new public art, to be enjoyed by pedestrians, cyclists, all who use the multi-use sub-deck below the train bridge. I was greatly impressed with the design, but that’s not my field.
My task, as an poet, was to bring poetry that addresses the intangibles, that touches on specific history of our city, and that highlights (my very personal and limited) indigenous perspectives on Bridges.
In the run-up to the event, a public art officer wrote to, very respectfully and kindly, remind me, and all women attending, that the day would start with a Cree pipe ceremony, thus any women on our moon time were asked to let her/the Elders know, so that we could be accommodated according to protocol.
That little email, and the sea change it signified, inspired this piece:
bridge of knowing:
poundmakers lodge, 1993, a friend invited me to join
him and one more poet, the three of us to present poetry
at the invitation of the lodge. i did not question their connections
i had never been there, and leapt at the chance
poundmakers was already legend among young indigenous folks
this place where they commandeered
the residential school grounds, its unmarked graves
to make a lodge of healing, where we could begin to defeat defeat.
but these were still days when to be a woman was
a fearful and powerful thing, unmentionable
and i, who did not know, stood in a place where
i’d not have stood, had i been raised by indigenous women, they said
that bridge was broken. how would my father know
the protocols to teach his daughters? when he and his mother
were all part of the shaming school generations, taught the false gospel
of the body as sin. my mother, for generations in another land
taught that, too, about original sin, a stain indelible and faithfully
reproduced in generation after generation. how would she know?
and so, how would i know? i came into a circle with sweetgrass
bringing poetry and hoping i brought beauty. the smudge would not
light, and the hosts grew angry. these people, a breath above anger
when they entered the room, these people here because their lives had derailed
burst into hot rage and shame at me. who did i think i was? how dare i not know?
for a moment we hung in thin air.
then the elder of my friends, softly as a poet, asked them to consider that we all
are imperfect, we none of us know it all. and i had drawn breath enough
to feel pushing back in me, the self-same thing that has kept me alive
through mistake after mistake. it is not in me to crawl in the face of judgement.
i did not come to harm you, i said, but because i was asked. and anyone
who could have taught me this protocol, in my family, is dead. I am who i am.
i made it to the pickup, and then, between these two strong men, i cried.
and the elder, who had spoken up, squeezed
my shoulder, patted my knee, found a joke about the perils of poetry.
the other man sat, stone rigid, staring away. i steeled myself in return.
and it was years and oceans later that our paths crossed again. i had
to tell the truth, forgotten that moment, his rejection. but he took me out for
dinner in a little bc town, and asked forgiveness.
this thing had been washed away
from me, let go for so many other beautiful moments, on far and fabulous shores.
and how do you tell some one, i’ve weathered worse, when their bright black eyes
are rivers and deep, and their words sweep you back to that moment?
he said, i need you to know, i was terrified. and then so very ashamed.
when they turned on you, he said, i became a child again, and you, my mother
and i didn’t know how to help her, either, and i was just frozen.
and at his words, a wound i had forgotten rose up and bloomed healing
i hadn’t known i lacked.
so it is, we cross the water, over and over, never knowing the depths
above which our companions tread, and the courage we each require
to step out on the bridge, swaying forward to reach some dim glimmering shore.
all my relations
*as i understand it, say ‘Duh-WOW-duh-Now’ but i’m not a Cree speaker