Using Poetry to go beyond the History Books | Review of “Settler Education” by Laurie D. Graham (2016) McClelland & Stewart

It was a rush that was typical of our modern life the day I went to pick up this book. I walked through a maze of hallways at a college campus filled with bodies trying find their own ways around me. I walked into a office, talked to a receptionist who picked up a phone and announced me. And with a rush of quick smiles and handshakes I was back out with this slim volume in my hand trying to make my way through another confused mass of bodies. I found a cafeteria and grab a lukewarm cup of coffee and sat down. There is still a confused chunk of humanity around me as I open to the first page.

And within reading the first well-crafted words, I was absorbed into Laurie D. Graham’s Settler Education.

Number One Canadian (Excerpt) Page 1

Stutter-stepping. The last fumes out

of Ontario. Beds and sliding doors and dining cars tunnelling

through the forest, its genealogy

of clear-cut, its firework trees new and hot.

We show them our ghost stations. We show them

tea at the window as birch die tangled

in power lines, birch hauling lines

down to the level of marsh, and marsh rising

to meet electricity.

Page 2

This is the line.

A propane tank every fifty clicks,

wall-eyed shoots and utility corridors,

gift-buying hours in the recreation car and hints

of lake and woodsmoke if you’re looking for them.

No Oh My Nation, No God Save Our Queen,

no colonial  imperative except in our being here, in what it means

to shower on a moving train, track rolling under the drainhole,

the luxurious pillows, my last minute discount.

This is what they starved a people for.

Page 3

Through tree scenes, tableaux in the dome car,

the soldiers, the settlers, the track laid, the way made.

Making goods of them. Servants, subjects, comrades, always

more, and the trees smoulder, the trace smoke in the camera’s vision

that comes of passing too fleetly. We pause at vistas and wildlife,

coniferous worming at the periphery.

A train car neat with men and their rifles.

Outside, thread of campsmoke obscured by clouds, by trees.

Notes Page 107

“NUMBER ONE CANADIAN” is the name of the train that runs from Toronto to Vancouver. When the train returns east, they call it the Number Two.

Graham has woven a complex tapestry here where many historians and other academics have failed for us. The book tells the story of the Plains Cree uprising at Frog Lake and the settlement of the Prairies. Graham’s poetry here weaves through time, places, impressions, journal entries, letters and so forth to brilliantly give the mind’s eye of any reader a clear impression of the places and the events.

Among the Buffalo Page 17

we were told that in a day or two we would reach the buffalo country

might expect to see considerable herds

day after day no signs

we became skeptical

Saint, hell. Riel’s a criminal.

He brought law out here, one good thing to

                                       come out of

                         his treason

I found several of the party quietly reading

to one of them I asked  have you seen the buffalo

he started as if he received a shock from a battery

You’re gonna get the redneck view from this

                                  end of the table

each bend of the river brought us in view of new herds

on both sides        not in dense masses

as when migrating    but scattered bands from ten to one hundred

sometimes close to the bank

they went at a lumbering gallop as the steamer approached

Next you’ll say I got no right to be here,

            been farming this same plot for a full century.

the appearance of the steward with a rifle on his arm

and all was excitement

Graham has gone beyond using just words here. She using layout and typeface to set different moods here that vault the reader from one emotion to another. This is a complex read yet one that is worth savoring.

Frog Lake (Excerpt) Page 21

Ditchweed, fuchsia. The first thing grows after fire.

Chased here by weather, rain then clearing sky,

Wandering Spirit, Iron Body, Miserable Man,

Round the Sky, Little Bear, Bad Arrow.

A grave, once unmarked, months from here.

Brome grass in all the places the earth’s been turned.

Settler Education by Laurie D. Graham may be a collection of poetry but it goes where history books have failed us. Graham gives detailed descriptions of emotions, thoughts and actions which causes readers to actually feel and care about the scenes. A great piece of literature.

Link to Laurie D. Graham’s blog

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s webpage for Settler Education

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