David Groulx, Wabigoon River Poems

David Groulx is a poet of Indigenous and French-Canadian heritage who was raised in Elliot Lake, Ontario in Canada. His recent book of poetry, Wabigoon River Poems, has Canada’s Indigenous experience at its core, but places this history into a global context. A single poem can leap from Algeria to Vietnam, always within the context of a post-colonial viewpoint. The name of the book comes from the Wabigoon River near Kenora, Ontario, which suffered mercury pollution from a pulp and paper plant, with tragic results for local peoples.

The final poem in the first section is a meditation on a picture of the poet’s mother taken at the “St. Joseph Residential School for Girls.” In Canada, perhaps 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in Church-run and government-financed schools, which were designed to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture. They failed, but caused immense suffering. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has sought to document this history, and has issued recommendations to address this legacy. Still it remains to be seen whether these findings will be truly embraced by the federal government, educational institutions, churches, and average Canadians. Although Canada is a developed country with a progressive reputation, the nation has always had a curious blind-spot regarding its own history of colonialism, as though colonialism was a European sin eradicated with Confederation.

Groulx undermines nationalist mythologies within Canada, as in his poem “They’re Not Looking for the Franklin Expedition.” The Franklin Expedition set out from Victorian England in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage, only to disappear with all hands. As Margaret Atwood discussed in her book, Strange Things, the expedition has become a trope in Canadian literature. Last year one of the two ships from the expedition was found in the Victoria Strait, upright and remarkably preserved. While fascinating in its own right, the focus on this expedition also has served at times as a foundational narrative, in which Arctic history begins with the British explorations. This approach elides the Indigenous history of millennia in the region. It is this perspective that Rudy Wiebe sought to challenge in his novel, A Discovery of Strangers, which tells the story of Franklin’s earlier expedition of 1819 to 1821. His novel wove an Indigenous point of view throughout a familiar narrative. In his poem on the Franklin Expedition, Groulx similarly shifts perspective to Indigenous women and the painful legacies of colonialism.

Groulx works also locates the experience of Canada’s Indigenous peoples with a global context. Groulx’s poetry has a special focus on the epistemologies that justified conquest, whether they focused on race, law or economics. The book’s second poem is titled “Hobbesian notions.” The work also deals with the environmental damage caused by economic philosophies, as in the poem “Global Warming,” which has the striking image of fish howling. Groulx’s work is particularly caustic towards Christianity, as part of the intellectual armature of conquest and dispossession. This attitude comes through in poems such as “I Have Given You God,” “Blind Mind’s Eye,” “God Scab” and “Coyote Cosmos,” with its reference to the Jesuits. This perspective is unsurprising given the legacy of the residential schools in Canada, which is a key theme in Canadian Indigenous literature, such as the work of Tomson Highway. In lesser hands, the discussion of Western thinkers might have come across as precious, and the rage as a screed. Groulx balances the tension between the intellectual and the emotional to create a narrative thrust that runs through his poems, which read as a global tour of colonialism and its legacies. This poetry has a coiled power and beautiful imagery.

The second section of the book is a study in erudition. Many of the names have footnotes, which was helpful when rereading the poems for a second time. I had never heard of the Gracci brothers, who advocated for land reform in Ancient Rome. I teach about Hayek’s life and work in my “Foundations of Global Studies” class, but did not know that his work had influenced the dictatorial regime of Chile’s Pinochet, even though my first book was on military terror in Brazil. Groulx leaps from references as diverse as Auschwitz to Rousseau, in poems such as “I Wretched Red.” The depth of his knowledge is impressive, and this work is an intellectual treat.

A little over a year ago I attended a Global Studies conference in York, England. The keynote address was on the African art of the Atlantic diaspora, and it was brilliant. At the time, I thought about how unlikely it would be to have such an address at the International Studies Association. In the United States we pay homage to the role of the Humanities in International and Global Studies, but the presence of the Humanities in conference programs is limited. Groulx’s work shows why the Humanities should be central to these programs. His poems allow one to view the world through a post-colonial prism, which challenges the epistemology of Western Civilization in a way that is fascinating, beautiful and horrifying.The work would be a good supplementary text for Global Studies courses that address the post-colonial experience. We need more such works in Global Studies syllabi. Of course the classic works and social science studies still stand. Everyone should graduate from an International and Global Studies program having read Kwame Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism and Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Groulx’s erudite and frightening collection of poems will similarly challenge students, and give them food for thought long after the course. They are also simply beautiful to read.

Do you want to read another book review on literature and the Canadian Indigenous experience? See my review of Monkey Beach.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University


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