Nisga’a poet challenges anthropology

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October 22, 2013

The Place of Scraps

By Jordan Abel,

Talon

272 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Candace Fertile

The Place of Scraps by Nisga’a writer Jordan Abel is a collection of poetry with an intriguing premise: Abel has started with Totem Poles, a foundation text by noted anthropologist Marius Barbeau, extricated passages, and created word pictures and images to explore the tangled relationship between cultures and the exploration of them.

Abel employs the technique of erasure, and in some cases gets a poem down to punctuation, forming a cloud of tiny marks, reminiscent of fireflies or mosquitoes. The use of blank space on most pages is remarkable, opening up the possibility of a wide array of thought and feeling regarding what has happened to First Nations culture. And on pages filled with images and letters, the same opportunity is paradoxically presented.

A fragmented thread of narrative conveys the story of Abel’s life, in particular his contact with a totem pole from his ancestral village, which his mother has identified in a book and says he saw as a child. “But the recurrence of the totem pole in the poet’s life combined with an apparent failure of memory carries with it a multiplicity of emotions.” The carved pole connects Abel to his people, as does a spoon carved by his absent father and given to him by friends of his father. The concept of carving connects objects—the wood of the poles and the spoon—and words or images carved out of Barbeau’s work by Abel’s imagination. And one carves out a life of surrounding matter. Or possibly one is carved out of life.

This book is meant to be absorbed more than read. Abel does develop forward motion, but a reader gains much pleasure from going back and looking at random pages as visual art as much as poetry. Many of the pages present pictures of words or letters or images with words and letters in the background. Sometimes the letters are piled up as if a typewriter stuttered or a printer jammed, resulting in a heavy black cloud of repetition. The black and white pictures of totem poles, sometimes presented sideways or upside down, are arresting.

The Nisga’a and other carvers of poles did not try to preserve them. The poles eventually fell and rotted, returning to the earth in a natural cycle. When Abel finally goes to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to see the pole his mother talked about, his experience captures an aspect of cultural difference: “The poet confronts the admissions staff member at the ROM, explains that he refuses to pay to see a totem pole that was taken from his ancestral village. . . . The staff member shrugs, verbalizes his apathy, and allows the poet in to the museum. The pole towers through the staircase; the poet circles up to the top. The pole is here; the poet is here.”

I love the symmetry of that line—“The pole is here; the poet is here”—just as much as I love the fact that the paper of this book is made from wood pulp, and this particular object will also form a step in a natural cycle of change, both concrete and abstract.

 

Candace Fertile is a Victoria reviewer who teaches English at Camosun College

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